The long-heralded entrance of Microsoft into the master data management (MDM) market has now occurred with its recent release of Master Data Services (MDS ). MDS is now officially part of SQL Server 2008 R2, which was released on April 21st 2010. This means that it is bundled in with SQL Server Enterprise edition and Datacenter edition. The product is based on the acquisition of MDM vendor Stratature, which was a small vendor concentrating on "analytic MDM", known mainly for quite good hierarchy management support. Although MDS has these roots on display, quite a few things have changed.
MDS offers not only the application-level security that Stratature offered, but also integrates with Windows Active Directory and allows object level database security also. One gain is that security privileges can be cascaded in a hierarchy (perhaps a data steward role at the global level has counterparts at the regional and country level, for example). There is the MDM-specific workflow that one would expect e.g. a notification in the case of a piece of master data failing a business rule test (which can also be invoked if certain attributes changed) but there is also now integration with SharePoint, allowing more sophisticated workflow to be developed.
The whole of MDS is API-based, so everything that can be done via the user interface can be done via the API. This has allowed ISVs to begin to build applications on top of MDS. In one early case, Profisee essentially provides a front-end on top of MDS, providing certain additional functionality that is not currently provided out of the box in MDS, such as version comparison. Indeed, early reports from systems integrators suggest that the user interface of MDS is not its best feature, but this does open up opportunities for others.
The SQL Server team have been able to beef up the scalability of the product. For example Stratature used to do validation on a row-wise basis, but MDS has set-wise business rule validation, which can result in an order of magnitude faster performance on this common task. At this stage proper benchmarks are not available, but from what I have heard it seems safe to assume that MDS can cope with a few million master data records of at least moderate complexity. This moderate level of scale means that it is not aiming at the high-end customer data integration applications targeted by some other vendors. This will be a relief to Visionware (a vendor specialising in local government MDM applications), whose MDM hub technology is based on SQL Server and which has "citizen" rather than customer as its main focus. Both Visionware and Microsoft clearly see their technologies as complementary in the foreseeable future.
A major gap in the product offering is the lack of integrated data quality. Microsoft, after all, has acquired Zoomix, yet at this stage a data quality offering is a future plan rather than a current Microsoft product. Given how intertwined data quality is with master data projects, this is rather an omission. I suspect that the fact that MDS was previously to be included with SharePoint rather than SQL Server contributed to this. Now that integration services, MDM and data quality are all in the same organisation then, presumably, better integration will occur. For now it is possible to invoke 3rd party data quality tools via a DLL (this has been tested on Trllium for example) but there is no out of the box support for such integration.
At this stage, although there have been thousands of downloads of the CTP version of MDS, it is too early to say to what extent customers have been putting this to production use rather than just experimenting. However, what is clear is that, given that SQL Server Enterprise edition costs $27,495 the introduction of MDS will begin to apply downwards pricing pressure on the MDM market. At this stage MDS is probably too early in its life to be a full-fledged competitor to some of the more established MDM vendors, but just having it there at a low price point will be used by customers to drive harder bargains. The next 6–12 months will see whether MDS makes it out of technical sandbox to widespread customer adoption.