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SQL Server 7 "Sphinx" Technical Workshop Reviewed

Joe Jones and I headed out to Los Angeles the night of February 24, 1998 with Jak Lenert for the SQL Server 7.0 "Sphinx" Workshop, a grueling event for SQL Server die-hards from around the world. The contents of the Workshop sessions themselves were held under a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) but there is enough non-NDA material about Sphinx to fill a book, so here's an early look at the product and our experiences in L.A. Best of all, we got permission from Microsoft to talk about Visual InterDev 6.0 as much as we'd like!

Tuesday, February 24, 1998

Joe and I met up with Jak Lenert in the dismal Terminal 2 at Phoenix's otherwise excellent Sky Harbor airport, where we spent about two hours waiting for our flight to leave. It's been the weirdest winter here in Phoenix because of El Nino, and we've had lots of rain and cool weather. Apparently, this messes with the airline schedules in a big way and the sudden hail storm (!) we got earlier in the day wasn't a good sign. In any event, we rolled into Los Angeles hours behind schedule and missed our chance to pre-checkin for the conference, which ended at 10 p.m. Jak rented a car, which worked out well since we also missed the last free shuttle bus to the hotel. Sometime around 11 p.m., we finally made it to the Westin Bonnaventure hotel, where we were staying and the conference was held. Folks, this hotel is gorgeous, with exterior-mounted elevators, a revolving restaurant on the 35th floor, and views to die for. In fact, you may have seen it before: the hotel has been pictured prominantly in such films as True Lies, In the Line of Fire, and Lethal Weapon 2.

Well, around midnight we got settled and promptly headed up the revolving restaurant for a late dinner. No dice: it was closed, as was the bar one floor down and all the restaurants on the fourth floor. We asked around for a good place to eat and were lucky enough to find out about local favorite The Pantry, a diner that hasn't been closed once since 1933; it's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We set out on foot for the place, which was supposed to be four blocks away (it was actually eight) and discovered why nobody walks in L.A.: everything is just to damn far away. In any event, none of us were prepared for the Pantry: it featured bizarre pre-meal plates such as celery, tomatoes, and radishes on ice and a pile of cole slaw. The waiter was classic, though he never would have believed it; he spoke about three words all night. We ate everything in fear of the repercussions, but the food was excellent, and it was clear that this place was there for those in the know, not us. Highly recommended if you're ever in downtown Los Angeles.

Given our pathetic waking schedule at recent industry events, we warned Jak that the chances of us getting up on time were slim and asked that he try and call us if he didn't see us in the morning. Pre-reg was at 7:00, as was breakfast, and the conference was to begin at 8:00.

Wednesday, February 25, 1998

The alarm went off approximately ten minutes after my head hit the pillow, or so it felt, but I leaped up in anticipation of some serious geek fellowship. I wouldn't be disapointed: over 2,000 people from all over the globe were present to soak up the latest details about the next version of SQL Server. And to get the free T-shirt. Let's not forget that.

We headed down to the third floor to sign-in, NDAs in hand, and get our badges. Happily, T-shirts were made available immediately, but we had to wait until Friday for the Beta CD. Like an idiot, I had brought the laptop down just in case, and I ended up lugging it around for half the day. But Microsoft provided all kinds of Microsoft-logo goodies over the course of the week, including huge binders, notebooks, pens, stress balls, and the like.

We met up with Jak who had been up since four and was surprised to see us (no more than we were, really). We went to check out breakfast. Microsoft is generally known for their spreads at these events but in this case, their layout left a lot to be desired. You can usually cout on the Big M to come through with huge buffet table-fulls of food but here they only had a sort of lame continental breakfast. Lunch and dinner turned out to be equally disapointing and we started heading out for meals after the first day. Finally, 8 a.m. rolled around and we headed in for the show. I'm sort of happy with the fact that we got in early each day and made it to the front row for all the events we participated in. As I mentioned, we had been pretty pathetic lately.

Now, the content of the sessions is protected by an NDA that I won't violate, but there are some things I can tell you, including the general schedule of the conference and some details that have already been released to the press. Microsoft's NDA specifically states that I can discuss any topic that has already been made public and I intend to do just that.

The schedule for Wednesday and Thursday was identical: there were general sessions from 8 a.m. until noon in the huge California Ballroom. Lunch was noon until 1 p.m. From 2 until 6 p.m., there were break-out sessions in smaller meeting rooms (well, a couple were held in the California Ballroom as well) about specific topics such the Transact SQL language and Web development with SQL Server and Visual InterDev. All day long, until 10 p.m., you could also go to a hands-on lab and play with SQL Server. At night, they had "Ask the Experts" sessions where you could meet with the architects and developers of SQL Server and get help with specific problems. All in all, it was a tremendous event and a great effort by Microsoft to get the SQL Server message out.

