Deprecated SQL Server Data Access Technologies

I hope the warning excerpt below from the SQL Server Books Online is not a surprise to you (emphasis mine):

Warning:
SQL Server Native Client (SNAC) is not supported beyond SQL Server 2012
. Avoid using SNAC in new development work, and plan to modify applications that currently use it. The Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server provides native connectivity from Windows to Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Azure SQL Database.

Let me first mention that the Books Online should have made it clear that this warning applies only to SNAC data access by applications. The warning does not apply to Microsoft SQL Server features and products that use SNAC as part of the OLE DB stack, like Linked Servers, SSIS, and SSAS. Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Native Client is still installed and used as a component dependency to support these features in SQL Server 2014 and later versions, although that may change in the future.

More concerning is OLE DB in general. Even before SQL Server 2012 was released, Microsoft announced in August, 2011 that ODBC was the preferred technology for relational database access and that OLE DB was deprecated. Below is an excerpt from the Microsoft is Aligning with ODBC for Native Relational Data Access FAQ which should be alarming to folks who continue to use Microsoft OLE DB providers to access SQL Server 2014 and later databases (note Denali is the code name for SQL Server 2012 and, again, emphasis mine):

Question6: If I have an OLE DB application that I write for Denali, will it be supported on a post Denali version of SQL Server that is released during the life of Denali?

Answer: No, in fact we may explicitly block the OLE DB applications on post-Denali versions of SQL Server. It is recommended that you plan your migration soon to ODBC, if you want to start using newer versions of SQL Server as soon as they release.

The explicit block of OLE DB data access has yet not happened (as of this writing) but I think it’s prudent to heed the announcement and warning, at least for applications that currently use SQL Server 2014 and later versions as well as SQL Azure Database, or may need to use newer SQL versions in the future. Microsoft has a history of going out of their way to provide backwards compatibility in the SQL Server space but it’s been 3 SQL Server versions (soon to be 4 versions) since the deprecation announcement.

The bottom line is that native Windows applications (e.g. unmanaged C++, VB6, VBA, Classic ASP, etc.) should generally use ODBC and the latest Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server. This stand-alone ODBC driver is a free download from https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/sql/connect/odbc/download-odbc-driver-for-sql-server. Not only should SNAC not be used against SQL Server 2014 and later versions, the deprecated SQL Server OLE DB provider and ODBC driver that ship with Windows should also be avoided. This practice will facilitate more seamless upgrades to new versions of SQL Server and Azure SQL Database.

Preparing for the Future
The message is loud and clear that ODBC is the supported and preferred path for native applications going forward. The Data Access Technologies Road Map provides an overview and history of Microsoft data access technologies, which I recommend you peruse to ensure you are not inadvertently using deprecated or unsupported technologies for new development and, for existing applications, consider moving from legacy data access technologies to current ones when practical.

The current Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server as of this writing is ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server. Note that that both the 13.0 and 13.1 versions of this driver have the same “ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server” display name listed under installed programs and ODBC Data Source Administrator. If installed, the driver will be listed under installed programs along with the corresponding driver version (when viewed detail mode). The 13.1 version adds support for the Always Encrypted feature. These ODBC Drivers are available from the link I mentioned earlier.

The remainder of this article reviews common data access technologies for native (unmanaged) Windows applications that are explicitly identified as unsupported, deprecated, or may have a limited future along with remediation considerations. This isn’t to say these technologies won’t work, just that using them may block upgrades to new versions of SQL Server and Azure SQL Database as well as prohibit using new SQL Server features. Applications that are aligned with current technologies are much better positioned for seamless SQL Server upgrades, both on-prem and in the cloud.

Deprecated Windows Data Access Components
Windows Data Access Components (WDAC), which was formally known as Microsoft Data Access Components (MDAC) in older Windows versions, is included with Windows to provide data access infrastructure for ODBC, OLE DB, ADO Classic, and managed ADO.NET out-of-the box. WDAC includes a mix of deprecated, mature, and modern components. WDAC is part of the operating system and maintained by Windows Update.

Both the SQL Server ODBC driver and OLE DB provider included with WDAC are deprecated; these are provided only for legacy application backwards compatibility and should not be used for new application development. The WDAC ODBC driver named “SQL Server” and OLE DB provider named “Microsoft OLE DB Provider for SQL Server” (SQLOLEDB) were both deprecated in favor of SQL Server Native Client when SQL Server 2005 was released for over 10 years ago. Not only do these old components not support new data types introduced after SQL Server 2000 directly, newer features like Availability Groups, MARS, Always Encrypted, and idle connection resiliency are not supported either. Native applications should install and use a separately installed SQL Server driver rather instead of the WDAC “SQL Server ODBC driver, SQLOLEDB provider, or SNAC ODBC driver/OLE DB provider.

WDAC also includes the Microsoft OLE DB Provider for ODBC Drivers (MSDASQL), which acts as a bridge to allow OLE DB applications to use an ODBC driver instead of an OLE DB provider for low-level data access. The main purpose of MSDASQL was to allow OLE DB programs to access RDBMS products other than SQL Server that had an ODBC driver but no OLE DB provider, with the expectation that vendors would eventually jump on the OLE DB bandwagon. However, that didn’t happen widely because OLE DB relies on Windows-only COM interfaces and many vendors preferred to support only ODBC interfaces. Microsoft recognized the value of ODBC for cross-platform SQL Server data access, which is one of the reasons called out for OLE DB deprecation. Although MSDASQL is an OLE DB provider, it is not deprecated for SQL Server relational data access because it uses ODBC to access the data store. MSDASQL can facilitate transitioning to ODBC in existing OLE DB applications. I’ll discuss this in more detail shortly.

