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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Thoughts on Designing Databases for SQL Azure – Part 3

In the first article of this series, I raised an issue considered to be one of sharding’s oddities. The issue raised was what would one do should a single tenant occupying a shard exceeds a shard’s capability (e.g. in terms of storage and computing power). The scenario I was referring in the first article was that I opted to choose “country” as my way of defining a tenant (or sharding key). In this iteration, I’ll once again attempt to share my thoughts on how I would approach the situation.

Off the bat, I’d probably blurt out the following when ask how to solve this issue:

  • Increase the size of the shard
  • Increase the computing power of the machine where the shard is situated

On in-premise sharding implementations, throwing in more hardware is easier to accomplish. However, doing the above suggestions when you are using SQL Azure, is easier said than done. Here is why:

  • Microsoft limits SQL Azure’s database sizes to 1GB, 5GB, and 50GB chunks.
  • The computing instance of where a shard can reside in SQL Azure is as finite as well

I have heard of unverified reports that Microsoft allows on a case-to-case basis to increase an SQL Azure’s database size to more than 50GB and probably situate a shard on some fine special rig. This however leads to a question on how much Microsoft allows each and every SQL Azure subscriber to avail of such special treatment. And it could probably cost one a fortune to get things done this way.

However, there are various ways to circumvent on the issue at hand without getting special treatment. One can also do the following:

  • You can tell your tenant not to grow big and consume much computing power (Hey … Flickr does this. :P)
  • You can probably shard a shard. Sometimes, things can really go complicated but anytime of the day, one can chop into pieces a shard. Besides, at this point, you could have probably eaten sharding for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

So how does one shard a shard?

In the first part of this series, I used as an example of sharding a database by Country. To refresh, here is an excerpt from the first article:

Server: ABC
Database: DB1
Table: userfiles
userfiles_pk user uploaded file country_code
1 john file1 grmy
2 john file2 grmy
6 edu file1 grmy
Server: ABC
Database: DB1
Table: country
country_code country
grmy germany
can canada
ity italy
Server: CDE
Database: DB1
Table: userfiles
userfiles_pk user uploaded file country_code
3 allan file1 can
4 allan file2 can
5 allan file3 can
9 jon file1 can
10 jon file2 can
11 jon file3 can
Server: CDE
Database: DB1
Table: country
country_code country
grmy germany
can canada
ity italy

In the sample above, the first shard contains data related only to grmy (germany) and the second shard contains data related only to can (canada). To break the shard further into pieces, one needs to find a another candidate key for sharding. If there is none, as in the case of our example, one should create one. We can probably think of splitting up a country by introducing regions from within (e.g. split by provinces, by cities, or by states). In this example, we can probably pick city as a our sharding key. To illustrate how, see the following shards:

Shard #1
Server: ABC1
Database: DB1
Table: userfiles
userfiles_pk User uploaded file country_code city_code
1 John file1 grmy berlin
2 John file2 grmy berlin

 

Shard #2
Server: ABC2
Database: DB1
Table: userfiles
userfiles_pk user uploaded file country_code city_code
6 edu file1 grmy hamburg

By deciding to further subdivide a country by cities where each city becomes a shard, the following statements would be true:

  • The new sharding key is now city_code.
  • Our shard would only occupy data related to a city.
  • Our shard would only occupy data related to a city.
  • Various shards can be in the same server. Shards don’t need to be in separate servers.
  • The increase in the number of shards would also increase the amount we spend on renting SQL Azure databases. According to Wikipedia, Germany alone have 2062 cities. This is some serious monthly spending that we have here. However this example is just for illustration purposes to convey the idea of sharding. One can always pick/create the most practical and cost-effective key for further sharding to address the issue of going beyond a shard’s capacity without the spending overhead due to poor design choices.
  • At a certain point in the future, we might exceed a shard’s capacity once again breaking our design.

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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

Thoughts on Designing Databases for SQL Azure – Part 2

In the first article, I showed an example how a database’s design could impact us technically and financially. And sharding isn’t all just about splitting up data. It also brings to the table a group of terrible monsters to slay. There are a lot of concerns that needs to be considered when one attempts to shard a database, especially in SQL Azure.

