Structured Query Language (SQL) is a specialised programming language that deals with data definition and manipulation, database management systems and is also the standard programming language dealing with relational data.

The term SQL is used to describe both the programming language and the database server. For example, when people talk about having a SQL system, what they really mean is they have an application backed up by a relational database, usually Microsoft SQL Server (a lot of people refer to this as SQL or “sequel”).

As the most widely used database language, SQL is so prevalent you’re probably unaware of how much it is used in your daily life. For example, when you purchase an item in a store, details of your single purchase will be stored in a multitude of databases providing stock control, business intelligence and data for marketing purposes.

If you want to get technical, relational database management systems (RDBMS) store and retrieve data as requested by other software applications using SQL.

How does it work?

A SQL database is a highly effective tool for delivering data-derived insights rapidly. As it is a structured query language it works on structured data, such as product type and customer location and knows the relationship between these in a system. This means that it can tell you valuable information such as whether hairdressers in Kent are more likely to buy your multi-car insurance than builders in Yorkshire.

A well-designed SQL database system will enhance a business’s knowledge about every aspect of its being through facts, pure and simple. This knowledge allows you to identify and react to emerging trends in your business and marketplace. Products and services that pull in the most revenue can be highlighted at a program command, and correlations between customer types and locations can be drawn to show where profitability lies (thereby minimising market risk).

Why might businesses need it?

In two words: business intelligence (BI). More and more businesses rely on BI software applications to analyse the data from diverse sources such as SQL databases. BI activities include data mining, online analytical processing (OLAP), statistical analysis, forecasting and reporting. In short, BI makes sense of a wealth of information surrounding a business, from its customer details to yearly trends in sales to guide future development and revenue streams.

SQL databases are suitable for the smallest businesses to the large multinationals. One example, Microsoft’s SQL Server 2014, aims to provide business-class data management for a variety of database applications, with an eye to reducing costs, heightened security (including disaster recovery) and reliable uptime in addition to the usual BI-focused software functions.

As an example of the huge amount of data that can be stored in these systems, the Enterprise version of SQL server can manage databases as large as 524 petabytes, or 524 quadrillion bytes – an astounding amount of information. The number of ideas gleaned from something like this is almost limitless, from which improvements to make to a supply chain and having a more complete picture of customer requirements, to increasing a company’s market share through stronger marketing campaigns.

SQL now versus 15 years ago

SQL began life based on algebra and calculus and was one of the first commercial languages used in database management in the 1970s. Fifteen years ago SQL Server 2000 began managing XML data as well as relational data, using special indexing methods and extending the language of SQL itself to perform new functions.

Some developers herald SQL as the future of databases. SQL’s popularity doesn’t show any sign of waning. Both SQL and NoSQL databases have their place in modern information systems. And with cloud computing making data more accessible and shared software more economical, a natural link between the two has formed.

What’s in store for the future?

Hybrid cloud capabilities mean that SQL servers can be accessed by more people within a business at a reduced price – a boon to businesses with big plans but limited IT budgets. But with both cloud and on-premise SQL servers, data management can grow alongside a business. Some companies won’t want to suddenly adopt this way of working but you can be sure that many businesses just starting out or still small enough to make the leap will want what a SQL database has to offer – the power of data, neatly organised and ready for the next step in professional development.

See our other posts in the Tech 101 series

Tech 101: What is Software?

Tech 101: What is Open Source Software?

Tech 101: What is Programming?

Tech 101: What is .NET?

Tech 101: What is SQL?

Tech 101: What is Data Mining?

Tech 101: What is SaaS?

Tech 101: What is Hosted Software?

Tech 101: What is Bespoke Software?