Microsoft SQL Server (or MS SQL) is a relational database management system. Applications using Windows technologies — such as .NET — are ideally suited for pairing with an MS SQL database. Only a minority of web hosts offer Windows hosting, and not all of these are good choices.
Look for comprehensive Windows hosting packages with servers running the latest version of Internet Information Services (IIS). You’ll also want technical support that provides Windows server expertise.
Below, we discuss MS SQL hosting in depth. Here are our picks for the top 5 hosts:
– Inexpensive Windows hosting plans with MS SQL Server
We short-listed web hosts that specialize (rather than dabbling) in Windows hosting, provide an ideal server environment, offer expert support, SSDs for speed, and daily backups.
Then we cross-referenced these hosts with our database of thousands of expert and user reviews.
How to Choose the Right Host for MS SQL
Most hosts do not support MS SQL. In a sense, this makes finding a host easier because there aren’t as many of them. But you still want to get the best host for your purposes. This is what this article is for: to help you choose the right host.
What Is MS SQL?
MS SQL is Microsoft’s database management application, built using the Structured Query Language (SQL). This versatile, powerful application enables you to create, manage and access databases on both local and remote machines to serve multimedia content, organize customer information, and create personalized content for visitors to your site.
MS SQL home page screenshot via WhoIsHostingThis
Whether your hosting provider offers Linux-based or Windows-driven servers, chances are you’re going to need access to a database management program built around the Structured Query Language (SQL). Creating and managing databases is an essential part of many Web applications, including e-commerce, interactive games, and content management systems (CMS) like WordPress. SQL isn’t generally a primary factor in choosing a host, but it can be an important factor in the specific plan you select.
For Windows-driven servers, the most popular SQL solution is MS SQL (also known as “SQL Server”), Microsoft’s proprietary database management application.
Designed and optimized to work seamlessly with the company’s .NET framework and ASP.NET (in this context, “ASP” stands for Active Server Pages, Microsoft’s script engine for designing dynamic Web content), MS SQL is a key part of application development for Windows environments.
It also boasts very high compatibility with Web 2.0 solutions from industry leaders like HP, Dell, and SAP. And like other SQL applications, MS SQL also provides enhanced security for databases; an important feature when you are transporting sensitive data like customer credit card numbers or activation codes.
Unlike open-source solutions, MS SQL is backed by the extensive Microsoft support system, and its power and standardization have made it a leader in enterprise-level database management and application development.
Whether you’re building a blog or supporting a fully-featured online storefront, if your site and staff require support for Windows and Windows-based applications, MS SQL may be your best bet.
One caveat: the software is not free, and may require the purchase of a license, although many providers include both support and licensing for MS SQL in their Windows hosting plans.
Add in the fact that Windows hosting remains slightly more expensive than Linux-based hosting, and you could find yourself paying moderately more than you would for a comparable level of hosting on a Linux server. Double-check with your host for full details.
Microsoft SQL Server
Microsoft SQL Server (MS SQL) is likely the database you’ll use if you choose Windows web hosting.
MS SQL uses the same Structured Query Language (SQL) that alternative solutions, such as MySQL, also use. Switching between the two is simple providing you have a reasonable command of Windows server management.
Microsoft SQL Server has been in development since 1989 when it was released for the OS/2 operating system.
OS/2 and MS SQL
OS/2 was developed by IBM and Microsoft in tandem at first, and IBM eventually took it over. Later, Microsoft purchased the SQL Server solution from Sybase and continued to develop it for its own product family, starting from Windows NT onwards.
MS SQL Evolution
SQL Server has been continually evolving for almost a decade. The 2005 version of SQL Server was notable for supporting eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and Common Language Runtime (CLR), allowing MS SQL Server to integrate with Microsoft’s .NET framework and greatly expanding its potential audience.
The 2005 version also included SQL Server Management Studio, a graphical tool which made management much easier. Media support was added in the 2008 release, and this was critical for its use on the web.