ADO (ActiveX Data Objects, not to be confused with ADO.NET) components are included with WDAC. Although not deprecated, ADO a mature OLE DB technology that hasn’t been enhanced since ADO 6.0 was released with WDAC in Windows Vista over 10 years ago. ADO types do not directly support data types introduced after SQL Server 2000, regardless of the underlying provider/driver used. I’ll leave speculation on the future of ADO as an exercise for the reader.

Changing Existing ODBC Applications
Changing an existing ODBC application (ADO or direct ODBC function calls) to use the Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server is often simply a matter of installing the driver and changing the connection string or DSN to use it. Unmanaged C++ applications that use the ODBC call level interface directly may need to be recompiled using the header files included with the SDK install of the ODBC driver. It’s often trivial to switch from SNAC or the WDAC SQL Server ODBC driver. Application testing should be done to ensure compatibility but ODBC driver upgrades are usually transparent.

Changing from OLE DB to ODBC in ADO Classic
There is still quite a bit of OLE DB SQL Server access in the wild in my experience, varying from C++, VBA, Classic ASP, and even in VB.NET apps migrated from VB6 that were never retrofitted to use to SqlClient (which should be done as it provides high-performance managed data access for .NET applications). From unmanaged code, ADO provides an easy to use object-oriented COM interface on top of the 100+ complex OLE DB interfaces. Low-level data access is performed by the OLE DB provider specified in the connection string or connection object. MSDASQL (Microsoft OLE DB Provider for ODBC Drivers) is the default provider in ADO so ODBC is used when no OLE DB provider is specified. When MSDASQL is used explicitly or by default, the connection string must specify either a DSN or ODBC driver.

Below are DSN-less ADO ODBC connection string examples that use the Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server with and without a trusted connection. “Provider=MSDASQL” could have been specified in the connection string but is not technically required since it’s the default provider:

DataSource=YourServer;Driver={ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server};Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=Yes
DataSource=YourServer;Driver={ODBC Driver 13 for SQL Server};Database=YourDatabase;Trusted_Connection=Yes;UID=YourUser;PWD=YourPassword

The examples below use an ODBC DSN with the default database specified in the DSN configuration. The first uses Integrated Windows authentication (specified in the DSN configuration) and the second example is functionally identical except using SQL Server authentication. Be aware that the Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server does not store user credentials in the DSN configuration so those must be specified by the application:

DSN=YourOdbcDataSource
DSN=YourOdbcDataSource;UID=YourUser;PWD=YourPassword

ADO applications use a handful of objects to interact with SQL Server (mostly connection, command, recordset, record, transaction, parameter, and field objects). These objects abstract the implementation details such that it is possible to use ADO with any DBMS product, OLE DB provider, or ODBC driver as long as the low-level driver/provider supports the requested functionality. One can theoretically transition from OLE DB to ODBC with only a connection string change. However, the devil is in the details when switching from OLE DB to ODBC via MSDASQL.

MSDASQL converts OLE DB method calls into their equivalent ODBC function calls. Commonly used fast-forward read-only client-side cursors (a.k.a. firehose cursor, same as the only type ADO.NET uses) tend to work well in my experience. However, ADO provides a plethora of options for cursor location, execution, cursor types, and locking modes that ADO and MSDASQL may or may not translate well to ODBC equivalents. If you run into problems during testing with ODBC, make sure the requested ADO options are appropriate for the task at hand. It is common for ADO applications to use advanced options and pessimistic locking inappropriately. A firehose cursor with optimistic locking is often best for the task at hand and will perform better too.

Like ADO, MSDASQL is a mature technology that hasn’t gotten much love lately. I could be wrong but I don’t expect patches that are not security related. If you run into issues with MSDASQL, you may be better off developing a work-around rather than wait for a fix.

Changing OLE DB Interface Calls to ODBC
C++ applications that use OLE DB interfaces directly rather than the higher-level ADO API can be converted to ODBC by using the MSDASQL provider similarly as discussed in the ADO topic. The same considerations apply.

Note that MSDASQL does add another layer, which may be an issue for applications that are especially performance-sensitive. The best approach for C++ applications that are expected to be around for a while might be to move from OLE DB to ODBC function calls (or via MFC). This will provide the highest level of performance and alignment with ODBC.

Remediation Summary
Inasmuch as I recommend staying aligned with product technology lifecycles, whether or not one should modify an existing application to use currently data access technologies is ultimately a business decision. Business benefits include not only supportability but also agility in making functional enhancements that leverage newer features as well as non-functional ones, such as support for Availability Groups. The costs of the development and testing needed to use the Microsoft ODBC Driver for SQL Server will vary considerably depending on application design. Those costs need to be weighed against the benefits of the effort.

That being said, I always recommend one avoid deprecated technologies in new development work even if that requires moving outside one’s comfort zone. Technical debt is a hidden cost that often needs to be paid back with interest.

p.s. For history buffs, this post by Hal Berenson, retired Microsoft Distinguished Engineer and General Manager, provides additional background on OLE DB and data access technologies.