SQL Server, particularly its relational database engine, matured quite some time ago. So the “significance” of every new release over recent years can be viewed—in some ways—as relatively nominal. The last watershed release of the product was actually SQL Server 2005, which was when the relational engine (that, for years, defined SQL Server) stopped occupying “center stage,” and instead took its position alongside a set of services that now, collectively, define the product. These of course include the Business Intelligence (BI) components Reporting Services, Analysis Services, and Integration Services—features that began appearing as early as 1999 but, prior to SQL Server 2005, were integrated sporadically as a patchwork of loosely coupled add-ons, wizards, and management consoles. SQL Server 2005 changed all that with a complete overhaul. For the first time, SQL Server delivered a broader, richer, and more consolidated set of features and services which are built into—rather than bolted onto—the platform. None of the product versions that have been released since that time—SQL Server 2008, 2008 R2, and now 2012—have changed underlying architecture this radically.
That said, each SQL Server release continues to advance itself in vitally significant ways. SQL Server 2008 (released August 6, 2008) added a host of new features to the relational engine—T-SQL enhancements, Change Data Capture (CDC), Transparent Data Encryption (TDE), SQL Audit, FILESTREAM—plus powerful BI capabilities with Excel PivotTables, charts, and CUBE formulas. SQL Server 2008 R2 (released April 21, 2010) was dubbed the “BI Refresh,” adding PowerPivot for Excel, Master Data Services, and StreamInsight, but offering nothing more than minor tweaks and fixes in the relational engine.
The newest release—SQL Server 2012—is set to officially launch on March 7, 2012, and like every new release, this version improves on all of the key “abilities” (availability, scalability, manageability, programmability, and so on). The chief reliability improvement is the new High Availability Disaster Recovery (HADR) alternative to database mirroring. HADR (also commonly known as “Always On”) utilizes multiple secondary servers in an “availability group” for scale-out read-only operations (rather than forcing them to sit idle, just waiting for a failover to occur). Multi-subnet failover clustering is another notable new manageability feature.
SQL Server 2012 adds many new features to the relational engine, many of which I have blogged about, and most of which I cover in my new book (soon to be published). There are powerful T-SQL extensions, most notably the windowing enhancements, 22 new T-SQL functions, improved error handling, server-side paging, sequence generators, and rich metadata discovery techniques. There are also remarkable improvements for unstructured data, such as the FileTable abstraction over FILESTREAM and the Windows file system API, full-text property searching, and Statistical Semantic Search. Spatial support gets a big boost as well, with support for circular data, full-globe support, increased performance, and greater parity between the geometry and geography data types. Contained databases simplify portability, and new “columnstore” technology drastically increases performance of huge OLAP cubes (VertiPaq for PowerPivot and Analysis Services) and data warehouses (a similar implementation in the relational engine).
The aforementioned features are impressive, but still don’t amount to much more than “additives” over an already established database platform. A new release needs more than just extra icing on the cake for customers to perceive an upgrade as compelling. To that end, Microsoft has invested heavily in BI with SQL Server 2012, and the effort shows. The BI portion of the stack has been expanded greatly, delivering key advances in “pervasive insight.” This includes major updates to the product’s analytics, data visualization (such as self-service reporting with Power View), and master data management capabilities, as well Data Quality Services (DQS), a brand new data quality engine. There is also a new Business Intelligence edition of the product that includes all of these capabilities without requiring a full Enterprise edition license. Finally, SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) brings brand new database tooling inside Visual Studio 2010. SSDT provides a declarative, model-based design-time experience for developing databases while connected, offline, on-premise, or in the cloud.