Who’s Using SQL Azure? (… and why aren’t others?)

I gave a lunch n’ learn a couple days ago, as part of E&Y’s “SQL Thirstday” (sic) series.  I figured I’d summarize the hour talk into a blog post for anyone curious.  The topic was again SQL Azure, but this time I wanted to focus less on technical details and more on real world examples of SQL Azure adoption.  I wanted to address questions like:

  • What companies are using SQL Azure?
  • Is there a particular type of company using SQL Azure?
  • Have there been big name adoptions?
  • What are their experiences?
  • Have they run into problems?
  • What are some of the benefits/business drivers pushing companies to SQL Azure?
  • What are reasons some companies don’t opt for it?
  • Is it because of limited functionality? Scalability? Security Issues?
  • What are the primary hurdles holding back adoption?

Let’s narrow the first question down to sizes.   So,

What sized companies are using SQL Azure?

You’d expect almost all to be small-to-medium sized companies, at least I did.  What’s surprising is that of the case studies I’ve seen, almost a third of them are Enterprise sized companies.  Looking at Windows Azure Case Studies specifically for SQL Azure, you get these percentages:

Small companies are still the clear majority, but it looks like larger companies are moving to SQL Azure faster than I would expect.  Though it seems in most of the Enterprise companies, they are using SQL Azure for new projects within the companies, rather than a migration of all of their applications (we’ll get to why this is in a minute;  it’s not because migration is hard)

 What type of company is using SQL Azure?

 I’ve been asked this question before and it’s very difficult to answer because there are many types of companies who are using SQL Azure.  It’s a lot easier to define what types aren’t.  These include Health Care, because of HIPAA restrictions, and Retail companies that have PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards) restrictions.  Microsoft makes no claim regarding PCI standards for 3rd party hosting.  Depending on where and how you store your data, there are ways to develop applications in the cloud to use 3rd party PCI data processors that may keep the cloud application itself out of scope.  See the case study for Zuora.

 Are there Big Name adopters?

Oh yes.  I’ve compiled several case studies of recognizable, Enterprise sized companies that are currently using SQL Azure.  For each listed below I’ll cover what the company is, what the project they’re using Azure for is, what data they’re storing in SQL Azure, and what they loved about SQL Azure.

Case Study:  Xerox
The Company:  Industry Leader in, amongst other things, Managed Print Services (MPS)
The Project :  In order to provide printing services for smartphone business users, Xerox first created Xerox Mobile Print, which enabled users to print from their smartphone to printers within their company.  In 2010, Xerox wanted to expand this to allow smartphone users to print to any accessible printer, in or out of their company.  Thus, Xerox Cloud Print was born.  And it was born in Azure.
The Data in SQL Azure:  In building Xerox Cloud Print in Azure, Xerox stored User account information, job information, device information, and print job metadata in SQL Azure.  They used Windows Azure Worker Roles to convert documents to print ready format.  By their claim, they had data logically partitioned in 1 database for multiple tenants.  (Without knowing specifics, I assume this was done using separate schemas or a logical naming convention.)
What they loved about SQL Azure:  They loved that they could use a familiar skill set.  There developers were skilled in SQL Server, so it was very easy to make the transition to the cloud without having to learn a whole new data layer technology.  They also loved how easily they could scale up the pay-as-you-go model.  SQL Azure enabled them to implement and innovate faster because of its quick stand up time and lower cost risk.  After all, if you can easily scale back and pay for less (or bail out of failed project easily) this lowers the fear of taking risks on new initiatives for your customers.

Case Study:  Daimler
The Company
:  Leading manufacturer of premium passenger cars and commercial vehicles.
The Project :  Daimler needed to quickly get an application to the market that would enable Smart Car drivers to learn the charge state of their car and quickly locate a nearby charging station.  This would be done in an online portal accessible from a laptop or smartphone.
The Data in SQL Azure:  They stored user and vehicle account information in SQL Azure.
What they loved about SQL Azure:  SPEED.  With SQL Azure, they could stand up SQL Server environments in minutes.  This enabled them to quickly get the application to the market in 3 months. 

Case Study:  3M
The Company
:  Consumer and Industrial Products, Research and Development.
The Project :  3M has a lot of experience and research behind analyzing products for visual appeal.  They wanted to make their knowledge available as a service.  To do this, they created their Visual Attention Service (VAS).  This is a web tool for businesses that would allow users to upload potential product images and have them analyzed against 3M’s visual attention models.  The user would get fast feedback on what parts of the product the consumer would be most likely to look at and remember.
The Data in SQL Azure:  The used SQL Azure to manage uploaded images and provide analytical results from the image processing engine.
What they loved about SQL Azure:  The cost savings as opposed to managing regional data centers.  That, and automated management.  In their words:

“SQL Azure is of great value to 3M because it takes the database management piece off our plate”
                – Jim Graham, 3M Technical Manager

