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Microsoft Corp.’s decision to boot out its MSDE embedded database in favor of its relatively new SQL Server 2005 Express Edition is getting mixed reviews with ISVs.

While many ISVs are thrilled with Express’ new features and the fact that it’s free, others that are doing good business basing their applications on MSDE are nervous that Microsoft is rocking the boat.

“Most [applications that default install with MSDE (SQL Server Desktop Engine)] can be rehosted to a full-fledged Microsoft SQL Server installation, but these migrations aren’t necessarily advantageous to the IT staff or to the end user,” said Daniel Sydnes, of IT Builders LLC, in an e-mail exchange.

What’s the problem? Many applications already include their own reporting, backup and API features, thus making these Express-delivered new features redundant, Sydnes said. Also, there’s “rarely any benefit in accessing their underlying raw (and often undocumented!) data structures,” he wrote.

Greg Paul, product marketing manager for Ipswitch Inc.’s WhatsUp line of network management tools, said that while Ipswitch will “definitely be looking” at the new features, the ISV won’t want to bring those features into the forefront.

“We’ll try to suppress [those features] as much as possible and do silent install,” he said. “Our goal is to hide a lot of that complexity from the end user.”

For its part, Express Metrix, maker of IT asset management tools, shied away from embedding Express’ new feature set in its latest release set because the ISV didn’t have time to test out the features before shipping.

“For us, we had to step back and make a decision: What do we do about brand-new software being released that we had to add to the testing process?” said Kris Barker, CEO and head of Express Metrix’s development team.

“The challenge for a lot of ISVs is not just do you go ahead with something like this and just start shipping an updated version of MSDE, but do you take advantage of SQL Server 2005 Express functionality that didn’t exist in previous versions?” he said. “That’s a tough call for any vendor. In an environment where you’re just one of a number of database environments, you’re not in a position to dictate what version of SQL a customer will run.”

Even when Express Metrix does move to SQL Server Express, likely in its next version, it will probably continue to stay away from SQL Server Express’ new features, Barker said, just to avoid alienating customers.

“Likely in the next release we will ship with Express, but it probably won’t take advantage of anything specific to that version, just to make sure we’re not pushing people in a direction they don’t want to go,” he said.

Tim Tow, Microsoft’s SQL Server product manager, hastens to reassure ISVs that at least when it comes to silent install, that’s one feature that makes Express the ideal choice for an embedded database.

“[It has] new installation and a new installer,” he said. “But it still has additional support for silent install. It has more options than MSDE. The silent install is hidden installation. The ISV can install and execute it in the background. The ISV doesn’t have to expose the SQL Server install process at all. That simplifies it for ISVs.”

Silent install is important because users only care about the ISV’s application, not whatever application is under the surface, Tow said. In addition, small organizations without a lot of technical support don’t want to deal with multiple install options.

ISVs test Express.

Ipswitch is one of many ISVs that are still testing Express before it moves its network monitoring tools over from MSDE.

David Karp, director of product marketing, said Ipswitch hasn’t figured out when the move will come, but that it will depend on how “nice” Microsoft is about doing the migration.

What does “nice” mean? For Ipswitch, as for many ISVs, it means customers won’t notice the difference. “‘Nice’ is … install the new thing and [you’re done with it],” he said.

Not that MSDE’s is a completely silent install, but when it’s done, you know you’re set, Karp said.

“Obviously they notice the install on MSDE. It takes a bit of time. But when it’s done, the software puts data into the application, like a utility,” he said. “It’s there, and you don’t worry about it.”

Microsoft in June 2004 announced that SQL Server Express would replace its MSDE as the software maker’s lightweight database of choice.

With a basic set of Web management tools, tighter integration with Visual Studio 2005 and bolstered language features, Microsoft intended Express as an answer to users’ increasing demand for XML support and the ability to use Visual Basic in the midtier, the company said at the time.

Another big difference was the pricing scheme. Whereas MSDE was available only to licensed customers of Office 2000 Professional, Office 2000 Premium or any Visual Studio 6.0 Professional/Enterprise tool, Express is available for anyone to download free of charge.

Express also did away with MSDE’s workload governor, a feature that limited the database to five worker threads and which slowed down servers if a certain number of queries were executed.

Also on the plus side, Express allows for a larger database size (4GB as opposed to MSDE’s 2GB). It ushers in the advantages of SQL Server 2005’s program features, including CLR (Common Language Runtime).

CLR is Microsoft’s commercial implementation of the Common Language Infrastructure specification, a standard for making development and execution environments in which languages and libraries work together seamlessly.

Other SQL Server 2005 features inherent in Express include native XML and native database encryption.

Microsoft plans to release a new Express version in the first half of this year that will include reporting services and full text search, according to Microsoft’s Tow.

That will be a “huge addition” to the Express versions, Tow said, giving it parity with the rest of the SQL Server product lineup and making it particularly appealing to ISVs.

“Those [features] will definitely appeal to ISVs, so they can develop a single application, develop it once, and … deploy it to Express, for low-end uses, or to Standard, for workgroup situations, or for Enterprise, for high-end uses.”

Of course, there’s the downside.

Express supports fewer processors (one instead of two) and supports less memory (1GB instead of 2GB).

Regardless of that belt-tightening, Ipswitch is looking forward to Express being able to handle a bigger workload.

“MSDE comes with a workload governor, and SQL Server Express doesn’t come with any workload governor,” he said.

That’s a good thing, Paul said—it means more scalability for both Ipswitch and its customers.

For his part, Craig Isaacs, president of Neon Software Inc., has been happy with MSDE but welcomes Express because it will address problems he’s perceived with Microsoft’s marketing of MSDE.

“We use MSDE, and it’s great and our customers like using it,” he said in an e-mail exchange. “More are using SQL Server, but those that want a localized database are happy with MSDE because we take care of all the administration and it’s free.

“The biggest problem we have with MSDE is marketing—and I believe that’s one of the big things Microsoft is trying to address,” he said.

“It’s really hard to explain to someone what MSDE is unless they already know what it is. They had different names for it, too—Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Desktop Engine, Microsoft SQL Database Engine, and I think there were more. (When we were documenting MSDE support, we found it listed on Microsoft’s site two different ways at the same time.)

“I like “SQL Server Express” because people will know exactly what it is without our having to explain it.”