SQL Server has come a long way, baby, from its days as a departmental database, and development-tools vendors are trying to keep up. In this Q&A interview with SQL Server Magazine, two leading solution providers assess today's SQL Server development-tools market and where technology and customer requirements are driving it.

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

David Kershaw, manager, Professional and Educational Services, Altova: It's easy to forget how far SQL Server has come in cornering a position within the enterprise that goes beyond the department level. Five to 7 years back, SQL Server began entering discussions in the same basic "unproven" category as object, object-relational, and post-relational databases—in other words, great for experiments but don't bet the farm on it. Now we're looking at a smaller pool of major players, and SQL Server holds a legitimate place high on the list. Of course, with successful growth, you get greater complexity for users, higher costs, more choices, and more work for us on the XML data tools and services side to keep up with the pace.

Robin Schumacher, vice president of product management, Embarcadero Technologies: On the positive side, you have the additions of enterprise-class features into SQL Server that have aided SQL Server's increased adoption rate for very visible and heavy-duty tasks across the enterprise. On the negative side, you have the fact that tools to support serious SQL Server installations have trailed the database engine by a wide margin. The end result is that the SQL Server community is somewhat ill-equipped to handle enterprise-class SQL Server implementations unless they have access to the right tools.

What's the current state of the SQL Server development-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?

Altova: In Altova's particular areas of focus, we really couldn't ask for much more. XML has overrun the enterprise. Information managers are clearly gaining from the effective use of XML technologies for systems integration, for data conversion, and for data modeling itself. And SQL Server, Microsoft .NET, and the rest of the tools community have become XML true believers. All this means even more opportunity for Altova tools such as MAPFORCE and XMLSPY to pitch in and help solve the design, productivity, and operational challenges of running an XML-enabled business. When you come right down to it, XML solves an awful lot of problems, but it isn't magic.

Embarcadero: Many SQL Server developers are at a loss to find sophisticated and feature-rich development tools. A quick survey of some popular SQL Server forums finds professionals recommending tools such as Visual FoxPro to other developers. While these tools are very visual in nature, they fall short in terms of support for utilities and functions that greatly increase developer productivity. Cross-platform support, automatic code generation, debugging and tuning, code documentation, and change control are must-have items in any serious developer toolset. These functions, however, aren't available in most products offered to SQL Server developers.

What are the top three criteria customers use in selecting a development tool?

Altova: Clearly, price and quality are always important, but the fundamental question customers are asking is "Does this tool address my problem with a solution I can believe in?" If the answer is yes, the rest of the conversation becomes much easier. In September, we launched a new product called MAPFORCE, and your question was the big one on everyone's mind: What would attract developers? In the end, the answer was pretty much what we expected it would be. At shows, people gave MAPFORCE one look out of curiosity, but they stuck around when they saw that our tool made them feel smart about the development and integration issues they cared about. It helped them easily get their data from one shape in one place to another shape in a different place. Simple.

Embarcadero: The top three criteria we're seeing are cross-platform capabilities, database management system (DBMS) feature set, and ease of use. No IT shop is single-platform anymore. That being the case, IT management wants the same database toolset across all systems to reduce learning curves and vendor touch points. In addition, because nearly every database vendor offers some form of toolset with their core engine, customers want a product that picks up where the free tools leave off, has up-to-date support for all key database features they're using, and automates tasks that would otherwise require a lot of manual effort. And DBAs and developers don't want to waste their time installing, configuring, and learning how to use a tool—they want something that makes them productive in as little as 5-10 minutes.

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

Altova: Probably the biggest challenge is technically keeping up with a maze of standards and approaches while understanding how each industry is picking the technology winners that next year's business initiatives will be built around. In the XML-integration space, for instance, you have business-process-management standards, workflow standards, and access-control specifications, along with tools to federate, query, filter, and translate it all into the message format of the month. Many of these technologies offer real, demonstrable value. But there's no standard out there for mapping the similarities and differences of, say, a highly regulated insurance industry data-management problem against a successful workflow solution developed, for example, in an industry overseen by the nuclear regulatory commission.

Embarcadero: Our customers are facing challenges involving cross-platform support, exploding data growth, application migration, response-time management, and change control. Corporations aren't hiring "SQL Server" developers or DBAs anymore-they're hiring developers and DBAs who must learn to develop and manage a cross-platform environment. Then you have yearly triple-digit growth in terms of the data quantity you have to manage. This often translates into mushrooming numbers of databases and servers in addition to growth of existing systems. Even with 2004 hiring prospects improving, many corporations are keeping headcount low, which translates into increased workload for the existing staff. We see continued increased reliance on packaged application purchases and the need for developers to customize or move those applications to different DBMS engines. We also see traditional performance monitoring and tuning techniques giving way to a new method for optimizing database performance. Developers and DBAs now need to focus on where a set of code, a database, or a server is spending its time or where it's bottlenecked. Focusing on such aspects of performance usually provides the shortest path to response time gains, but by no means is it easy to do. And finally, managing the change of countless physical databases, configurations, security, and database code is something that often requires a devoted IT staff person. Dedicating a staff position to change control often is not possible, which may very well mean change control is forgotten or done half-heartedly at best.

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

Altova: On one hand, the SQL Server marketplace is quickly maturing and is still growing fast. On the other hand, Microsoft and SQL Server customers are highly attuned to the benefits of XML and are a terrific territory where we can carve out new ground for XMLSPY and MAPFORCE. One indicator for us of the power of this kind of leadership is the great reception from the Microsoft camp that XMLSPY's new Visual Studio.NET Edition received at the Professional Developers Conference last year. That Microsoft would be not only one of Altova's biggest customers but also give us that kind of word-of-mouth help tells us that tools venders with compelling products for SQL Server are going to get the support they deserve.

Embarcadero: A big shift has occurred in the type of tools customers are requesting. As SQL Server has grown up from being a departmental database to an enterprise-class database, the need for industrial-strength management tools has become a necessity. Space, performance, security, capacity, and change management can no longer be performed haphazardly, as they once were when a SQL Server serviced only 10-50 users. As SQL Server has increased in visibility and scale, IT professionals are now demanding the types of tools that have been available to Oracle, DB2, and Sybase users for quite some time. Surprisingly, vendors who have a complete and sophisticated offering in these areas are few and far between.

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

Altova: Given the roll Microsoft is on with XML data, it stands a better chance than most of helping lead us to where we don't always have to think in terms of relational data versus XML data versus object-data models versus directory-data models. When data is more abstract and more about the business that created it than it is about the systems that hold it, businesses will be happier. We're not there yet, and it's a long road ahead, but SQL Server is definitely breaking a trail in the right direction.

Embarcadero: SQL Server will continue to add features that competitive engines already possess, and the focus on clustering, security, and availability will continue to grow. From a development-tools perspective, the concentration will be to support cross-platform database environments as well as multiple development languages.