In the SSL/CW list of IT skills, SQL Server is number 10.
What is it?
Microsoft's relational database management system (RDBMS). By announcing that the Yukon release will be known as SQL Server 2005, Microsoft neatly underlines the fact that there will have been a five-year gap since SQL Server 2000.
During this time Oracle and IBM will each have released at least two versions of their RDBMSs, and the low-cost open source MySQL has become a credible competitor in Microsoft's traditional low-end space.
However, although the database market has pretty much stalled over the past three years, SQL Server has managed steady growth, driven by small and medium-sized enterprises. SQL Server 2000 has been regularly enhanced with the kind of features and functionality that would normally wait for a major release, such as analysis, data transformation services and the just-released reporting services, which were intended to be shipped with Yukon. A 64-bit implementation came out last year.
Where did it originate?
In a joint development with Sybase, which provided the heavyweight database technology. The breakthrough into a product which could be considered for the datacentre came with SQL Server 7 in 1998.
What is it for?
Microsoft has been steadily bundling in, for no extra cost, functionality such as online analytical processing, business intelligence and reporting.
Although the bundled technology cannot compete for richness of features with the likes of Essbase and Crystal Reports, it provides a cheap and cheerful substitute for people who do not need or cannot afford them.
What makes it special?
The low price, the ready integration with ubiquitous applications such as Microsoft Office and software built with Visual Studio, and the additional functionality such as Olap and reporting. Yukon will give a wider choice of development languages by adopting the Common Language Runtime and there will be native XML. T-SQL will remain the preferred language for dataset and relational work.
How difficult is it to master?
Certification and training is where Microsoft's low-cost model breaks down. Preparation to become a Microsoft-certified database administrator could, for example, involve six or more courses of five days each.
Where is it used?
Microsoft would love to be seen as a competitor for the enterprise database. But although SQL Server is used for large-scale applications such as airline bookings and telecoms customer records, and Microsoft claims 15 installations of more than 1Tbyte, including the human genome project, the majority of users are still departments and small and medium-sized enterprises.
What systems does it run on?
Windows. Rumours of it on other operating systems get an "over my dead body" response from Gordon Mangione, Microsoft's corporate vice-president of the SQL Server team. However, there is GNU SQL Server from the GNU Foundation.
What is coming up?
Yukon has just been postponed from 2004 to 2005. Gartner Group does not expect it untilthe second quarter and recommends waiting for at least two service packs - until 2006 at the earliest.
Microsoft has a fast-track course to migrate Oracle, DB2 and Sybase practitioners to SQL Server.
Rates of pay
Generally lower than equivalent jobs with DB2 and Oracle, but work is easier to come by. In the range of £22,000 to £30,000 for both database administrators and developers, depending on experience.