NoSQL, NoRel, NoACID

In breaking things apart, one is bordering on clashing religions. One monster to slay is the issue of ACIDity. People discuss NoSQL, NoRel, NoACID to be one of the trends out there. And most even swear to the fact that these approaches are better than SQL. In my case, I prefer to call it NoACID and it is not by any means more or less than SQL. I have NoACID implementations on some projects I had. And I love SQL.  To simplify, I’ll put in these trends in a NoX lump as they commonly attempt to disengage with the realities of SQL.

For me, NoX is not a religion, it is simply a requirement. The nature of the app you build will dictate if you need to comply to the principles of ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability). If ACID is required, it is required regardless of your data and storage engine or your prefered religion. If it is required, you have to support it. Most cloud apps that we see, like Google and Facebook, could probably have ACID to be absent in their requirements list. Google is primarily read only so it does make sense to have data scattered all over various servers in all continents without the need for ACID. By nature, ACID in this regard, can be very minimal or absent. Facebook on the otherhand is read/write intensive. Seems like it is driven by a massive highly sophisticated message queuing engine. Would ACID be required in Facebook? I am not quite sure about Facebook’s implementation but the way I look at it, ACID can be optional. ACID can well be present in operations concerned only to one tenant in case of an FB account. Outside of this, the absence of ACID could probably be compensated by queuing and data synching.

If Facebook and Google decided to require ACID, they could be facing concerns on locking a lot of things. While locked on, latency could be one of the consequences. It is therefore very important to lay out firsthand if ACID is a requirement or not. For a heavy transactional system, a sharded design presents a lot of obstacles to hurdle. In SQL Azure, this is even harder as SQL Azure does not support distributed transactions like we used to with SQL Server. This means, if your transaction spans across multiple shards, there is no simple way to do it as SQL Azure does not support it, thus ACID can be compromised. SQL Azure however does support local transactions. This means you can definitely perform ACIDic operations within a shard.

To be continued…

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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

Rationalizing Cloud Computing

For the past couple of years, people have been hot on cloud computing bandwagon. And as in any case of a birth of a new trend, people tend to get into misconceptions that eventually led them to get burned. Some just plainly embrace something without bothering to find out what is in it for them.

As a co-owner of a very small ISV trying to grapple with trends in computing and making things work for clients and stakeholders, I would always submit to the pressures of looking into the possibility of taking advantage of what a new trend can offer, cloud computing included. And during these times, I have significantly looked into what cloud computing brings to the table and how my company can take advantage of them. I have at least looked into Azure and non-Azure offerings and have attempted to assemble a design for our company’s products that can take advantage of the good stuff that are in the cloud.

Though my company is definitely a cloud computing enthusiast as some efforts are actually being done to take advantage of the cloud, as far as I am concerned, it won’t be for everybody. But recently, there is a rise of people who are investigating their possibilities with the cloud. This is maybe due to the advent of Microsoft’s farm betting Azure or perhaps there are just too many misconceptions peddled here and there. In most cases, I always see some wrong assumptions being tossed into every cloud discussion that I have had. Clients too are asking me about possibilities of being in the cloud based on wrong assumptions fed to them.

But before I get into those misconceptions, I would highlight the traits that made me and my company embrace cloud computing:

  • Cloud is the great equalizer. For very small ISVs like my company, I can see cloud as a leveling of playing field against the big guys, at least on the issue on having to spend upfront on system infrastructure to offer something for my market. For under $100 a month, a small ISV can start big.
  • Reach. My company would be able to increase reach without much overhead.
  • Scalability. The fact that I would be able to scale as the need arises, cloud computing is definitely for companies like mine.
  • Administration. Being a very small ISV, system administration tasks such as deployment, support and maintenance takes too much toll on our internal resources. Having an easily accessible uniform environment like the cloud, it would allow my company to increase the number of clients to attend to without adding too much stress on our internal resource.

There are other niceties that made me embrace cloud computing, but the above items mentioned are the major factors that I believe can only be achieved through the cloud.

As convinced as I am that cloud computing is one area that my company should invest, I am also convinced that cloud computing is definitely not for everybody and definitely not for every situation out there, at least for its current incarnation. I’d probably list down 5 misconceptions that I often encounter. My rationalization of these misconceptions will be based on what I know based on the efforts my company is doing in the cloud. These includes mostly Azure based clouds as well as few non Azure ones.