MS SQL Versions
MS SQL exists in several versions concurrently, so it is never automatically phased out when a new iteration is released. MS SQL can therefore be installed on single-user computers, dedicated servers or entire datacenters, since there is a version suitable for most purposes.
The Enterprise edition of SQL Server 2017 is designed to support massive organizations and can handle database sizes up to 524 petabytes (549,453,824 gigabytes), utilizing all available server memory and physical processors.
SQL Server 2017 is the first version that officially works under Linux. It can run in Docker containers, allowing its use in self-contained, containerized installations.
A “container” is similar to a virtual machine but more lightweight. All versions use the same code base, so there should be few compatibility problems between operating systems. SQL Servers 2016 and 2017 add numerous security features.
SQL Server Express
SQL Server Express is a limited version that’s available for free.
Microsoft doesn’t license it for shared hosting, but it can work with dedicated or virtual private servers that have limited database requirements.
It’s often embedded into applications. It’s not a good choice when multiple processes need to access the database.
The Microsoft Access database is strictly for desktop use, and you aren’t likely to find it on a hosting service.
Web Hosting With Windows
If you need a Windows server to host your website, you’ll probably also need support for an MS SQL database. The two go together, and key Windows technologies like ASP require both parts in order to function.
While it is possible to run the open-source alternative, MySQL, on Windows, it’s not conventional (and your host may not offer unconventional set-ups). The latest MS SQL version runs on Linux, though a Linux installation doesn’t offer the advantages of ASP.NET integration.
Microsoft also now provides Azure SQL, its database as a service solution that provides scalable resource in the cloud. This is provisioned on a typical cloud pricing model, where resource is closely metered and users are billed for each hour of resource usage.
Azure SQL is different from SQL Server on Azure. Both provide databases as a cloud service. Azure SQL is designed for teams that are managing multiple databases and want to minimize the administrative work. SQL Server works basically the same on Azure as in other configurations, so migration from a dedicated server isn’t hard.
Watch Out for Cloud Costs
Like all cloud technologies,care needs to be taken to control cost. While the cloud sounds appealing, an always-on application can quickly hog resources in the cloud, and this can result in much higher bills than an on-premise solution.
Microsoft points out that a virtual machine with MS SQL Server installed is a perfectly valid alternative to Azure SQL, particularly if you want a fast and easy move to the cloud without the worry of per-hour billing. SQL Server on Azure is licensed rather than being charged as a service, but you have to pay for Azure storage costs.
MS SQL vs MySQL: Which Is Better for You?
Sometimes, the choice of MS SQL or MySQL is made for you. If you want to run a particular application, there’s only one way to go, and you’ll have to live with the one that’s prescribed. As mentioned above, it’s best to stick with MS SQL on Windows and MySQL on Linux for a trouble-free approach.
But MS SQL and MySQL are not directly equivalent, and they are not necessarily equal. Anyone developing from scratch must understand their limitations and individual pros and cons:
MySQL is an open source technology, while MS SQL is not open source
This means MySQL uses several storage engines while MS SQL only uses one: Microsoft’s own
The SQL language differs in many small ways between MySQL and MS SQL
MS SQL has a graphical interface which is relatively easy to use if you’re competent in Windows Server tools and utilities
Microsoft has placed security at the core of MS SQL, while MySQL does not offer the same extensive security features
MS SQL is more fully featured
Given the right hardware, MS SQL is potentially better for enterprise customers who have invested heavily in Windows servers and infrastructure
Microsoft software is always designed to integrate, sof you’re developing on Windows, it makes sense to stick with MS SQL long term
MySQL is usually free or very cheap for a host to implement, and this saving normally gets passed on to customers in the form of cheaper hosting for their websites
MS SQL is designed to scale to truly massive applications.
Extending MS SQL: MS SQL is designed to be used with a variety of services, including replication tools, OLAP support and Visual Studio.
