In-Depth

A Brave New World: Top Features Coming to SQL Server 2017

From Python to adaptive query optimization to the many cloud-focused changes (not to mention Linux!), Joey D'Antoni takes you through the major changes coming to SQL Server 2017.

Microsoft announced the name and many of the new features in the next release of SQL Server at its Data Amp Virtual Event on Wednesday. While SQL Server 2017 may not have as comprehensive of a feature set as SQL Server 2016, there is still some big news and very interesting new features. The reason for this is simple -- the development cycle for SQL Server 2017 is much shorter than the SQL Server 2016 development cycle. The big news at Wednesday's event is the release of SQL Server 2017 later this year on both Windows and Linux operating systems.

I was able to quickly download the latest Linux release on Docker and have it up and running on my Mac during today's briefing. (I have previously written about the Linux release here.) That speed to development is one of the major benefits of Docker that Microsoft hopes developers will leverage when building new applications. Docker is just one of many open source trends we have seen Microsoft adopt in recent years with SQL Server. Wednesday's soft launch not only introduced SQL on Linux, but also includes Python support, a new graph engine and a myriad of other features.

First R, Now Python
One of the major features of SQL Server 2016 was the integration of R, an open source statistical analysis language, into the SQL Server database engine. Users can use the sp_execute_external_script stored procedure to run R code that takes advantage of parallelism in the database engine. Savvy users of this procedure might notice the first parameter of this stored procedure is @language. Microsoft designed this stored procedure to be open-ended, and now adds Python as the second language that it supports. Python combines powerful scripting with eminent readability and is broadly used by IT admins, developers, data scientists, and data analysts. Additionally, Python can leverage external statistical packages to perform data manipulation and statistical analysis. When you combine this capability with Transact-SQL (T-SQL), the result is powerful.

Big Changes to the Cloud
It is rare for a Microsoft launch event to omit news about cloud services, and Wednesday's event was no exception. Microsoft Azure SQL Database (formerly known as SQL Azure), which is the company's Database as a Service offering, has always lacked complete compatibility with the on-premises (or in an Azure VM) version of SQL Server. Over time, compatibility has gotten much better, but there are still gaps such as unsupported features like SQL CLR and cross-database query.

The new solution to this problem is a hybrid Platform as a Server (PaaS)/Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) solution that is currently called Azure Managed Instances. Just as with Azure SQL Database, the Managed Instances administrator is not responsible for OS and patching operations. However, the Managed Instances solution supports many features and functions that are not currently supported in SQL Database. One such new feature is the cross-database query capability. In an on-premises environment, multiple databases commonly exist on the same instance, and a single query can reference separate databases by using database.schema.table notation. In SQL Database, it is not possible to reference multiple databases in one query which has limited many migrations to the platform due to the amount of code that must be rewritten. Support for cross-database queries in Managed Instances simplifies the process of migrating applications to Azure PaaS offerings, and should thereby increase the number of independent software vendor (ISV) applications that can run in PaaS.

Microsoft also showcased some of the data protection features in Azure SQL Database that are now generally available. Azure SQL Database Threat Detection detects SQL Injection, potential SQL Injection vulnerabilities, and anomalous login monitoring. This can simply be turned on at the SQL Database level by enabling auditing and configuring notifications. The administrator is then notified when the threat detection engine detects any anomalous behavior.

Graph Database
One of things I was happiest to see in SQL Server 2017 was the introduction of a graph database within the core database engine. Despite the name, relational databases struggle in managing relationships between data objects. The simplest example of this struggle is hierarchy management . In a classic relational structure, an organizational chart can be a challenge to model -- who does the CEO report to? With graph database support in SQL Server, the concept of nodes and edges is introduced. Nodes represent entities, edges represent relationships between any two given nodes, and both nodes and edges can be associated with data properties . SQL Server 2017 also uses extensions in the T-SQL language to support join-less queries that use matching to return related values.

Graph databases are especially useful in Internet of Things (IoT), social network, recommendation engine, and predictive analytics applications. It should be noted that many vendors have been investing in graph solutions in recent years. Besides Microsoft, IBM and SAP have also released graph database features in recent years.

Adaptive Query Plans
One the biggest challenges of a DBA is managing system performance over time. As data changes, the query optimizer generates new execution plans which at times might be less than optimal . With Adaptive Query Optimization in SQL Server 2017, SQL Server can evaluate the runtime of a query and compare the current execution to the query's history, building on some of the technology that was introduced in the Query Store feature in SQL Server 2016 . For the next run of the same query, Adaptive Query Optimization can then improve the execution plan .

Because a change to an execution plan  that is based on one slow execution can have a dramatically damaging effect on system performance, the changes made by Adaptive Query Optimization are incremental and conservative. Over time, this feature handles the tuning a busy DBA may not have time to perform. This feature also benefits from Microsoft's management of Azure SQL Database because the development team monitors the execution data and the improvements that adaptive execution plans make in the cloud. They can then optimize the process and flow for adaptive execution plans in future versions of the on-premises product.

Are You a Business Intelligence Pro?
SQL Server includes much more than the database engine. Tools like Reporting Services (SSRS) and Analysis Services (SSAS) have long been a core part of the value proposition of SQL Server. Reporting Services benefited from a big overhaul in SQL Server 2016, and more improvements are coming in SQL Server 2017 with on-premises support for storage of Power BI reports in a SSRS instance. This capability is big news to organizations who are cloud-averse for various reasons. In addition, SQL Server 2017 adds support for the Power Query data sources in SSAS tabular models to expand. This capability means tabular models can store data from a broader range of data sources than it currently supports, such as Azure Blob Storage and Web page data.

And More...
Although it is only an incremental release, Microsoft has packed a lot of functionality into SQL Server 2017. I barely mentioned Linux in this article for a reason: From a database perspective SQL Server on Linux is simply SQL Server. Certainly, there are some changes in infrastructure, but your development experience in SQL Server, whether on Linux, Windows or Docker, is exactly the same. From my perspective, the exciting news is not just the new features that are in this version, but also the groundwork for feature enhancements down the road. Adaptive query optimization will get better over time, as will the graph database feature which you can query by using standard SQL syntax. Furthermore, the enhancements to Azure SQL Database with managed instances should allow more organizations to consider adoption of the database as a service option. In general, I am impressed with Microsoft's ability to push the envelope on database technology so shortly after releasing SQL Server 2016.

You can get started with the CTP by downloading the package for Docker or the Linux platforms, or you can download the Windows release here.

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