Getting started with Azure SQL Edge

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The cloud is becoming increasingly distributed, with container technologies allowing easy deployment of what had been cloud functionality to devices at the edge of the network. What began with function-as-a-service runtimes has now graduated to supporting PaaS tools and technologies, stretching the cloud platform from public hyperscale data centers down to low-cost devices running on your network.

Microsoft has been talking about “the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge” for a long time now, with a focus on finding ways around the bandwidth crunch between data sources and data processing in cloud architectures. There’s a certain level of self-interest in this approach, with hyperscale data centers close to cheap power but a long way from metropolitan population densities and relatively cheap bandwidth. If power is cheap and data is expensive, then why not process it close to the source?

SQL Server everywhere

At the heart of much of Microsoft’s cloud platform is its SQL Server database, now grown into a family of databases that work across public and private clouds; at desktop, data center, and hyperscale; and on both Windows and Linux. That family of databases has recently been joined by a new member: . Designed for IoT (Internet of Things) and edge gateway scenarios on Intel and ARM hardware, it’s a small, containerized database that can operate both while connected and disconnected, providing a place to preprocess and stream data that can be developed remotely and delivered and managed from Azure.

Like the rest of the SQL Server family, . You can use it for traditional table-based storage, or instead work with JSON documents, with graph content, or with time-series data. That combination ensures you can use it for many different roles, but with a focus on IoT applications. It’s built on the SQL Server engine so there’s no need to learn new skills; the same techniques and programming tools you use on larger SQL Server instances work just as well on Azure SQL Edge, with T-SQL queries and functions developed elsewhere fully supported.

Azure SQL Edge deployment options

Azure SQL Edge can be deployed in two different ways. If you’re using Azure IoT Edge to deploy and manage IoT applications, you can find it on the Azure Marketplace . If you’re using it on unmanaged systems, then it’s available in a container in Docker Hub and can be or used as part of a Kubernetes container orchestration. This last option is particularly interesting if you’re considering working with one of the edge-focused Kubernetes implementations, such as or .

It’s important to remember that Azure SQL Edge is a variant of , and its container’s base operating system is Ubuntu 18.04. To get support, any host will need to run either 18.04 or 20.04 LTS releases of Ubuntu (so you can build and test applications on any Windows 10 PC running Windows Subsystem for Linux). You can use other Linux hosts or even the Windows version of Docker, but they won’t be tested and may not have all the services and applications needed to run your database.

as part of the initial configuration process to use external tools.

Much of Azure SQL Edge is designed to support traditional database operations; there’s additional support for basic stream analytics to work with real-time data from devices. You can use this to build applications that filter data before uploading to a central processing application in Azure, or as a feed into machine-learning applications that work with models developed on Azure or development PCs (Open Neural Network Exchange).

, so you won’t have access to other parts of the platform, like Analysis or Reporting Services or most of its Machine Learning tools. In practice that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, as those features work best either on interactive systems or with the horsepower necessary for building and training models with large data sets. Using ONNX for inferencing on the edge allows you to deliver pretrained models, ready to filter data or flag exceptions for further analysis.

Although Azure SQL Edge can operate with a direct connection to Azure SQL instances in the cloud, it’s designed to function as a stand-alone database on disconnected, low-power systems. With that in mind, you should build applications that don’t rely on connected features such as stretch databases or memory-intensive tools like OLTP, as they’re not part of the Azure SQL Edge build.

, with reductions for one-year and three-year reserved instances that can bring it down to $60 per device per year.

Even though the price for Azure SQL Edge is relatively low, you do need to compare it with open source alternatives that can interoperate with cloud databases. It has an advantage if you’re already building SQL Server applications as part of an IoT strategy, if you need to take some of their functionality to the edge in order to manage bandwidth costs, or if you need to operate in a partially connected mode, leaving edge hardware operating autonomously for much of the time.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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