Q&A: Microsoft’s CIO Talks About Why He Chose SQL Server 7.0 to Run the Company’s Business Systems

In a special PressPass feature, John Connors, vice president and chief information officer of Microsoft, talks with Bill Demas, lead product manager for SQL Server, about Microsoft’s internal implementation of SQL Server 7.0. As a successful company with worldwide operations, Microsoft’s decision to run all of its own mission-critical business systems on SQL Server 7.0 serves as a valuable model for other enterprise customers who may be considering such a move. Microsoft’s successful transition from SQL Server 6.5 to SQL Server 7.0 is already delivering dramatic business advantages in daily operations ranging from manufacturing and distribution to customer support.

Connors, who is completing his tenth year at Microsoft, worked in both Finance and the Systems Division and served as Corporate Controller for two years before becoming Microsoft’s chief information officer (CIO) in July 1996. As CIO, Connors is responsible for the information technology systems that support Microsoft employees and run the company’s business operations around the world.

Demas: Tell us about your role at Microsoft.

Connors: My group is responsible for Microsoft’s worldwide internal technologies. I think it’s safe to say that we are one of the world’s largest users of SQL Server, as well as having one of the largest implementations of SQL Server technology in the world. We worked very closely with the SQL Server development team on SQL Server 7.0.

The IT group has two major roles: first, to run the IT infrastructure that supports Microsoft’s 27,000 employees worldwide, who develop, sell and support software, and; second, to run our company on our software, work with the product development teams to optimize current versions, roll out new versions, and think through enterprise issues for the enterprise client-server software, which has become a big part of our business.

Demas: Aside from testing our own products, why did Microsoft move to SQL Server 7.0? And did most of this companywide move take place with beta 3 or earlier?

Connors :We began working with the SQL Server development team prior to beta 1, and then throughout the process we set specific goals to move a certain number of line of business applications to SQL Server betas. We moved about 10 applications to SQL Server 7.0 late in the beta 2 cycle, followed by 10 additional applications on beta 3. It was at this point that we moved our SAP environment off of SQL Server 6.5 to SQL Server 7.0.

Demas: Tell us about the SAP upgrade to SQL Server 7.0.

Connors :Moving the SAP environment has been the largest, most important milestone because it is Microsoft’s transaction environment. It runs all of our worldwide Finance transactions, Human Resources, OEM contract transactions, and procurement transactions. SAP moved to SQL Server 7.0 because on 6.5, we had the largest SQL Server SAP environment in the world and we needed to upgrade — both to reduce the database size and to increase the number of concurrent users. And uniformly, our SAP development and support team is ecstatic.

Demas: Can you give us some tangible business advantages you are experiencing?

Connors :The dialogue and end-user performance has improved tremendously. An average dialogue for users around the world was taking 1.1 seconds and is now down to 0.6 seconds. As for update performance, the time between completing the transaction and having the database update has dropped from an average of just over 5 seconds to 0.7 seconds. The database size has also dropped from about 140 GB to 80 because of SQL Server 7.0’s more efficient storage. The way we are now able to index, update and insert are much better. But the real benefit from our standpoint is the dramatic query improvements that the user experiences.

Demas: What about some operational benefits in terms of availability and scalability?

Connors :If Microsoft – which had $14 billion in revenue last year and does business in 65 countries — can run its SAP environment on one single SQL Server database located in Redmond, I don’t think there are many companies that can afford to not look very seriously at SQL Server 7.0 as an enterprise offering. That is something we’re very happy about.

Since we moved our SAP environment to SQL Server 7.0, our availability has been about 99.3 percent. The reason we’re not at Sigma (99.99 percent) is because we’re on a single database. To update one of the modules – Finance, HR or OEM — requires that we do scheduled maintenance. That alone puts us at 99.3 percent. But for any transaction environment for a company, 99.3 percent availability is something that you look at and say, “that is mission-critical computing”.

In terms of scalability, on SAP we’ve got about 1,700 users on the system and we do about 600,000 transactions per month. The scalability of that environment under SQL Server 7.0 has improved dramatically, and at the same time we’ve suffered no availability issues.

