An Introduction to Azure SQL Database

It’s the second half of 2016, and Azure is the new hotness. I’ve raved about Blob Storage, virtual machines, AzCopy, and all those good things. When the dust settles, though, this blog is about managing data, and sometimes we don’t want to worry about the hassle of maintenance and administration.

Azure SQL Database takes the Administrator out of “DBA”. It’s a cute soundbite, but is it true? Let’s go through a short primer.

What’s with the unwieldy name?

Azure SQL Database is a bit of a mouthful, but be thankful that Satya Nadella took over from Steve Ballmer. Before that happened, it was Windows Azure SQL Database, or WASD. Can you imagine?

“ASD” is an entry from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and we can’t call it “SQL Azure” either. “Azure SQL Database” is the official name, so let’s stick with it.

Who is Azure SQL Database for?

For a long time, I struggled to answer this question myself, mainly because I did not understand how anyone could get by with a tiny SQL Server database. The Azure SQL Database tiers seem, well, limited on the low end and expensive on the high end:

Basic – 2GB (up to $5 per month)
Standard – 250GB ($15 to $50 per month)
Premium – 500GB–1TB ($465 to $7,001 per month)

That last amount is not a typo. We can easily spend seven thousand US dollars, every month, running a 1TB Azure SQL Database.

Compare and contrast that with a fully-licenced Azure DS13 virtual machine, on Windows Server 2012 R2, with 56GB RAM, 8 CPU cores, and a 400GB system drive, running SQL Server 2016 Enterprise Edition, which (even with four 1TB disks running in a RAID 10 configuration) costs less than US$4,000 per month.

If it’s so expensive, who is it for?

This website,, runs on a LAMP stack, which stands for Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Linux is the operating system, Apache is the web server, MySQL is the database, and PHP is the programming language. I need all four of these things, with their interdependencies, to provide you with a website to read and comment on. That’s a lot of overhead, and it costs more than $5 a month, not even counting the administration costs.

Microsoft traditionally offers a similar stack, with Windows Server as the operating system, Internet Information Services (IIS) as the web server, SQL Server as the database, and ASP.NET (or another common language like C#, or even PHP if you want) as the programming language.

Vast swaths of the Internet are still hosted on Linux- or Windows-based web servers, with millions of hours dedicated to software updates, malware removal, replacing failing hard drives, taking regular backups, power failures, and so on. It adds up.

What Azure does (the entire service offering) is completely separate the dependency between these and other components. For example, if you want to build a static website, with no underlying database, you just need to use Azure App Service. Want to add a database? Throw in an Azure SQL Database. No operating system required. No server required. It’s all there, under the covers, and we don’t have to worry about it.

With Azure, we’re paying for ease of deployment of new stuff, with no administration and maintenance to worry about. Azure “just works”.

This sounds like virtualisation at a large scale

Sort of.

A funny thing happened in the last few years. Hardware kept getting faster and cheaper, and software stayed the same. This meant that newer hardware was being wasted because software just didn’t need it.

Some enterprising technologists decided that they could virtualise environments, by migrating physical servers to virtual servers, enabling multiple VMs (virtual machines) to run on one physical server.

Over time, they figured out how to configure VMs to make the best use of shared resources so that the VMs can run the same or even better than they did on their old physical servers. Fewer physical servers means lower administration costs, lower electricity bills, and so on.

Cloud computing providers, including Amazon Web Services, Google Apps, and Microsoft Azure, are basically heaps and heaps of servers that run custom software.

Is ease of administration worth the extra money?

I don’t know. That depends on you. This is why it was a difficult question to answer at first.

Imagine, instead of worrying about software and hardware costs, you can focus on growing your business and only pay for more resources when you need them. That’s the appeal of Azure.

How does Azure SQL Database fit in?

Azure SQL Database is a specific service offering that caters to people and companies who do not want to manage their own database servers and will be fine with “just” 50GB databases to run a particular web or mobile application. No need for a dedicated Database Administrator.

This is exciting! When can I migrate my database to Azure SQL Database?

Tune in next week to find out whether it’s a good idea to move your environment to Azure and how to get your on-premises SQL Server database there.


If you have any questions or comments, look me up on Twitter, at @bornsql .

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