10 best new features in SQL Server 2014

Performance improvements and HA enhancements top the list of highlights in the latest version of SQL Server

SQL Server 2014 highlights

SQL Server 2014 is jockeying for King of OLTP. While completely bypassing BI enhancements, Microsoft has attacked a host of OLTP performance problems from many angles: slow disk performance with in-memory tables, slow log performance with delayed durability, and maintenance concurrency with lock priority. And it didn't stop there. The new SQL Server release puts the kibosh on excessive I/O with new Resource Governor I/O control, addresses memory issues with an SSD buffer pool extension, and increases availability through integration with the Azure cloud. 

See also:
Review: SQL Server 2014 pushes the pedal to the metal

In-Memory OLTP

For OLTP, the most exciting new feature in SQL Server 2014 is In-Memory OLTP (aka "Hekaton"), which allows you to move individual tables to special in-memory structures. The performance boost can be as huge as 30x. There are a number of limitations and special requirements for these tables, so they won't work under every circumstance. But when they do, your OLTP performance will go through the roof. This is better than other in-memory solutions that require the entire database to be placed in memory. You can get more performance by converting existing stored procedures into in-memory procedures, too. You'll need to test to make sure your tables are compatible, but if they are, you'll love this feature.

Managed Backup to Azure

There are plenty of small and midsize shops without qualified DBAs on staff. Quite often these shops don't discover that their backups aren't being handled properly until it's too late. True to its name, Managed Backup automatically backs up your database (or your instance) based on your defined recovery interval and workload patterns. When the system determines the data has changed significantly enough, it takes a backup to Azure. This feature only works with Azure blob storage. But since your backups are already offsite, there's no need to worry about tapes.

Azure VMs for Availability replicas

With SQL Server 2014, you can define an Availability Group replica that resides in Azure. When a primary failure happens, you have to fail over manually, but you will be up and running very quickly. And as long as your primary is online you can still push your reporting to the Azure replica to offload that activity from production. If you need reliable, off-site HA but don't have a second site, then this feature is for you. Just pick the location you'd like when you create the Azure VM, and you're set.


SQL Server Data Files in Azure

Data Files in Azure is just what it sounds like: Your database runs locally in your data center, while the database files themselves live in an Azure blob container. This can offer advantages in DR and migration. But depending on the size of the database and its workload, the potential performance cost of pushing the data for every transaction across the Internet could be prohibitive. A better use of this feature may be to store the data files in an Azure VM in the same data center. This can also get you around the current limitation of having only 16 mounted disks in an Azure VM.

Updateable columnstore indexes

Columnstore indexes in SQL Server 2014 brought a dramatic boost to data warehouse performance, but with a hitch: They couldn't be updated. With SQL Server 2014, now they can. This means you no longer have to drop and recreate columnstore indexes every time you need to load your warehouse tables. Not only that, but updateability also means you may be able to look at columnstore indexes for certain OLTP applications. The caveat is that you must have a clustered columnstore index on the table. Non-clustered columnstores aren't supported.


Resource Governor for I/O

Disk I/O is typically the most constrained resource of a database system, and often a large or rogue query will take up more precious I/O resources than you can afford. Microsoft has finally given us some control over runaway I/O. With Resource Governor for I/O, you can now put queries into their own resource pool and limit the amount of I/O per volume they're allowed. MIN_IOPS_PER_VOLUME and MAX_IOPS_PER_VOLUME set the minimum and maximum reads or writes per second allowed by a process in a disk volume. 

Resource Governor I/O control, continued

MIN_IOPS_PER_VOLUME reserves a minimum number of I/O transactions per second, while MAX_IOPS_PER_VOLUME provides a maximum number. This maximum doesn't limit the number of I/O operations a query can perform, but merely keeps it from monopolizing a disk. This way your large queries can still run, but other things will run as well. A good use of I/O control is to reserve some IOPS for administrators to be able to investigate issues when the disks are overloaded.

Delayed durability

In SQL Server, changes to data are written to the log first. This is called write ahead logging, or WAL. Control isn't returned to the application until the log record has been written to disk (a process referred to as "hardening"). Delayed durability allows you to return control back to the application before the log is hardened. This can speed up transactions if you have issues with log performance. Nothing is free, though, and here you sacrifice recoverability. Should the database go down before the log is committed to disk, then you lose those transactions forever. It may be worth the risk if your log performance is severely degrading application response times.

SSD buffer pool extension

Creating a buffer pool extension for SQL Server 2014 is like being able to define a different page file in Windows. As data pages move into memory, they begin to fill up the buffer pool. If the buffer pool fills up, the less frequently used pages will be paged to disk. Then when they're needed again, they’ll be swapped with something else in the buffer pool and moved back into memory. The buffer pool extension option allows you to define an SSD as a buffer file location. Because SSD is so much faster than spinning disk, the paging is considerably quicker, which increases performance dramatically in some cases. You can define a buffer pool extension file up to 32 times the size of your memory.

Incremental statistics

Updating statistics in SQL Server is the very definition of redundant work. Whenever statistics need to be rebuilt, you can't just update the new items -- you have to update everything. This means that a table with 200 million rows and only 40 million changes will need to update all 200 million rows in order to pick up those changes. Incremental statistics in SQL Server 2014 allow you to update just those rows that have changed and merge them with what's already there. This can have a big impact on query performance in some configurations.


Lock priority of online operations

You can now specify a lock priority for online re-indexing. In previous versions of SQL Server, long-running queries could block re-indexing operations, chewing up your maintenance window while your re-index op sits waiting, doing nothing. In SQL Server 2014, you can specify how your re-index operation will handle being blocked. You specify how long it will wait, and also what to do when the wait is over. Will you have it follow traditional behavior and wait indefinitely? Will you have it terminate and move to the next table? Or will you kill the blocking query so your re-indexing can complete? It's your choice.

Windows Server 2012 R2 highlights

Many of our favorite new Windows Server 2012 R2 features are in Hyper-V. Check them out in the 10 best new features of Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V.

But Hyper-V isn't the only news in Windows Server 2012. Read about 10 more excellent new features elsewhere in Windows Server 2012 R2 that will make an impact on your day-to-day operations. Some of these enhancements, particularly in the storage arena, have Microsoft taking direct aim at traditional partners with new out-of-the-box functionality.