8 no-bull reasons why SQL Server on Linux is huge for Microsoft

SQL Server on Linux? You're not dreaming. Here's what is important about this historic shift on Microsoft's part

bull statue rush horns
flickr/tripp (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Pigs sure sprouted wings yesterday when Microsoft announced, without warning or preface, that it was doing the previously unthinkable: producing a version of SQL Server for Linux.

This shakeup has implications far beyond SQL Server. Here are eight insights into why this matters -- for Microsoft, its customers, and the rest of the Linux- and cloud-powered world.

1. This is huge

The facts alone are seismic. Microsoft has for the first time issued one of its server products on a platform other than Windows Server.

You wanted proof Microsoft is a very different company now than it was even two or three years ago? Here it is. Under Steve Ballmer's "Linux is cancer" reign, the most Microsoft could muster was a grudging admission of Linux's existence. Now there's the sense that Linux is a crucial part of Microsoft's future and a vital component in its continued survival and success -- definitely not Dad's Microsoft.

2. Microsoft isn't going open source with its server products

You can definitely drop the thought of Microsoft open-sourcing its server products. Even on a practical level, this is a no-go; the legal clearances alone for all the first- and third-party work that went into any one of Microsoft's server products would take forever.

Don't consider this a prelude to Microsoft SQL Server becoming more like PostgreSQL or MySQL/MariaDB. Rather, it's Microsoft following in the footsteps of vendors like Oracle. That database giant has no problem producing an entirely proprietary server product for Linux and a Linux distribution to go with it. But that doesn't make Oracle an "open source company" -- a misleading term spawned mainly by observing one outlier, Red Hat.

Microsoft's newfound enthusiasm for open source is largely practical, and the same goes for this embrace of Linux. Microsoft's biggest motivation is exposure and market share. Linux servers remain far more numerous than Windows Server installations, so why not attempt to capture some of that market?

3. This is a slap at Oracle

Another motive, directly inferred from the above, is that this move is a shot across Oracle's bow -- taking the fight for database market share directly to one of the chief platforms.

Oracle has the most revenue in the commercial database market, but chalk that up to its costly and complex licensing. However, Microsoft SQL Server has the largest number of licensed instances. Linux-bound customers looking for a commercial-quality database backed by a major vendor won't have to settle for Oracle or contemplate setting up instances of Windows Server simply to get a SQL Server fix.

The threat isn't an immediate one. Migrating away from Oracle is never a snap (even if most of the obstacles revolve around licensing terms rather than technical issues). In the meantime, Oracle can continue to milk its installed base, either in-place or by moving customers to its burgeoning cloud environment.

Still, Microsoft has been trying to carve more slices from Oracle's pie, and new customers seeking a solution of Oracle's caliber on Linux are likely to gravitate to SQL Server on the basis of cost alone, now that the choice exists.

4. MySQL/MariaDB and PostgreSQL are in no danger

This part goes almost without saying. Few if any MySQL/MariaDB or PostgreSQL users would switch to SQL Server -- even its free SQL Server Express edition. Those who want a robust, commercial-grade open source database already have PostgreSQL as an option, and those who opt for MySQL/MariaDB because it's convenient and familiar won't bother with SQL Server.

5. We're still in the dark about the details

So far Microsoft hasn't provided any specifics about which editions of SQL Server will be available for Linux. In addition to SQL Server Express, Microsoft offers Standard, Enterprise, and Business Intelligence SKUs, all with widely varying feature sets. Ideally, Microsoft will offer all editions of SQL Server, but it's more practical for the company to start with the edition that has the largest market (Standard, most likely) and work outward.

6. There's a lot in SQL Server to like

For those not well-versed in SQL Server's feature set, it might be hard to understand the appeal the product holds for enterprise customers. But SQL Server 2014 and 2016 both introduced features appealing to everyone trying to build modern enterprise business applications: in-memory processing by way of table pinning, support for JSON, encrypted backups, Azure-backed storage and disaster recovery, integration with R for analytics, and so on. Having access to all this without needing to jump platforms -- or at the very least make room for Windows Server somewhere -- is a bonus.

7. The economics of the cloud made this all but inevitable

So saith Larry Seltzer at ZDNet, and I agree. As more enterprise computing moves into the cloud (although some will by necessity remain in-house), Linux will remain appealing as a target platform because it's both economical and well-understood as a cloud environment.

As Seltzer argues, "SQL Server for Linux keeps Microsoft in the picture even as customers move more of their computing into public and private clouds." A world where Microsoft doesn't have a presence on platforms other than Windows is a world without Microsoft, period.

8. This is only the beginning

Seltzer also believes other Microsoft server applications, like Sharepoint Server and Exchange Server, could make the jump to Linux in time.

The biggest sticking point is not whether the prospective audience for those products exists on Linux, but whether the products have dependencies on Windows that aren't easily waved off. SQL Server might have been the first candidate for Linux deployment in part because it had the smallest number of such dependencies.

IDC analyst Al Hilwa noted in an email that SQL Server actually had its roots in the Unix world, since it originally began as a joint project with Sybase to support OS/2. "The product was evolved exclusively for Windows until this week when a Linux version, rumored to be in the lab for years, became available," Hilwa said.

The implication is that Microsoft has had this project in the works for some time and, by the same token, has potential solutions to the dependencies that other Windows Server products have on Windows.

The obstacles inherent in porting Windows Server apps to other platforms can be overcome in time with expertise, effort, and motivation. Microsoft has never lacked for the first two, and now it has the third as well: the motivation to not remain hidebound by the Windows legacy as the rest of the world moves on.