Making a Case for SQL Server over SQL Database in Azure

When Windows Azure went online some years back, the buzz prompted me to check on it too. But my main reason to check out Microsoft’s cloud solution Azure was Azure’s SQL Database (formerly SQL Azure). Initially, the Azure SQL Database was pretty lame if you start comparing it to its on-premise roots (the Microsoft SQL Server). A SQL Server veteran’s top 10 lists of things he can find in Azure SQL Database would probably be composed of things that SQL Database doesn’t have.

  • no way of backing up databases
  • no automatic database sharding mechanisms
  • no fulltext indexing and seaching
  • and yeah it doesn’t do this
  • and it doesn’t do that
  • etc …

Then Microsoft introduced FEDERATION as a way to make things elastic in terms of scaling database growth and people have hailed the feature as something that will allow Azure SQL Database to make a name of its own as the feature isn’t even available in SQL Server.

Then, one begs to ask if Microsoft could have allowed SQL Server to run on Windows Azure instead. Today, Microsoft gave us that power to provision, install and run SQL Server on an Azure Virtual Machine just like what we do on an in-premise environment. To some, this could put Azure’s SQL Database to the back end of the long line.

Why SQL Server Over Azure SQL Database?

The answer is simple. It is so we can run existing applications on Azure that are using SQL Server features not found in Azure SQL Database.

However, if the goal is just to migrate existing SQL Server based applications to the cloud, then we might be missing some of the major reasons why we have the cloud in the first place. And we dont have to go to that direction for this article. People are aware that aside from wanting to get away with dealing with the nuances of an in-premise infra, to some, going for the cloud simply means cloud scale load. And for those of us who still wanted an SQL way of dealing with data in the cloud, Azure SQL Database, can definitely handle any cloud scale load thrown its way as it has inherent mechanisms, like FEDERATION, to address issues related to handling load on a massive scale. But there are also a lot of things to be desired that are still not available in Azure SQL Database. Eventually, Azure SQL Database will mature and we will not have to deal with the missing pieces but some of us can’t wait any longer.

So the questions now are the challenges one need to face to use SQL Server in Azure instead of Azure SQL Database, specifically one that will allow cloud scaling. The same questions have been bugging my company so we can transition our applications and services over to the cloud (Azure specifically) without throwing away so much of the current SQL Server related assets that we have. The primary reason for this is that, aside from adopting the cloud, we are still maintaining our in-premise code base until when there are no more clients depending on it. But I don’t see our existing clients going in that direction so soon. The way I see it, the challenge would be our ability to maintain and run two code-bases. One for in-premise, and the other for the cloud. Eventually, the code for the cloud will become the code for in-premise.

So to rationalize all these based on my own and company’s scenario, it seems running SQL Server on an Azure VM will be the way to go. The challenge will be to use SQL Server on Azure as storage and data management engine of choice for a multi-client SAAS (software-as-a-service) type of system. I have identified a few major issues that I need to deal with from the get go:

(1) how to handle horizontal scaling

How would I shard? I would think a single database per client would be easier. Given that SQL Server wasn’t designed to be automatically elastic, I would probably need to develop a mechanism that would create a new database on some SQL Server instance on an Azure VM as soon as a new client registers. These VMs can be on the same or different Azure instance. The SQL SErver instance on Azure VM can be pre-determined, provisioned and should be running on standby and wait for new registrants.

(2) full text

Fulltext indexing is currently not available in Azure SQL Database. To provide a similar service, one needs to look at 3rd party search solutions like Lucene.NET. The difference between the fulltext indexing in SQL Server and that of Lucene is that, the former allows you to mix things up in your TSQL queries in the same TSQL statements. By using SQL Server on an Azure VM, one can have fulltext indexing and searching. However, SQL Server fulltext can only be configured on a per database basis. To do fulltext across multiple databases across multiple SQL Server instances on various Azure VM instances, one has to probably make SQL SErver fulltext work like that of Lucene.NET. To probably do that, one has to treat each client database as a document.

(3) reporting services

The simplest implementation for a multi-client setup I can think of right now is to include the login information in the report’s parameter and hi-jack the info to get the right database to query. But I am not sure yet if this is a good approach security wise. The other option is to use the report RDL control and access the RDL files from the apps.

(4) High Availability & Backup

Going for SQL Server on an Azure VM means you have to deal with High Availability issues like you do with in-premise implementations. Though Microsoft made sure that the Azure instances one is using all have redundant instances, there were downtimes that you don’t have control that you have to deal with. The good thing with using SQL Server on an Azure VM is that, full database backups like those you do in in-premise setup are available.

Given the above challenges, I would definitely go for SQL Server in an Azure VM over Azure SQL Database. It is probably much easier to fashion out a custom sharding mechanism or horizontal scaler, a lucene.NET like implementation using SQL Server’s fulltext than deal with a lot of Azure SQL Database missing pieces. By also picking SQL Server as the storage of choice, I could probably port the entire system with negligible changes to other cloud infrastructure provider. Should a client decides to run everything off the cloud, then that wouldn’t be a problem either.

It seems to me now that Microsoft has provided me a potent option with having SQL Server on an Azure VM. I don’t have to wait until they get everything I need in Azure SQL Database. Surely, my personal and company’s needs  would make a case for SQL Server in Azure.

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Maira-ira Beach
Photographed in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte

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Toto Gamboa is a consultant specializing on databases, Microsoft SQL Server and software development operating in the Philippines. He is currently a member and one of the leaders of Philippine SQL Server Users Group, a Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) chapter and is one of Microsoft’s MVP for SQL Server in the Philippines. You may reach him by sending an email to totogamboa@gmail.com

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