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Even when he worked for one of Microsoft's biggest competitors, William Fong knew SQL Server was a great database.
As the strategic marketing manager for Oracle in the Asia Pacific, it was Fong's job to know his competitor's products. He had used Microsoft's SQL Server. He knew what it could do.
"Even from a competitor's point of view, I knew it was a potential risk to Oracle," he said.
Now, a scant three years later, Fong is at Microsoft marketing SQL Server, and Microsoft is considered one of the three major players in the database world - along with IBM and Oracle.
With the release later this year of SQL Server 7.0, the next version of the database, Microsoft is poised to redefine database software.
"We basically went from rookie of the year in '95 with Microsoft SQL Server 6. 0 to one of the three major players in the industry in 1997," said Paul Flessner, SQL Server general manager at Microsoft. SQL Server 7.0 is the next step, he said.
How Microsoft went from rookie to All Star involved great marketing and development. It demanded making the right strategic decisions and hard work.
Spreading the Word
When Fong came to Microsoft as product manager for SQL Server worldwide product marketing in 1995, his mission was to head up a new sales force to spread the word about SQL Server.
He faced stiff competition. Oracle and other competitors had experts who knew their products inside out and could talk for hours about their advantages. Microsoft had to do better. Fong's job was to give his sales force the information they needed to show SQL Server's capabilities.
"This was a perception war we were playing, and the market share leader made the rules. We had to change the rules," he said.
Fong and his team had to prove that the SQL Server database was the best integrated database for the Microsoft Windows NT operating system and that it could meet the needs of even the largest business customer.
To do that, they continually came up with creative ways to demonstrate what SQL Server could do. Every quarter about 10 of them would hole up in a room in a nearby hotel and spin ideas off each other. Then they took a vote.
It wasn't the top-down decision making Fong had known in other companies.
"When I joined this group I was amazed at the intelligence of this group of people," said Fong, who at age 30 holds degrees from Oxford University and the London School of Economics. "The IQ is very high. The creativity is awesome. Everyone is good at what they do. They're all leaders. Everyone is opinionated and throws his ideas in."
The results can be seen on a whiteboard inside Fong's office. The whiteboard sports a list of numerous cities around the world where Microsoft has sponsored events to show that SQL Server can handle even the largest business needs.
In one such event, SQL Server handled one billion transactions per day and stored one terabyte of data. In contrast, the U.S. Stock Exchange handles only 100 million transactions per day.
Training with Competitors
Fong also keeps close tabs on his competitors. He can pull an ad from almost any competitor from a stack he keeps on his bookshelves. He recently completed Oracle8 Administration training and has the CDs and training manual piled on his desk. Yes, he told Oracle he was from Microsoft, he said. They attend Microsoft training, too.
The strategies seem to be working.
"We're still growing at 125 percent a year, so we're doing the right things," he said. SQL Server 7.0 is the next step.
"SQL 7.0 is going to change the playing field for our competitors," said Jim Ewel, SQL Server group product manager at Microsoft. "It will set new standards for ease of use ... and take us into larger, more mission-critical line of business applications then we've ever had before."
To decide what new features to include in SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft talked to its customers. "The things we heard from corporate accounts could be broken down into scalability, interoperability, availability and manageability," Ewel said. "We addressed all of these areas."
Three features make SQL Server 7.0 stand out, Ewel said.
Another feature that makes it easier to use is the way SQL Server 7.0 operates on a group of remote servers. Up until now, if customers with hundreds, or even thousands of servers in different offices around the country or world wanted to back up those servers from a central location, they would have to do them one by one. SQL Server has a feature that will allow customers to back up all the servers with just one command.
To make sure customers will feel confident about SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft initiated an early adopter program that has gotten corporate accounts to use the database early on in critical situations. "They are testing it very hard so when we ship we can feel confident that the product is very well tested, and more importantly, we have customers who say this product is ready."
From the start, Microsoft has taken a different approach from its competitors in building its database, said Paul Flessner. "Fundamentally the idea was to create a great database that can be deployed on millions of servers and desktops with hands-off administration for standard operations," he said.
No other server database before SQL Server 7.0 has ever achieved this, he said. "A server database technology has always been relatively high touch, requiring highly trained database administrators for routine maintenance," he said. SQL Server will reduce the burden of administration for database administrators, allowing them to focus on building new applications.
Flessner attributes the steady improvements in SQL Server to steady execution of the right strategy, which was making the database easier to use. Another key was building the right development team.
"We've built a world-class database team," he said. Microsoft has some of the most respected database developers in the world. They include Goetz Graefe, who invented modern query processing technology; Peter Spiro, who has built great storage engines for 20 years; Ron Soukup, one of the premier database product experts in the world; Casey Kiernan, the first to deliver GUI-based administration tools for server database technology; and Hal Berenson, an expert in relational database technology for more than 20 years.
Microsoft attracted this team by persistent recruiting, Flessner said." Microsoft knows how to build software, and the only way to build software is to have the best people."
But Microsoft also issued a challenge to them. "We don't want you to come here and build the same technology in the same way you've done before. We want you to adapt to our model of thinking, which is millions and millions of servers running line of business and consumer applications," Flessner said. "Which means you have to fundamentally design this technology differently."
And they have, Flessner said. The result is SQL Server 7.0. Fong believes the new product will change the way people look at databases. And that ultimately is what drives people at Microsoft, Fong said. "At Microsoft people are motivated because we want to change the way people use computers to better their lives," he said. "Everyone believes in the product."