Choosing the Correct Edition of Microsoft SQL Server 2012, 2014, 2016

Check out SQL Server's editions

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See notes on SQL Server 2014 and SQL Server 2016 at the end of this article.

Microsoft’s 2012 release of the SQL Server 2012 enterprise database management platform marked a major evolution in this popular product. This new release included major feature enhancements to SQL Server’s business intelligence, auditing and disaster recovery functionality, among other upgrades.

SQL Server 2012 Editions

With the release of SQL Server 2012, Microsoft took steps to simplify the platform’s licensing options by retiring the Datacenter Edition, Workgroup Edition and Small Business Edition previously available for SQL Server 2008 and 2008 R2.

  • SQL Server 2012 Express Edition replaced the Microsoft Data Engine as the free version of SQL Server for application development and lightweight use. It remains free and retains the limitations of MSDE with respect to client connections and performance. It’s a great tool for developing and testing applications and small implementations, but that’s about as far as you can run with it.
  • The workhorse SQL Server 2012 Standard Edition remains the staple of the product line for serious database applications. It can handle up to 16 cores with an unlimited amount of RAM. The major change in licensing from SQL Server 2008 to SQL Server 2012 is that a per core option is now available for the Standard Edition. This means that you have two choices: purchase per core licenses or purchase a server license along with client access licenses.
  • The new SQL Server 2012 Business Intelligence Edition (BI) is designed specifically to support business intelligence applications. It is available only under a server/CAL licensing model with server and client access licenses. (Microsoft no longer produces or sells this version.)
  • SQL Server 2012 Enterprise Edition is designed for mission-critical data center operations and large data warehouses. This edition is being transitioned to a per-core only licensing model. No new server/CAL licenses for this edition will be sold after June 2012. The only licensing option available is per core with a maximum of 20 cores. (Microsoft no longer produces or sells this version.)
  • Developers needing the full features of SQL Server 2012 Enterprise Edition for use in a non-production environment may find SQL Server 2012 Developer Edition the right tool for the job. This product has the exact same functionality as Enterprise Edition and only differs in the license (and it’s much cheaper). Microsoft also offers a direct upgrade path to convert Developer servers to production licensing.
  • SQL Server 2012 Web is a specialized version of SQL Server for use in web hosting environments. This edition is available only to Services Provider License Agreement customers. Contact your Microsoft sales rep for further information if you think you qualify.
  • SQL Server 2012 Compact is a free version of SQL Server for use in embedded environments, such as mobile devices and other Windows systems.

SQL Server Licensing: Per Core or Per Server

If you’re planning to use the standard edition of ​Microsoft SQL Server 2012 in your environment, you have a major choice to make: Should you opt for the per server licensing or the per core licensing? Either way, this is likely to cause a significant increase in your licensing fees. Here’s the rundown.

  • The per core licensing option switches from the earlier model of charging per processor. Many organizations took advantage of this by purchasing multicore processors and a single license. The license price was designed to be the same cost incurred for a four-core processor under SQL Server 2008 R2. If you run four or fewer cores, you see no increase under this model. On the other hand, if you run more than four cores per processor, you see a price increase.
  • The server/CAL licensing option requires a licensing fee per SQL Server. However, you also need to purchase client access licenses (CALs) for each client accessing the database. This is where Microsoft socks you with a major increase. The fee increased 27 percent per CAL.

Later Versions: SQL Server 2014 and SQL Server 2016

Feature-wise, SQL Server 2014 and SQL 2016 offer a richer feature set than 2012. They both tout higher performance, include backup encryption support and have added the option of disaster recovery.

With 2016, Microsoft removed the Business Intelligence edition and folded its features into the Enterprise edition, so that its primary editions are now limited to just Standard and Enterprise. SQL Developer is now a free download as part of Microsoft's Visual Studio Developer Essentials. 

SQL Server 2014 incorporated minor changes in its licensing model in two ways:

  • A free standby license for disaster recovery now requires an upgrade to include Software Assurance, which was not true for SQL Server 2012.
  • Multiplexing rules have been relaxed for the BI edition — multiplexing refers to the practice of pooling connections or rerouting information in order to reduce the number of devices or users that access the product. 

SQL Server 2016 is similar to 2014 with a few changes:

  • With the move of the BI edition to Enterprise, customers need to upgrade to Enterprise through a mix of the CAL or Core licensing.
  • The licensing for cores has been simplified so that physical and virtual cores are now consistent in pricing.

As you can probably tell, you'll need to sit down with a spreadsheet and run some numbers before making your SQL Server licensing decisions. The options you choose may have a significant impact on your overall database license costs and should be considered carefully.