I can remember when we first started down the path of rolling out SAP in the fall of 1995. The first process we were putting on SAP was Finance. At that time I was the Controller, and I can remember sitting down with Bill Gates and Bob Herbold to go through the plan and we were looking at the number of users, the number of countries, and then the additional modules we would add. We were contrasting that with the development plant for SQL Server. We drew a grid showing that if SQL Server didn’t scale and didn’t improve in terms of its concurrent use, database size and availability, we would have some big problems. We were betting the ranch on SAP and SQL Server. And with the dramatic improvements in terms of availability, operational environment, the OLAP technology, the efficient query performance, and the efficient storage, we are very excited and bullish on the product — both as IT people and as shareholders in the company.

Demas: How has the improved OLAP technology benefited Microsoft?

Connors :We’ve spent an enormous amount of time over the last two to three years building our own OLAP (online analytical processing) technology for large-scale decision support systems, such as Microsoft Sales. Microsoft Sales allows thousands of people around the world to view revenue and product costs, whether they want to look at particular products, particular channels we sell into, particular customers, or particular geographic regions.

Every day the Microsoft Sales data environment, located in Redmond, has about 1,600 unique users, making it a very highly used decision support system. The query times for that environment have improved dramatically over the last two months as we moved to SQL Server 7.0, and, most importantly, our ability to update the database has gone from being a very challenging operational issue to being an issue that no longer exists. For example, the DBCCs (Data Base Consistency Checker) used to take approximately 7-9 hours to run. Now we’re down to under half an hour. So in terms of 24/7 availability around the world, that system is up all the time.

Demas: Also on the subject of availability, can you tell us about SQL Server 7.0 improving Microsoft’s product support systems?

Connors :That system is particularly important because it is used by product support engineers who are on the phone with customers. That system just has to be up. We can’t have something happen that causes the customer to experience a negative relationship with Microsoft. Today, we have approximately 2,000 concurrent users on the system, and it has been as high as 3,600. There are not many environments in the world where you have more concurrent users than that in any kind of a day-to-day, 24/7 operation.

Demas: How important was it that Microsoft was able to close the fiscal month of July on SQL Server 7.0?

Connors :As the month after the year-end close, July is actually the most complicated and time-consuming close. Three years ago, before we implemented SAP, the process I’m describing would have taken between 15 and 20 days. Last year, after fully implementing SAP around the world, we did it in about eight days. This year, after moving SAP to SQL Server 7.0 it took four business days for the entire world. Most companies in the world would be very happy to close their books monthly or quarterly in four days, so it’s a pretty remarkable result.

Demas: How would you characterize the conversion process to 7.0? Was it painless?

Connors :The way I measure pain (since I’m not actually doing the conversion) is by whether I get an e-mail from one of my peer VPs who is unhappy with his business being interrupted because of a conversion or an upgrade. With the conversion from SQL Server 6.5 to 7.0, I have not received any e-mails from executives or senior managers complaining about an impact on their business. So from my standpoint, as I didn’t hear any complaints from people who are very good at expressing their opinion, I think it went incredibly well. Additionally, the SAP and Microsoft Sales groups did not have a lot of overtime and employee issues in making the migration. The fact that we successfully converted these applications while the product was still in beta gives me great confidence that we have a very, very, very good SQL Server 7.0 offering from an upgrade perspective.

Demas: From your experience, what would you tell other CIOs who may be about to install SQL Server 7.0?

Connors :If you’re a CIO or IT manager, what you’re always asked to do is improve support costs and operational costs. At the same time you’re asked to improve end-user experience and performance. We’ve found that with the move to SQL Server 7.0, we’re particularly satisfied with the improvements in our production environment. The amount of down time with any of these systems on SQL Server 7.0 has virtually disappeared, translating into a reduced head count as we don’t have the need to monitor the systems 24/7. Additionally, the fact that the update time has dropped so dramatically means that our production support people can now focus on analyzing things outside of the SQL Server environment. They can now look at more downstream processes because they don’t have to spend their time monitoring their SQL SAP environment or the SQL product support environments. I expect the support requirements for any of our mission-critical transactions to drop between 20 percent and 40 percent with this companywide rollout of SQL Server 7.0.

Demas: Any additional words of wisdom?

Connors :I guess from my perspective — having been here 10 years, and managing the group back in 1993 when we were first developing Microsoft Sales and using SQL Server 4.2.1 – among support people, developers, and analysts, the enthusiasm and pride in what our SQL team has done is pretty phenomenal. It’s just another example of what happens when Microsoft focuses on one area, puts the resources into it, hires very talented people and just plugs away every day.

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