Case Study:  Intuit
The Company
:  Makers of TurboTax, Quicken, QuickBooks.
The Project :  Intuit was creating the Intuit Partner Program (IPP).  This would enable developers to build Software-as-a-Service applications that would integrate with Intuit’s QuickBooks data.  Applications that would then be posted to Intuit’s app center.
The Data in SQL Azure:  Intuit was providing SQL Azure for any relational data partners desired to store.
What they loved about SQL Azure:  They loved simplified provisioning and deployment of multiple relational databases.  In their own words:               

“Intuit is increasingly becoming a cloud-based company.  This year, 50 percent of our revenue will come from Connected Services. As we look into the future, we see the increased importance of delivering more cloud-based offerings and making them available to a variety of different connected devices.”
                – Alex Chriss, Director, Intuit Partner Platform at Intuit

Case Study:  Associated Press
The Company
:  The world’s largest news organization
The Project :  The Associated Press wanted to take all their breaking news and make it more easily consumed by other applications.  They created a Breaking News API that developers across the world could integrate with.
The Data in SQL Azure:  The Associated Press stored their news story metadata in SQL Azure.
What they loved about SQL Azure:  They loved the lack of needed infrastructure management.  This enabled them to focus their time and money on other things.  The familiar toolset and quick time to market were also of great importance to them.

Case Study:  Siemens
The Company
:  Electronic and Electrical Engineering.
The Project :   With over 80,000 devices worldwide, Siemens needed to streamline their management and system patching process.  For this they created their common Remote Service Platform (cRSP) in Azure.
The Data in SQL Azure:  Order processing and management data was stored in SQL Azure.
What they loved about SQL Azure:  Flexibility and cost were big for them.  But it was also very important to have the consistent interface that SQL Azure provided them.  This enabled them to easily switch between on-premise SQL Servers and SQL Azure, without having to manage 2 code bases for data access: 

“Developing the application management logic on SQL Azure  allowed fast and seamless migration and internal code reuse. So we could use the same data model in the cloud as we do in our on-premises repository“
                – Gerald Kaefer, Architect at Siemens

Case Study:  TicketDirect
The Company
:  Major ticketing service for Australia and New Zealand.
The Project :   They needed to better handling elastic peak loads that are common for the ticketing industry.  Think about an application that largely sits idle until a flood of activity comes when Lady Gaga tickets go on sale.  The cloud would be perfect for them to migrate to.  But they had a lot of intense logic at the SQL stored procedure level (as many applications often do), and they needed a cloud data provider that would enable them to have such complex data layer logic.  Enter SQL Azure.
The Data in SQL Azure:  All their ticketing data was stored in SQL Azure.  They would spin up tens or hundreds of new SQL Azure databases and move data into them in peak loads.  (I’d be curious to hear more specifics about how this was managed technically if they’d like to share.)
What they loved about SQL Azure:  As I said they had intense TSQL logic in stored procedures.  That meant that no other cloud provider could give them what they wanted, except SQL Azure:

“Their Windows Azure application needs to have quite sophisticated logic running very close to the data layer …We looked at Amazon EC2, but to get the same functionality would have required much greater costs and management. With Windows Azure and SQL Azure, we get all of that cloud readiness right out of the box.”

“It is the shining light in this project. Without SQL Azure, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

                – Chris Auld, Director of Strategy and Innovation

Case Study:  T-Mobile
The Company
:  Leading provider of wireless services.
The Project :   T-Mobile was developing a social networking app for the Windows Phones which they called “Family Room”.  It was social networking functionality for small groups like families to post on a common bulletin board and share schedules.  i.e.  someone would post “We’re out of toilet paper.  Can someone pick some up?”, or a discussion could open about “How does everyone feel about such-and-such restaurant for dinner?”.  The important thing for T-Mobile was that the data for each family was secured and private.
The Data in SQL Azure:  All the social networking data was stored in SQL Azure.
What they loved about SQL Azure:  That they were able to get the level of security they needed.

So what are their experiences?

These adopters have had a mostly positive experience with SQL Azure.  They do find, as I stated earlier, that starting new projects in SQL Azure is better than migrating large existing ones.  This isn’t because migration is difficult.  Indeed, there are many good utilities for technically migrating on premise databases to SQL Azure (i.e. SQL Azure Migration Wizard, Red Gate SQL Compare and Data Compare that now support Azure).  These companies are starting new projects in Azure as a proof of concept and to build their confidence in the cloud.  Starting small is building their momentum to take more to the cloud.

Have they run into problems?

I’ll admit this was a mostly pro-Azure talk.  But it’s important to discuss the negatives.  Did these companies experience problems in the new technology?  As with any new technology, yes, of course there are gotchas. 

They found that scaling up was easy, but scaling out was hard.  This is due to a lack of federating capabilities or replication solutions in Azure.  This is at least the state of things for now, though SQL Azure Data Sync is providing some synchronization capabilities.  And when considering things like datasync, network unreliability can cause a problem.  The redundancy of a SQL Azure database requires a connection retry.  For .NET code, developers learned they had to switch to using the ReliableSQLConnection object in .NET to have this built-in retry functionality.

