"I do think there are structural weaknesses that show up in any older company. In particular, the strategy tax for being Microsoft -- around tying software to operating systems -- is really starting to show up. For some reason it's in part Bill Gates' life's mission to make Oracle CEO Larry Ellison a very rich man. He could wreck Ellison's day by porting SQL Server to either BSD or Solaris or both. SQL Server is a fantastic piece of software; it may in fact be the best piece of software that Microsoft has ever released 1. But there are a lot of people who won't build Web sites on anything but a Unix platform. Those people really have to go with Oracle, even though they would have gone with SQL Server in a heartbeat."
- Clay Shirkey, Salon.com interview, July 2001.
Microsoft makes some useless software, and some software that is good. Some programs that use the standards, and some that don't. You can't expect absolute consistency in a company that large.
Microsoft SQL Server is one of the good ones. Version 7 onwards are really very easy to install and configure. The SQL implementation is solid and compliant (it has extensions, of course).
The server program is stable, fast and scales well to large amounts of data. Tens of millions of rows in a table should not be a problem with halfway decent hardware.
I am told that Oracle and IBM old big iron mainframes running DB2 are the way to go for storing and querying truly gargantuan amounts of data.
the client tools are well designed, in Microsoft's colourful, cheerful wizard-heavy idiom. I've yet to see another database with client utilities that come anywhere close. For instance, Oracle's dire SQL+ utility, which we are still given to use in 2005, is not nearly as good as the utility that MS SQL users had in the mid 1990s.
Microsoft SQL server's source forked from the codebase of Sybase SQL server. So is Microsoft SQL server simply another case of Microsoft buying a good product, and prettifying the user interface? There may have been some justification for that charge with the earlier versions (3 and 4), but by the next version (confusingly numbered SQL Server 7), Microsoft had put a significant amount of work into the program suite, in the back end and in the UI, so as to make that not a valid claim.
Microsoft SQL Server is in no way a version of Access, it is unrelated software. Access is a weenie, in the same league as MySQL.
And yes, it runs only on Windows. Do not run it on the Windows 95/Windows 98/Windows ME series of operating systems if you have any sanity, or desire any reliablity at all.
1) Note that this was written before the release of the .NET programming environment, another worthy contender to the title of "Microsoft's best software".