Yesterday, Microsoft announced that its upcoming release of SQL Server - the database that powers millions of businesses - will run on Linux, as well as on Windows Server.
While this development may sound like techie-speak, it actually reflects three major business trends about which non-technical business folks should also be aware.
Here is what you need to know:
What is Microsoft SQL Server?
Microsoft SQL Server is a relational database management system, meaning that it is software that resides on "server" computers and services requests by applications running on other computers to store and retrieve data. Microsoft sells many different versions of SQL Server so as to maximize the product's reach; versions range from those intended for single-server small businesses to massive enterprises with multiple "server farms." Today, SQL server is a technology staple of organizations running Windows Server infrastructures locally or in the cloud.
What is the connection to Windows?
Since it was first released in 1989, SQL Server has always been a Windows product, meaning that the server computers on which it runs have to run (server versions of) Microsoft Windows operating systems. Because, at least historically, businesses typically tried to, as much as possible, maintain uniformity of operating systems in their data centers, SQL server has been disproportionately found in organizations preferring Windows in their data centers; other databases are found in the facilities of organizations running primarily Linux.
What does Microsoft think of Linux?
Historically Microsoft has not been a fan of Linux; in 2001 its then CEO, Steve Ballmer, even referred to Linux as "a cancer." In recent years, however, Microsoft's position has shifted dramatically. The firm has acquired non-Windows technology, offers Linux via its Azure cloud service, and, even, for a time, had a subsidiary known as Microsoft Open Technologies.
Why the shift now to support Linux?
I believe there are several reasons - which together reflect important business trends about which everyone, regardless of his or her level of technical sophistication, should be aware:
1. Microsoft is aware that people are buying far fewer Windows computers, instead opting for tablets and smartphones, most of which run Android or iOS. As such, the firm seems to be focused more on enterprises - many of which prefer Linux to Windows Server either because of technological reasons or due to the cost of licensing the Microsoft offering. Faced with a choice of losing database sales to competing paid and free options that support Linux, or sacrificing the potential sale of Windows Server licenses and some market share in the server operating system space, the firm has chosen to compete in the database space.
2. Another reason for the new Linux support is likely "the cloud." Microsoft was late to the game when the Internet-era dawned, and it is not going to allow the same thing to happen vis-à-vis the cloud. As alluded to above, Microsoft owns a cloud platform called Azure, which, in order to compete with other cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services, must support both Windows and Linux. Keeping SQL Server strictly on Windows severely limited Microsoft's opportunity to sell SQL Server via Azure; why would the firm want to sacrifice a potentially lucrative revenue stream if the businesses running on Linux despite being unable to run SQL Server are not likely to switch to Windows Server anyway.
3. Windows has lost much of its glory. On the server side, many software engineers prefer to work with Linux, and, many startups begin (and, as they grow, remain) on Linux cloud-based infrastructures due to the typically lower cost of doing so. On the user side, the changes over time are even more dramatic: A generation ago nearly every developer interacted with Windows as his or her primary personal computer operating-environment. Today, nearly all coders interact with Mac-OS/OS-X, iOS, or Android as frequently as they do with Windows. Some of the benefit that Windows used to offer of having a similar "look and feel" server and client operating system is simply gone, and unlikely to return anytime soon. Microsoft certainly recognizes this - and is investing in being seen as a "cross platform" deliverer of technology and services, rather than as a provider of operating systems and software to run on those platforms. In some ways this parallel's the firm's decision decades ago to ship Word for Macintosh, despite being embroiled in what was then the PC vs. Mac battle.
Of course, these reasons represent my speculation, not an official announcement by Microsoft. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that despite its historical aversion to Linux, Microsoft has seen major business trends, and acted accordingly.