Some other problems:  Unsupported data types, like CLR datatypes, can cause a problem for how some companies like to do things.  A lack of SSAS in SQL Azure is currently preventing companies from taking their cubes to the cloud.  And a lack of Cross Database Joins in SQL Azure is a big one.  Ideally in good design you shouldn’t have 2 databases talking to each other at the database level .  This is a rule that I break not-infrequently.  Sometimes in just makes sense to have cross-database queries.  But since a SQL Azure database is, in actuality, an abstraction of a database, this means no crossing databases for you.  If you have this implemented heavily in an application, you should know that this means moving to SQL Azure will require some significant refactoring.

What are the benefits/business drivers for going to SQL Azure?

The greatest business driver of them all:  COST.  Companies are noticing on average a 30-40% reduction in operating cost (in some cases as much as 90% like in the case of internet startup MyWebCareer.com).  When you talk about cost savings for a company using SQL Azure, you’re talking about two main points largely:

 1)      High availability.  The fact that you get 99.9% availability in a SQL Azure database for as little as $10/month is huge.  Can you get 3, 4, or 5 9s availability on your own?  Yes.  Can you do it for so cheap?  Not likely.  We spend a lot of time and resources on high availability and disaster recovery plans for on-premise applications.

 2)      Speed of deployment.  When you’re talking about getting infrastructure ready in minutes instead of weeks, this means you’ve got an application deployed in weeks instead of months.

Ultimately, this brings IT to the masses as almost a democratization of IT.  This allows smaller companies who could be intimidated by the high cost of IT management to compete with the larger companies.

What are the hurdles/reasons some companies don’t opt for SQL Azure?

Back to the negatives.  Hurdles?  You’ll find it’s not because of functionality limitations.  I’d say 80% of what you do in a SQL Server database is provided for you in SQL Azure.  Tables, FKs, Indexes, Procs, Views, the meat-and-potatoes is all there.  Some hurdles are things like a 50 GB limit.  Even though this has grown from 10 GB, Microsoft still has a cap right now in order to meet their SLA (recovering a much larger database in the event of an issue would take a long time).  This 50 GB limit on a single database could be a hard pill for some companies to swallow.  Especially since database federations are not easily implemented in SQL Azure.

Another hurdle is some countries’ restrictions on data in response to the Patriot Act.  At E&Y, we often have to deal with data that can’t leave a country’s borders.  Since there are only 6 Azure datacenters currently, this is a flag that such data cannot go to SQL Azure.   And again, if you have HIPAA or PCI restrictions, this is another indication that Azure might not be for you.

And ultimately, there’s a shift in paradigms that people have to go through when they go to the cloud.  A fellow developer described Cloud storage as being like banking.  Many of us had grandparents who didn’t trust banks and kept their money in their house.  For them, the question would be:  “why have your money in a bank when you can keep it at home?”  For us, the younger generation, the question is:  “why do you have thousands of dollars in a sock drawer, and not in a secure bank?”  You can see the analogy to the cloud.  Right now, the question is: “why have your data in the Cloud and not securely on premise?”  Perhaps one day the question will be:  “why have your data on premise and not securely in the cloud?”  We’ll see.  The cloud is only currently beginning to earn our trust.

For some, a shift in paradigms means the fear of the disappearance of true management (DBAs, infrastructure engineers, etc.).  This Dibert cartoon reminds me of that.  The truth is that we should never be without the Database Administrator.  The cloud will always need intelligent engineers to make sure that it is being utilized properly.

More humor about a shift in paradigms can come from this early interpretation of a horseless carriage: 

People often can only think of new things in terms of what they know.  Engineers designed whip holders into automobiles for the first 6-7 years, even though there was no horse…

The Cloud’s going to take some getting used to.

Final Thoughts

For me, I think Azure is going to be very appealing for the startups and the younger generation.  The small companies are now going to be able to be more Agile and scale up more easily if they’re lucky enough to have their ideas take off.  Also, consider that there are a lot of go-getter programmers who come out of college and then hit a snag when they realize there’s all this other infrastructure and management required to get their ideas out the door to the world.  Azure’s going to look very good to them.  Now they can just worry about programming an application and then having it hosted.  So who knows what other Mark Zuckerbergs are going to be unleashed and empowered now that the cloud is here.

 For More Information

 Check out Microsoft’s suite of Azure case studies:  You can easily filter down to SQL Azure as you like:


3 Responses to Who’s Using SQL Azure? (… and why aren’t others?)

  1. paras_doshi says:

    Thanks you! i liked the part where you discuss the hurdles/problems that contemporary adoption leads you to but i am very enthsiastic about the growth of SQL Azure and with 4-6 service updates each year, we will see our concerns getting addresses faster than we realize! thanks

  2. Dan Fugett says:

    I realize the the primary purpose of this article is why/who uses SQL Azure. We have had contact with 3 companies out of about 50 who have looked to cloud solutions, and all rejected Azure. However, we couldnt get any clear answers as to why and havent had much success in internet searches comparing Amazon cloud and SQL Azure functionality. As a DBA the demand hasnt been there for us yet so any information would help. Of particular interest are surveys not biased toward/against Amazon or Microsoft.

  3. Pingback: The Speed of Azure | Voice of the DBA

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