MS SQL vs Other SQL databases
There are many other databases, and we will just touch on a few here. But these are the most popular.
The Oracle database is widely used by large organizations. It’s extremely powerful and correspondingly expensive and complicated to manage. Few web hosting providers offer it.
PostgreSQL is a free, open-source database that occupies a niche similar to MySQL. Its main distinctions are that it supports structured database objects and sticks very close to the ISO SQL standard. It’s a widely available hosting option.
SQLite claims to be the world’s most widely used database engine. However, it’s not a separate database engine, but a code library which is built into applications. The database is private to the application. You may encounter hosted applications which use it, but there’s really no such thing as “SQLite hosting.”
Choosing an SQL Server Host
You should ask several questions before you commit to an MS SQL host:
What version of Windows and MS SQL are they running?
What kind of management tools do they have? Are they running the SQL Server Management Studio?
Do they have the SQL Server Analysis Services available?
Are Windows servers part of their core business or are they an afterthought?
How knowledgeable are staff about Microsoft products?
Get a Recent Version
A good MS SQL hosting company will run a recent version and have good support for it.
SQL Server 2008 still works, but it’s not an ideal choice. The newest versions have the most SQL database features and best performance.
SQL Server Management Studio Should Be Available
For ease of management, the host should make SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS) available as the database’s control panel.
You should look for SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) as well, to track the server database’s activity and performance.
MS SQL Should Be Important to the Host
Choose a web host that treats Windows servers as an important part of its business. The support staff should be knowledgeable about Microsoft products.
If it mentions them just as an afterthought, be cautious.
My Top 3 MS SQL Hosting Providers
No two hosts are the same. Some are better in one area and others are better in a different area. But to make your choice easier, here are my three favorite hosts for MS SQL.
A2 Hosting MS SQL screenshot via WhoIsHostingThis
A2 Hosting makes Windows servers a big part of its business, with the Plesk control panel to manage all aspects of a site.
Their shared hosting plans are available, with SQL Server 2016. VPS and reseller hosting are also available with Windows.
The Turbo Server option gives super-fast speed with SSD storage and fewer users per server. It’s not the least expensive host company around, but it gives good value.
HostGator MS SQL screenshot via WhoIsHostingThis
HostGator lies on the inexpensive but reliable end. Its Windows web site hosting plans include the Plesk control panel, IIS, and ASP.NET.
Their servers still run SQL Server 2008 R2, which is a minus. On the positive side, you get unlimited subdomains and email accounts. Support is available by phone, email, or chat 24 hours a day.
LiquidWeb MS SQL screenshot via WhoIsHostingThis
LiquidWeb specializes in fully managed hosting plans, and the cost is substantial. It makes the MS SQL database available as a cloud service, so you can use it from either a Linux or a Windows platform. The service is designed for high availability, with multiple hardware nodes, and backup is included. Windows or Linux is available on dedicated, cloud VPS, and cloud dedicated host plans.
Pros and Cons of MS SQL
All databases have their good and bad sides. Here are the major pros and cons of MS SQL.
Mature product, supported by Microsoft
Complete, reliable implementation of SQL
Fits in to ASP.NET environment.
Not widely available outside Windows hosting
Licensing costs make it more expensive than open-source databases.
Is MS SQL right for you?
When you’re planning a website, the first step is to decide what software will run on the site. You need to choose database management software that works with the site software.
Content Management Systems
Most modern web host services run under a content management system (CMS), which uses a database to hold and update content, user data, and revision history. A CMS may allow a choice of database software or be tied to one product.
A WordPress or Magento site can’t use an SQL Server database. Drupal or Joomla can use it without any problems. Content management systems based on ASP.NET, such as MojoPortal or Kentico, normally use SQL Server.
If the server host provides a drag-and-drop website builder and custom applications, the database will be almost invisible to you. It’s only when you’re choosing your own software that the choice of database really matters.
The Ultimate Question
What are you going to be doing with your website? That will determine if MS SQL is right for you.