So, on Wednesday, we attended the general sessions (which included "Sphinx Product Overview" and "Sphinx Storage Engine") in the morning and tried out the Microsoft freebie lunch for the last time. Like breakfast, it was a serious disapointment, though their hearts were in the NAVY place: it was held outside on the roof of one of the smaller buildings in the hotel. In other circumstances, it would have been nice, but after four straight hours in a dark auditorium, outside in the direct sun was the last place any of us wanted to be. After lunch, Joe and I headed for the Visual InterDev/Web development breakout session while Jak headed over the Visual Basic one.

Visual InterDev 6.0 is it, folks. It basically makes up for all of the shortcomings in the first version while adding some cool features we never would have even thought of. The visual editor is actually usuable. The text editor can be configured to auto-capitalize HTML tags (as it should, rather than the auto-lowercase used in 1.0), and it even supports HTML AutoComplete. The new Design-time ActiveX controls that replace the weak versions in the first InterDev are truly visual and interactive, and they actually work. Visual InterDev users will recognize that the Visual Database Tools (VDT) from version 1.0 are the basis of similar tools in SQL Server 7.0, but the new VDT is incredibly more powerful and auto-detects the version of SQL Server you're using, thus presenting the NAVY data types and features at all times. I've never found a visual HTML editor that I could actually use, but VI 2.0 make make me a convert. I'll know as soon as the next beta comes around (it will be publicly available by the end of April, according to Microsoft), but this tool may very well dramatically change the way I develop Web sites. It's that good.

After the breakout sessions, Joe and I headed up to the restaurant on the 35th floor while Jak met with some friends of his that live in L.A. Joe and I try to eat the biggest steak we can find in any given city when we're on the road, and this was the best we could do. Not bad, especially given the view, but this is no Las Vegas. In typical fashion, I crashed hard by 8:00 p.m. (while reading no less), but Joe worked on the laptop until the early hours of the morning. He was in great shape the next day.

Thursday, February 26, 1998

Day two dawned earlier than we would have liked (especially for Joe) but we stumbled down to the general sessions on time nonetheless. General sessions on Day Two included "Microsoft's Data Warehousing Strategy", "Sphinx Management and Tools", and "Sphinx Security". Joe slept through the afternoon breakouts, though I attended on on SQWL/DMO, a way to automate almost anything in SQL Server using VBA or now, in SQL 7, in VBScript. You can literally write ASP/WSH scripts to start and stop the server, perform backups, query tables, etc. It's incredible. We also checked out a session on new Transact SQL features in SQL Server 7.0 and Joe checked out a session on the new version of English Query that's going to turn some heads (this is heading straight to voice recognition, folks: imagine asking your computer which printers you can use!).

Late Thursday night, Joe, Jack, and I went into Hollywood to get something to eat. Jak pointed out places where people like John Belushi and River Phoenix died, and we checked out the handprints at Mann's Chinese Theatre. We ended up walking up and down Sunset Boulevard, and ate at an incredible European-style restaurant called Le Petit Four. Essentially, we're talking about directly-on-the-sidewalk dining, fine Cuban cigars (aren't those illegal?) and some of the best food we'd ever had. Folks, if you're ever in Hollywood, do yourself a favor and check this out. We all came away with a totally different feeling about L.A. after that meal.

Friday, February 27, 1998

By Friday, the toll of actually getting up at a reasonable hour was wearing on us, but we hurried downstairs in anticipation of the Beta CD, which was finally getting handed out. Day Three opened with a general session called "Sphinx Replication Overview" by Ron Soukup, author of the excellent Inside Microsoft SQL Server 6.5, which is quite simply the best SQL Server book ever written. As expected, Ron was a cool guy and gave a great replication talk. This was followed by "Sphinx on the Desktop", a great overview of embedded SQL Server and overall issues when using SQL Server 7 on Windows 95/8. After lunch, the coup-de-grace occured, a talk by Microsoft genius Jim Gray, who runs the San Francisco lab of Microsoft Research. Jim gave the liveliest speech of the week, laced with humor and fantastic demos. Microsoft Research is working on the world's largest database (it will be over a Terabyte when completed), the Terra Server.

After Jim's talk, the place cleared out. One interesting note: Microsoft had set up a bookstore outside of the California Ballroom, but for some reason, they did not have Ron Soukup's book in stock. When I inquired about this on Wednesday, they said they had a bunch on order and I put my name in. NAVY after Jim Gray's talk, several cases of the book arrived by FedEx and I saw the weirdest sight: over 50 geeks standing in line, SQL Server books in hand. You just don't get to see something like that at your local bookstore. John Grisham would have been jealous.

Jak, Joe, and I rushed up to the hotel to check out the CD-ROM after lunch and I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave it at that (what with the NDA and all). What I can say is this: the next version of SQL Server is going to blow everyone away, and that includes Access users. It's a quantum leap forward.

We ended up shipping all of our show materials home because it would have been a hassle carrying it all. Kudos to Microsoft for putting on a great show. Later that afternoon, Jak drove Joe and I to the airport (he was staying a few more days to visit friends) and we were thankful to leave on time for once. Despite the grueling schedule of the past few days, we came away pretty invigorated about the whole thing.

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