SQL Server 7.0 Team

Hal Berenson, Paul Flessner, Peter Spiro, David Campbell

2008 Outstanding Technical Achievement
The SQL Server database has been fundamental in making Microsoft a leader in enterprise computing.

The adjective "magical" is increasingly associated with software development, and nowhere is the term more apt than in the case of SQL Server 7.0. An almost mystical air of inevitability attends reflections on the product's intense two-and-a-half-year development, marketplace success, and industry-altering user friendliness. "The quality, performance, and functionality were surprisingly great right out of the gate," says Technical Fellow Peter Spiro, speaking on behalf of the 200-strong team that eventually developed around the project's ambitious goal set. "We really even surprised ourselves."

How ambitious was it? By 1994, Bill Gates and David Vaskevitch had adopted a 10-year plan to make Microsoft a leader in enterprise computing. A key element of their road map was a new SQL Server database involving a ground-up rewrite of code purchased from Sybase earlier that year. And while the database industry overall had narrowed down to a few main competitors, they hoped to develop a world-class database by leveraging the collective experience of a team that was collectively familiar with nearly two dozen earlier databases. "We couldn't build a product that was OK," Spiro says. "We had to do something special."

The project had two strikes against it from the outset, according to David Campbell and Spiro, its principal storage-engine architects (Hal Berenson would own the relational engine). First, it would be a version-one product with version-seven labeling. Despite the fact that 80 percent of the product's code was new, the team was essentially re-creating an existing product, and the user attributes and programming interface would remain the same in order to give developers a product with which they were already familiar. This in turn allowed SQL Server Vice President Paul Flessner to market the PC-compatible product as a single-platform solution for small and medium-size businesses.

The second major hurdle was that customers would have to unload all of their data and then reload it on the new system in order to upgrade. The team worked its way around this and other mission-critical landmines by raising quality controls to heretofore unknown levels. Major bugs or serious corruption could seriously damage a banking or airline-ticketing system, so they created a stress program that hammered the system in countless ways. The team ran no fewer than a thousand databases through the product in the laboratory. Meanwhile, users and engineers were brought into the development process early on, a strategy that was subsequently adopted as a best practice company-wide.

Paradoxically, one of the SQL Server Team's major innovations consisted of reducing the number of features typically included in such a product. Campbell and Spiro wagered heavily on the benefits of replacing a surfeit of features with ease of use. "When we announced this," Campbell recalls, "our competitors would ask, ‘How can this thing be a real enterprise database product? It only has 15 configuration knobs, while ours has 500.'"

Memory and other resources were allocated more efficiently on the new system, which essentially tuned itself and could in some sense learn. Changing configurations no longer required restarting the server. A new way of handling batch updates reduced the time required for certain runs from hours to minutes. Bug reports were so rare that one was filed on the grounds that the update simply took too little time and therefore something had to be amiss.

Campbell and Spiro also gathered a first-rate team that lasted through several subsequent versions of their outstanding product. "Everyone had a niche," Spiro says, "and we all fit together without stepping on each other's toes. Everyone played to their strengths and covered for everyone else's weaknesses. That made it productive, efficient, and magical."

Watch our Behind-the-Code broadcast to learn more about Spiro.

View Campbell's official press profile.

View Berenson's official press profile.