Top 5 Misconceptions I Often Encounter

  1. When I move my existing application from on-premise to cloud, my app will become scalable. Well, NOT without rewriting your apps to scale-out and be cloud-ready. In the cloud, scaling is not all automatic. For example, If you have an application that is not designed to scale out, it will not scale-out in the cloud. By scaling out, you have to know how to partition your storage in multiple storage instances. And instances can be spread geographically across continents. To scale-out, one has to start from scale-out design patterns, probably from scratch. Lucky you are if your current application is designed to scale-out.
  2. I can easily move current on-premise application to the cloud. Contrary to peddled notion that you can easily move current on-premise application (legacy) to the cloud, it is really based on what you actually expect to benefit from the cloud. Like in Azure for example, it supports moving legacy applications to the cloud by using virtual machines to host legacy apps (e.g. hosting a Win Forms based app). But this approach for me is inefficient unless all you want to do is transfer from on-premise to the cloud to perhaps get rid of system administration issues while ignoring other implications and issues like performance, latency, security, etc. You would have to figure out new issues as simple as backing up your data in the cloud. If your legacy app supports features available in on-premise environments, you might encounter problems running them in the cloud as current generation clouds do not support all features that are mostly staple in the on-premise environments.
  3. I have been designing on-premise apps for years, it is enough skill set to get me to the cloud. It is if you were designing on-premise apps using technologies and patterns similar to that available in the cloud. If not, you have to take a look at the cloud differently. If you want to write apps for the cloud, you have to think cloud. Scaling is probably the one issue that would force you to think cloud. If we are used to design our apps with a single instance mindset, it is about time to think differently and think multiple. Though of course, no one is stopping us to write apps to the cloud that way, but that is not real cloud apps are supposed to. Single instance design won’t scale even if you run it over current generation cloud. In SQL Azure, we have a 10GB database size limit. If we exceed the 10GB ceiling, what would our apps do? This seemingly easy to answer question could probably discourage anyone to embrace cloud.
  4. I just have to design apps like I use to and deploy it in the cloud, and the technologies behind it takes care of the rest. This can’t be. If you were into scale-out designs by now, chances are, you wouldn’t think of writing an app and deploying it over the cloud. Chances are, you might have deployed a cloud app already or you probably didn’t know that your design approaches are very much like those implemented over the cloud. But for most, I doubt that it’s the case. Most on-premise apps are designed not to scale-out but to scale-up. For example, most SQL Server implementations just take advantage of new hardware to scale as added load comes. Intrinsically, Microsoft SQL Server is not designed to automatically load balance, for example, a single query statement. One has to learn how to partition tables into a single view with underlying partitions spread across a federation of servers so SQL Server load balances a query. This is not supported in SQL Azure though. However, even if this is supported in SQL Azure in the future, this is not the scaling wonders the cloud provides, your application still sees only a single instance of a view. With today’s multi-million users accessing just one web application at one point in time, you can only scale as much. With cloud computing, your scaling possibilities are like crazy. You don’t have limits in terms of servers, of CPUs, of storage. Having resources like this would force you to rethink of the way you design your applications. The cloud isn’t about the technologies behind. For me it is one big design consideration. It is about the way you design your applications to take advantage of the unlimited resources found in the cloud.
  5. Any apps can or should be placed in the cloud. No one will stop you if you place anything regardless of how it will end up in the cloud. However, there could be applications that are better off off the cloud. For example, if you have an app with one massive synchronous process that you think has no way of being broken down into several pieces, you might as well stick to scaling-up on premise (unless your cloud offers hybrid services like allowing you to scale-up with a very powerful server). For apps requiring heavy informational security and if you aren’t comfortable with the notion that someone from your cloud provider might get into your highly secured data, you might as well have things on premise. There could be a lot of other applications that may not be practical in placed in the cloud.

It is very important that the cloud is understood clearly before everyone gets excited. While I am embracing it, I am welcoming it with a cautious attitude. Being relatively new, there are just too many considerations to think of, and too many questions that don’t even have clear answers for the time being.

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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