Books Online - still the best...

When I am teaching a class I always emphasize the importance of SQL Server Books Online. This Help system is, in my opinion, the best in the business. The proof is that even the experts use it on a regular basis. It is not just a beginner’s tool. It is full of valuable information, especially working examples. Let’s take a look….

When Sybase originally developed SQL Server, it embarked on the Books Online strategy for a Help system. At the time, most products would ship with a ton of manuals in hardcopy that would sit on the shelf and would rarely be used. Or if you did need the manual, it was always in the “other” office or had been mislaid. The more expensive the product, the more manuals you received. It was product by the pound. But Sybase, to its credit, saw the green side of things and started thinking about electronic documentation – Books Online was born.

To give Microsoft its credit, it has committed the resources to maintaining BOL over the years and it shows. The BOL content is updated continually and the code examples are accurate and useful. The downloadable version of Books Online is updated every couple of months, even between service packs. The 2005 and later versions allow you to access the Online Help on MSDN to get the latest and greatest assuming an internet connection is available. You can also switch this feature off if you do not have an internet connection or if you just don’t want to wait for the extra time that the downloads take. If you do switch off Online Help, it is called using the “local only” copy of BOL.

At the SQL PASS Conference last month, I met with some Microsoft developers in the SQL Release Services division over lunch and I expressed how good a job was being done with Books Online. “The best Help system in the business” I said. “All the experts use the system on a regular basis, so well done” I said. They let me know that they were considering making a monthly version of Books Online available. “Excellent idea” I said. Then they asked an interesting question. “Is there a compelling reason to continue with the local only copy of BOL?”. “Why do you ask?”. “Well, in meetings the suggestion comes up now and again to just maintain BOL on MSDN and do away with the resources to issue a released local version. The release version technically becomes out of date as soon as it’s released. The assumption is that everyone has an internet connection”.   

Well, I was surprised by the question. Especially in the training arena, we tend to isolate the classrooms for security reasons to avoid viruses coming down onto our network so we cannot guarantee an internet connection.  BOL is invaluable in the classroom. Also, in work situations, most database servers are protected from the internet, again for security, so if you are working directly on the server an internet connection may not be an option. The Online Help is useful as an option but many times the same information is accessible quicker from the local copy. Just yesterday, I was frustrated by waiting for BOL to appear because the system refused to show anything until it had searched MSDN for the latest info which ended up being the same anyway.  On my machine isolated from the internet, BOL info appeared quickly and easily.

One final note, Microsoft’s Official Curriculum (MOC) itself is based on Virtual PC and Virtual Server images that are isolated from the internet on the host machine. So as trainers, we need that local copy so that students can actually learn from BOL during a class as well as learn how to use the system itself. Yes, experts use BOL but students definitely need it to fall back on. If Microsoft goes with a web version only, there will be a big hole during the training cycle. I noticed a precursor to this with the SQL Server 2008 training I gave at a customer site recently. The new SQL Server Installation Center has many links within it that are internet dependent. The Microsoft labs themselves let students know that most links will not work during the exercises because of the absence of a web connection. This does not look impressive and much information is missing from the class.

So my vote goes for Books Online to remain ubiquitous - both on the web and locally.



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