Mission-critical support for SQL Server is key

In my position, I have continual exposure to the opinions of senior IT professionals. They have interesting things to say about how they perceive SQL Server within their organizations. Their real concerns surprise me.

Popular perception is that SQL Server is only a Windows NT solution—in other words, small-scale. The discussion of whether Microsoft is a corporate database company hasn't moved beyond the realm of NT vs. UNIX or scalability debates.

The fact is that NT is here. Most Fortune 2500 organizations and the US federal government run Windows NT. Debate about whether to put SQL Server on corporate standards lists (often motivated by a need to integrate SQL Server data with legacy and large-scale systems) is becoming moot because SQL Server is evolving as the engine of choice for vendors that sell specialized, shrink-wrapped applications and departmental systems. In-house SQL Server proofs of concept evolve into critical corporate business systems with hundreds of users running on SQL Server. The IT professionals I talk to often refer to SQL Server as a weed that continues to crop up in organizations, defying standards groups' attempts to control it. These professionals tell me that they aren't trying to exterminate SQL Server; they're trying to more reliably support their user implementations.

Contrary to claims by other database vendors and the UNIX-oriented IT press, I don't hear much technical resistance to SQL Server and its proven T-SQL language and database engine. Its presence in the mainstream IT organization is a fait accompli. The real problem with SQL Server is that Microsoft hasn't recognized that it needs to support SQL Server differently from the way it supports operating systems, development environments, and productivity applications. Database support centers on mitigating single points of failure that affect an entire organization. When things go wrong, CIOs want to blame the primary vendor, not a partner, independent software vendor (ISV), or solution provider.

I often work with clients who are trying to take control of their applications. Customers tell me they can't establish a reasonable chain of vendor accountability for their systems' core component—the SQL Server database. They've told me about systems going down, with million-dollar consequences, and the only support they get is a telephone conversation with the technical support person wielding the standard Microsoft problem-resolution checklists.

I don't intend my comments as an indictment of Microsoft's ability to support the corporate database user. Since its inception, Microsoft has leveraged partners and resellers to reach and support markets. The company didn't want a corps of Microsoft post-sales consultants that the industry would perceive as competition for the channel. Microsoft has deployed in-house Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) who focus on SQL Server to ensure successful post-sales support, but this major step has yet to be broadcast to the market. Although partners are still a major part of the development and support process, Microsoft has worked hard to increase direct accountability without alienating the third parties that make the company successful.

Of course, no one expects this level of support for free, and it is a premium service for critical systems (higher than standard third-party rates). But Microsoft's premium support service is in line with similar offerings from Sybase and Oracle. When one of my clients faced catastrophic downtime, many Microsoft employees were on site within 18 hours, and my client had no loss of user productivity. That situation shows real progress in Microsoft's support system during the past 10 months. But who knows about Microsoft's product support beyond a few contacts at the top 50 Microsoft customers?

Corporate development managers believe that the primary source for support is the database publisher. CIOs' reservations about SQL Server are no longer technical but concern Microsoft's ability to provide proactive and reliable implementation support. Microsoft needs to proactively tell the corporate market that it can directly provide these services.