How Microsoft brought SQL Server to Linux

Back in 2016, when Microsoft announced that SQL Server would soon run on
Linux, the news came as a major surprise to users and pundits alike. Over the
course of the last year, Microsoft’s support for Linux (and
open source in general), has come into clearer focus and the
company’s mission now seems to be all about bringing its tools
to wherever its users are.

The company today launched the first release candidate of
SQL Server 2017, which will be the first
version to run on Windows, Linux and in Docker containers. The
Docker container alone has already seen more
than 1 million pulls, so there can be no doubt that there is a
lot of interest in this new version. And while there are plenty
of new features and speed improvements in this new version, the
fact that SQL Server 2017 supports Linux remains one of the
most interesting aspects of this release.

Ahead of today’s announcement, I talked to Rohan Kumar, the general manager of Microsoft’s
Database Systems group, to get a bit more info about the
history of this project and how his team managed to bring an
extremely complex piece of software like SQL Server to Linux.
Kumar, who has been at Microsoft for more than 18 years, noted
that his team noticed many enterprises were starting to use SQL
Server for their mission-critical workloads. But at the same
time, they were also working in mixed environments that
included both Windows Server and Linux. For many of these
businesses, not being able to run their database of choice on
Linux became a friction point.

“Talking to enterprises, it became clear that doing this was
necessary,” Kumar said. “We were forcing customers to use
Windows as their platform of choice.” In another incarnation of
Microsoft, that probably would’ve been seen as something
positive, but the company’s strategy today is quite different.

Kumar also noted that many enterprises were looking for an
alternative to Oracle’s database products. If you want to run
Linux and use a proprietary relational database with full
enterprise support, you aren’t exactly spoiled for choice,
after all.

As Kumar told me, this wasn’t the first time his team looked at
Linux support. “We had a couple of discussions in the past
where it wasn’t approved,” he told me. “It wasn’t something
considered to be a strategic way for the business.” But three
years ago — now with Satya Nadella at the top of the company —
the team decided to pitch this idea again.”The biggest
surprising part was that we were expecting a whole lot of
back and forth. It was really surprising to see how quickly the
decisions got made,” Kumar said.

With the decision made, the team faced a daunting task, though:
how do you port the tens of millions of lines of SQL Server’s
code to Linux? Kumar didn’t want to make any compromise in
functionality either, so it either had to be the full core of
SQL Server or nothing at all (and for now, that excludes the
graphical user interfaces and tools the company offers on

Sitting over a bowl
of pho at a Vietnamese restaurant in Redmond, the team found
its answer: Drawbridge. Drawbridge was a research
project that launched back in 2011 which basically provided a
container with a small API surface and a basic version of
Windows configured to efficiently run the application in the
container. The idea here was basically to build better and more
secure virtual machines. The library OS then executes the
application, handles memory management and other vital
functions, and integrates with the underlying operating system.

About two years ago, the SQL Server team decided to make this
the core of its Linux efforts. “The leadership expressed the
right amount of concern,” Kumar commented — and my guess is
that there was indeed quite a bit of concern given that
Drawbridge was very much an experimental project. But the SQL
Server team took over the Drawbridge code base and added it
into the SQL OS layer.

This OS layer was, in many ways, what made this project
possible. Because SQL Server’s needs always went beyond what
Windows and Windows Server were able to offer, especially with
regard to memory management, the team had already built many of
the standard OS features into SQL Server’s OS layer already. Thanks to this, SQL Server
in Drawbridge could manage its own memory, too, for example.
The work on this was successful enough that the team didn’t
just build this for SQL Server on Linux but actually merged SQL
OS and the work it did on Drawbridge into the new SQL Platform Abstraction Layer that now runs
on Windows and Linux.

As a result, the SQL Server team can work from a single code
base and doesn’t really have to worry about where the code will
run (and this includes Microsoft’s Azure platform).

SQL Server for Linux should reach general availability later
this year. Even today, a couple of companies are already using
it in production, and the Linux version now runs as fast as the
Windows version (assuming comparable hardware).

Looking beyond the final release, Kumar noted that the team
would take a close look at what to do next. While innovation in
the database space continues to accelerate, not all of
Microsoft’s customers want annual (or even faster) updates for
their mission-critical systems. Given that we’ve lately seen
annual SQL Server releases with SQL Server 2016 and 2017,
though, I’d be surprised if we didn’t hear about the first SQL
Server 2018 preview releases sooner rather than later.

Featured Image: David Papazian/Getty Images

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