SQL Server's wealth of built-in administration functionality—the hallmark of the database platform—poses a challenge for third-party solution providers. Here, two leading vendors in the administration-tools arena talk about adding value to an already feature-packed system.

What are the biggest changes—positive and negative—that you've seen in the SQL Server administration-tools market over the past 5 years?

Kevin Kline, director of technology for SQL Server solutions, Quest Software: In 1999, very few tools vendors were making products for SQL Server. This was probably because SQL Server was perceived as a cheap departmental database platform. Today, we've seen a proliferation of tools vendors, from small, specialized vendors to large, heterogeneous vendors, because SQL Server is now an enterprise-class database server.

Paul Bunn, chief technology officer, UltraBac Software: SQL Server has enjoyed tremendous growth not only in popularity over the past 5 years but also in perception from even stalwart UNIX houses that Microsoft has a "real" database server product that can compete with the likes of Oracle and IBM. This growth in mind share has attracted a lot of Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) into the market, unfortunately with differing degrees of commitment to the market. This increased activity has resulted in more competition and products to choose from but also in difficulty in being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. The net effect is that the market features some high-quality, feature-rich tools for the discerning SQL Server professional willing to put in the legwork to track down the right tool for the job.

What are the top three criteria customers use in selecting an administration tool?

Quest: Price is always a big issue in this market. SQL Server licenses aren't very expensive, and they include all the secondary SQL Server services such as Analysis Services, Data Transformation Services (DTS), replication, and now Reporting and Notification Services. That puts a lot of price pressure on third-party vendors. Ease of use is another major criteria for our users. For example, users simply will not put up with a difficult or complicated install process. Microsoft has set the bar very high in this regard, so third-party vendors are obligated to keep in step. Another area that isn't very glamorous but is important to customers is good documentation. Microsoft's SQL Server Books Online (BOL) is really good; third-party vendors have to be competitive with that.

UltraBac: For our customers, the top criteria for selecting a product are robustness and reliability, features, and performance. For the SQL Server market, pricing is elastic, and although it's a factor for some smaller installations or where one company may be buying thousands of copies for installations across the world, price may not even be discussed until a decision has been made on the product. Of course, unrealistic pricing could kill a sale. However, the decision-making process can be boiled down to three questions: Does this do what I want? Can I trust it? And is it fast enough without impacting performance?

What's the current state of the SQL Server administrative-tools space—its strengths and weaknesses—in terms of being able to support a healthy third-party community and to bring innovative, useful products to customers?

Quest: The SQL Server tools market is strong in the sense that SQL Server is the most rapidly growing of the database platforms and that SQL Server is now heavily used as the database platform for huge, enterprise-size applications. The most difficult aspect of the market is that Microsoft has always produced best-in-class administrative tools out of the box and at zero cost to the user. This has been a hallmark of Microsoft's SQL Server toolkit. But it also means that third-party tools vendors have no low-hanging fruit in the tools area. Successful tools vendors must constantly innovate and offer overwhelming value in their tools for users to choose to pay.

UltraBac: There is a thriving market for tools for SQL Server, and a company could do very well if that market represented its entire product line. However, SQL Server managers are extremely cautious about new or unknown products and often aren't willing to be one of the first companies to use a product—they wait until the product is firmly established and the vendor is a known brand. This is a great barrier to entry for the new company willing to enter the SQL Server tools market. Another problem with SQL Server from a tools-vendor point of view is that SQL Server already does so much, and the features are so easy to use. The built-in backup and management tools get better with each SQL Server release. It's difficult for vendors to differentiate and add value to an already outstanding product.

What are the top three criteria customers use in selecting an administration tool?

Quest: Price is always a big issue in this market. SQL Server licenses aren't very expensive, and they include all the secondary SQL Server services such as Analysis Services, Data Transformation Services (DTS), replication, and now Reporting and Notification Services. That puts a lot of price pressure on third-party vendors. Ease of use is another major criteria for our users. For example, users simply will not put up with a difficult or complicated install process. Microsoft has set the bar very high in this regard, so third-party vendors are obligated to keep in step. Another area that isn't very glamorous but is important to customers is good documentation. Microsoft's SQL Server Books Online (BOL) is really good; third-party vendors have to be competitive with that.