MS SQL is Microsoft SQL Server. It’s a database technology produced by Microsoft.
What is an RDBMS?
MS SQL is an RDBMS. RDBMS stands for relational database management system.
An RDBMS is a software application that creates and manages data that is saved in a table format, where all tables are related to other tables – hence the word ‘relational’.
The table structure is sometimes referred to as a relational model. MySQL and MariaDB are also relational databases.
Is Microsoft SQL Server open source?
No. It is closed source, proprietary software that is developed and sold by Microsoft.
Is there a free version of Microsoft SQL Server?
Yes, the Express version is free. However, it’s designed for very small projects. In a business or hosting situation, the free version is usually not powerful enough.
Can I use Microsoft SQL Server on Linux?
Microsoft SQL Server does not support Linux.
Although there are workarounds, such as running SQL Server on Wine, this isn’t a reliable solution and would be risky for a business critical application.
Additionally, newer versions of SQL Server rely on the .NET framework, which is difficult to recreate in a Linux environment.
Can I use Microsoft SQL Server on Mac?
It isn’t officially supported, but third party software does exist.
Why would I use MS SQL instead of another database?
If you’re developing applications on Windows servers, using Windows technologies, MS SQL is probably the most logical database to use.
It is the best option if you need to tightly integrate an application with Windows authentication, and the easiest choice for developing .NET applications.
What are the most popular alternatives to MS SQL?
There are many alternatives to MS SQL, and if you don’t need Windows, a Linux-compatible RDBMS will be cheaper to obtain on a hosting environment.
The most commonly deployed relational database system is MySQL, which is open source.
The vast majority of hosting providers include at least one MySQL database with every hosting account, as part of the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP).
Some developers prefer to use MariaDB, which is also widely supported.
What features does MS SQL have that other databases don’t have?
SQL Server has tight integration with the .NET framework, so if you are working in that environment it just makes sense to use Microsoft for the database as well.
Additionally, SQL Server has a lot of built-in analytical capabilities that allow you to do things in the database which you would otherwise have to do in an application.
What database management tools are available for MS SQL?
SQL Server has a built-in graphical user interface (GUI) called SQL Server Management Studio. This provides all of the features a DBA (database administrator) would need to manage a database in a production environment.
What development tools are available for MS SQL?
Microsoft Visual Studio has built-in support for MS SQL Server. Developers can use it to write queries and debug code. It also includes a visual interface for data designers to graphically create a database schema.
Microsoft also develops an application called the Business Intelligence Development Studio, which is an IDE used for developing data analysis.
Are MySQL workbench and PHPMyAdmin the same as MS SQL?
If you’re developing for Windows, you probably need MS SQL, because it has advanced integration and support for Windows technologies.
If you just want to set up a website, and you aren’t tied to any Windows technologies, then Linux-based alternatives will probably work just as well.
Is MS SQL more secure than MySQL?
MS SQL does offer better security features, but it’s important to note that MySQL is secure too.
MS SQL provides more granular control over what a user can access. In most applications, this doesn’t matter.
Typically, especially in normal web apps, the only meaningful user is the application itself. There’s no need to create multiple users with specific access restrictions.
However, in certain Enterprise-level systems (such as a central database for a large company, which is accessed by a number of internal but independently developed programs), this level of control is critical.
Is MS SQL a good choice for a new CMS?
Probably not. Content management systems are relatively easy to create, and MS SQL could be overkill in that situation.
Additionally, if you are hoping that other people will use your CMS, it is probably better to use something that has more cross-platform support, like MySQL.
Do all hosts offer support for MS SQL?
No. Many hosts don’t support Windows hosting at all, and those that do can offer very different versions of Microsoft software applications. Check the fine print carefully before you sign up to your plan.
Gary McGath spent years as a software developer before turning to writing. In addition to writing many articles on technology, he's the author of two crowdfunded e-books. His tech passions include data security and digital preservation.