Saturday, 23 April 2011

Head In The Clouds

In Paul Randal's recent SQLSkills Insider e-mail, he talked briefly about the SQL Azure, and how he had not seen his Clients express a large appetite for it "yet", and that inspired me to write this post, (which I have been meaning to write for a couple of weeks), to share my thoughts on Azure.

So firstly, I just want to state my position on Cloud Computing in general, and that for the most part is very positive. The opportunity to access your applications from any part of the world, with consistent performance and a massively reduced Total Cost Of Ownership has to be exciting, and there are many applications, such as Office and even Exchange, that I feel are a perfect fit for the Cloud.

SQL on the other hand is a different matter. Does it really fit in the Cloud, and if it does, what place does it hold? Will it ever be able to host Enterprise class systems, or will in fall into the category of Virtulization, which is great in the most part, but does not fit well for SQL, especially for Enterprise Solutions?

Well, because of these concerns, and because of the current immaturity of Azure, until recently, I have shyed away from playing around with this app, and kept my focus on traditional SQL, until...

I recently spent several months working on a project to plan the up-scaling of an established 2TB local system to global 32TB Enterprise class system. The obvious choice for this system was a FastTrack Data warehouse Appliance, and I had a fantastic opportunity to do some POC work at Microsoft HQ, (Which I will blog about soon). The POC was successful, and I thought it was a done-deal, but then an instruction came from a very senior level, that we should be investigating putting the application in the Cloud.

Now my gut reaction here was wow! An opportunity to build an Enterprise class database in the Cloud, but within seconds (and luckily before speaking) my professional head suppressed my geek head and I articulated the answer that it would not be practical because of the 50GB limit in Azure. This led to the suggestion that we could shard the data across multiple instances, which is true, but seemed like trying to plug a square hole with a round peg. I knew at that point that the idea was unlikely to go further, and we would probably stay with FastTrack Solution, but I felt it prudent to subscribe to Azure and have a play with it.

So when playing with Azure, the thing that surprised me was how limited the product currently is. A lot of the limitations surround Administration, and make perfect sense, for example, when your database is in the Cloud, why would you need to worry about High Availability? There is already a 4 9s SLA with MS, just by signing up. Some of the other limitations, however, are just a bit strange. For example, you can not create Heap Tables, only Tables with Clustered Indexes. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of having a CI on all tables, but it just felt like a strange limitation. I also found that quite a few useful tools, such as Service Broker are not supported, and even my favourite %%PhysLoc%% query would not compile!

According to a contact of mine, there are currently only about 20 people in the Azure product team, and as I already mentioned, the offering is still fairly immature, so I fully expect that a lot of functionality will appear over the next few months and years, so from a technical perspective, I don't feel that we are quite ready to put many systems in the Cloud "yet", but we may be soon. I also suspect that the size restrictions will be relaxed as bandwidth improves.

My main question mark around Azure (thinking Medium-Term) is more political. If you are storing client data, especially if it is from a sensitive sector, such as public service data, I can not imagine those Clients, when asking the regular question "Where exactly are you storing my data", liking the answer "Oh, it's in the Cloud..."

Now I know that this stance is silly because I would be willing to bet large amounts of money that data is much more secure in Microsoft's Cloud, than it is in the vast majority of Data Centres, but what I'm not sure, is how long it will take, or how to even bring-about that cultural change that would be required, especially as the people who will need to be convinced are likely to be non-technical.

My other question mark, is a rather self-centred one, and revolves around (if I'm honest with myself), humans not liking change, because from a corporate point of view, it is actually a positive...

According to my contact, Microsoft's medium-term SQL Server policy will be to release features first to the Cloud, because they can easily be rolled back if problematic. (This is a concern in itself for the Cloud because it will always be the most up-to-date but possibly also the most unstable platform), then to release to Appliances. (FastTrack is already on v3, PDW is out and OLTP and BI appliances are on the way), and then finally to release to the traditional market.

Now this leads me to assume, that within the medium-term, large SQL projects will either be hosted in the Cloud, or on Appliances, and both of these environments are largely pre-configured and pre-optimized, so where does that leave skilled SQL professionals, who make a living out of performing those complex optimizations that will no longer be required?

Again, this is probably a silly stance, because there are bound to be a whole different set of issues that will require highly skilled professionals. For example, just because Windows 7 is a damn site easier to work with and configure than DOS 6.1, does not mean that there is no market for Desktop Support Technicians, or Network Engineers, but it does mean that more people are able to support it, which means that the market rates are dramatically lower than they were 15 years ago.

Maybe I'm an eternal pessimist, but it is certainly food for thought? If you have any thoughts on the subject, please feel free to leave comments...

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