Choosing the Right SQL Server Edition: Not a Straightforward Proposition

Are you "right-sizing" your choice of SQL Server 2005 editions? Lately, I’ve been fielding lots of questions from customers and readers who are asking, "Can I get by with SQL Server 2005 Standard Edition rather than paying many tens of thousands of dollars in extra license costs for SQL Server 2005 Enterprise Edition?" or "Can I get by with the free SQL Server 2005 Express Edition instead of paying for SQL Server 2005 Standard Edition?" These questions aren’t new. SQL Server 2000 customers ponder them too. However, the answer is usually more straightforward with SQL Server 2000.

When choosing a SQL Server 2005 edition, the first question many businesses face is whether to pay for SQL Server or try to get along with a free version. No one wants to pay more than they have to, but with SQL Server 2000, the answer was simple. MSDE, the free version of SQL Server 2000, didn’t include management tools and had a performance governor that made the product unsuitable for all but the most trivial of real-world needs or personal use. However, SQL Server 2005 Express Service Pack 1 (SP1) now offers a useful set of GUI administration tools. Running SQL Server 2005 Express on a fast dual-core server with 1GB of memory will give you a remarkably capable platform for lower-end production uses. SQL Server 2005 Express with Advanced Services even includes support for Reporting Services.

Likewise, choosing between Enterprise Edition and Standard Edition has become more complex with SQL server 2005. SQL Server 2005 and 2000 Enterprise Edition both include numerous features that the correlating Standard Edition doesn’t support. However, with SQL Server 2000, memory usage is a primary reason to upgrade to Enterprise Edition. SQL Server 2000 Standard Edition is capped at 4GB of memory. If you need more memory, Enterprise Edition is the only answer, regardless of whether you wanted or needed the other advanced features in Enterprise Edition.

But in SQL Server 2005, memory is no longer a primary decision-making factor, because the new Standard Edition of SQL Server supports as much memory as the OS can use. Standard Edition is still limited to four processors, whereas Enterprise Edition is limited only by the number of processors that the OS will support (Windows 2003 Server will support up to 64). Microsoft defines “processor” at the socket level, which means you can have a four-CPU dual-core box. That’s not quite as fast as a true eight-CPU machine, but it’s no performance slouch either. And heck, four-core boxes aren’t too far away. Does Enterprise Edition offer lots of nifty features that you might want, need, or otherwise be willing to pay for? Absolutely--Enterprise Edition offers numerous high-availability and scalability features not included in Standard Edition. However, the reality is that Standard Edition offers a tremendous amount of computing power and many customers who went to SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition for memory or processor power may no longer need to.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not going to tell what specific features in the various editions might influence your choice between Express and Standard or between Standard and Enterprise. I don’t have enough space left to even begin addressing that topic this week. This week is just about making you think. What version do you need? Can you get by with a less expensive version of SQL Server 2005? The answer might be yes.

I’m curious to know how many customers are debating these questions in their companies. I’d love to hear from you! Send me your thoughts on this topic at [email protected]

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