UltraBac: For our customers, the top criteria for selecting a product are robustness and reliability, features, and performance. For the SQL Server market, pricing is elastic, and although it's a factor for some smaller installations or where one company may be buying thousands of copies for installations across the world, price may not even be discussed until a decision has been made on the product. Of course, unrealistic pricing could kill a sale. However, the decision-making process can be boiled down to three questions: Does this do what I want? Can I trust it? And is it fast enough without impacting performance?

What are the biggest needs and challenges your customers are facing?

Quest: At the high end of the market, we're finding that scaling applications is the biggest challenge. How do customers manage large server farms? How do they perform change management across hundreds of servers? How do they properly monitor high availability solutions such as clustering or log shipping? How do they make SQL Server unbreakable? At the low end of the market, customers just want to install and forget SQL Server. So we're working to answer those challenges, too.

UltraBac: Our customers' storage utilization has been steadily increasing, and backup windows are a finite size-Mr. Moore has done nothing for the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. It's not uncommon now to have to squeeze a backup of several terabytes into just a few hours. Thankfully, tape technology has improved dramatically over the past few years, offering increased throughput and storage coupled with greater reliability. It's great to see so much healthy competition between the major players of DLT, LTO, and AIT. We're seeing more and more customers choose tape libraries, which are often necessary to achieve the storage capacity required on tape at a reasonable cost. This trend is great news for us because SQL Server currently doesn't support changing tapes in a tape library or autoloader, so customers need third-party software such as UltraBac.

How does the SQL Server marketplace compare with other markets you serve in terms of choice, pricing, tool sophistication, customer demand and so on?

Quest: The SQL Server market is quite different from other database platform markets. Because Microsoft makes good administrative tools and gives them away with every license of SQL Server, third-party tools require large research investments to remain innovative. On the other hand, you have to sell them cheaply. In a sense, one of the biggest challenges for third-party tools vendors is overcoming user apathy. Many times, they'd rather continue with the 25 percent of functionality that comes for free from Microsoft than to pay even a modest price for a tool that gives them an additional 75 percent of functionality.

UltraBac: As mentioned earlier, price isn't such a factor as it is in other markets; SQL Server customers recognize product value and are willing to pay for it. One thing that's noticeable is that the SQL Server managers we deal with are extremely knowledgeable and sophisticated-they're typically very experienced with computers, OSs, and of course database servers. And often, SQL Server isn't the first database server they've worked on. This experience makes it a lot easier for UltraBac competing in the SQL Server market because customers are able to recognize product capability and value and make sound business decisions. And SQL Server customers are the least likely to be swayed by cutesy graphics and product marketing obscuring a poor quality product.

What will be the biggest changes we'll see over the next 5 years in the SQL Server administrative-tools arena?

Quest: A lot of interesting changes are coming down the road that will have a dramatic impact on the SQL Server tools arena. The most obvious is SQL Server Yukon, because Enterprise Manager and Query Analyzer will merge into the Visual Studio Workbench. So Microsoft .NET and Yukon will force DBAs to learn a lot more about development. But that's the harbinger of greater, though subtle, changes, in my opinion. For example, I think people are seeing only the tip of the iceberg that is XML. As XML continues to become more integral to database platforms, the role of the traditional DBA will also transform. This may be the last release of SQL Server, for example, where traditional skills such as normalization are most important. Another obvious trend that will continue to grow is heterogeneous database environments. DBAs who are proficient in only one database platform will be at a big disadvantage because the majority of enterprises now support a diverse array of database and application platforms.

UltraBac: The biggest area for growth of tools will be driven by the future version of Microsoft Exchange, which will use SQL Server as a store. Also, Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine (MSDE) is driving enormous interest in SQL Server at the low end, and I believe it will be responsible for driving mindshare in the SQL marketplace head-on in Microsoft's direction.