Microsoft Readies ‘Katmai’ Preview

Microsoft  officials this week said they are readying the next major release of SQL Server, codenamed Katmai, but the question is whether it will be enough to draw customers away from long established competitors.

Katmai is due for early access via a community technology preview (CTP) within the next month or so, officials announced, with final delivery slated for 2008.

Among the improvements will be the ability to “store and consume” other data types beyond relational data and XML, including unstructured data like Word documents. It will also support what Microsoft refers to as “spatial” or geographic information for so-called “location aware” applications, Francois Ajenstat, director of product management for SQL Server told

“We call it ‘beyond relational’ because it’s about moving from words and numbers to sights and sounds,” Ajenstat said.

The new storage capabilities may turn out to be one of the few surviving portions of Microsoft’s earlier attempt at a more flexible file system for Windows Vista and Longhorn Server, dubbed WinFS.

The company basically killed off WinFS a little less than a year ago, after touting it for several years as the solution for all kinds of search issues. Instead, WinFS was partitioned for use in multiple Microsoft products.

However, Katmai will also feature capabilities aimed at enabling the next release of SQL Server to better compete with entrenched business intelligence competitors such as Oracle , Business Objects  and Cognos  as well as large-scale database providers such as Oracle and IBM .

These include a new Entity Data Model, which will be part of ADO.NET, meant to enable database developers to deal with data at a higher level of abstraction than tables and columns, Ajenstat said. “That means [as a developer] I don’t have to worry about how data is stored,” he added.

Perhaps more important, however, will be improved scalability in Katmai, the ability to work with more of the data sources that customers already have in place, and tighter integration with knowledge workers’ main toolset, Microsoft Office, Boris Evelson, principal analyst for business intelligence at Forrester Research, told

Microsoft has already done some of that legwork. For example, SQL Server 2005 Service Pack 2 (SP2), which shipped in February, provides analysis reporting support for Oracle databases as well as for Hyperion’s Essbase. Oracle purchased Hyperion Solutions in March.

Additionally, on Wednesday, Microsoft announced it has acquired a business intelligence authoring tool for Office called OfficeWriter from SoftArtisans. That will enable users to not only view Microsoft BI reports from within common applications like Word and Excel, but to author them as well.

So although to this point, Microsoft has not had the leverage to penetrate many of the largest BI customers, that may change with Katmai’s arrival, whether in 2008 or later.

“With the new functionality they’ve already rolled out [in SP2] and with the new features coming in Katmai, it’s going to be harder for enterprises to turn their noses up [at Microsoft’s BI offerings],” said Evelson. “Probably 80 percent of what the big guys [like IBM and Oracle] have, Microsoft now has [with Katmai],” he added.

Indeed, Microsoft’s commodity pricing scheme along with its mantra of “BI for the masses” rings true for some customers.

“I think it’s the future of BI,” Ron Van Zanten, managing officer of BI at Premier Bankcard, told The bank, which Van Zanten said is the nation’s tenth largest credit card issuer, is already a Microsoft BI customer.

Still, Microsoft has more work to do, especially in the area of connectivity to more heterogeneous data sources, including aging but still used databases like ISAM and VSAM files, in order to be considered a shoe in.

“If I ask them about connectivity to [legacy] files, the answer is probably No . . . but if Microsoft is going to charge me a tenth to a twentieth of what the big buys cost, I have to consider it,” Evelson said.

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