Happy Monday, everyone!

SQL Server 2012 is right around the corner, and it’s a release that is right up my alley in the mission critical space with features like availability groups (AGs) as well as Windows Server Core support. I’m looking forward to its RTM and subsequent release into the world.

However, I keep getting one question over and over from various people so I thought I’d address it to a wider audience. The question is a simple one: Will AGs replace or do away with the need for a clustered instance of SQL Server? If you want the short answer, it’s a resounding NO, but read on if you want to know why I’m saying that. For the record, if you were in doubt, both are branded under the designation marketing gave to the mission critical features of SQL Server 2012: AlwaysOn (with no space). Make no mistake about it: they are two different features with a single marketing designation.

First and foremost, let me say this: because this is going to be a quick, down-and-dirty post, there will be no pictures. I’m breaking one of my rules here, because this topic could use one (or more). Hopefully without the pictures all of this will still make sense.

Availability groups and clustered instances of SQL Server (also known as FCIs) have one thing in common: Windows failover clustering. AGs use Windows failover clustering (WSFC) as an underlying platform for things like the listener and to provide quorum (like the optional Witness configured on an instance did for database mirroring [DBM]). It makes sense – use a standard, well-proven process like WSFC and not reinvent the wheel. The cool thing about availability groups is that you do not have to cluster the instances; you can use standalone instances on servers that are clustered (those servers are also known as nodes).

[Edie and side note – This is the one aspect that seems to confuse folks with AGs: requiring WSFC but not needing an FCI. I hope you now understand why.]

Here’s the main difference: FCIs protect an entire instance of SQL Server, while an AG – just like log shipping or DBM – only protects at the database level. AGs are much better than DBM in terms of what they offer (example: readable replicas), but you still need to worry about things like logins at the instance level, SQL Server Agent jobs, or any other object that is not in the database. With SQL Server 2012 you could use contained databases to solve the login issue, but that won’t be an option for everyone. You need to think about both levels of protection, and there are a ton of other factors which would influence how a final solution is built. I do not want you to think this is going to be a black and white decision.

The bottom line: it depends on what your goals are for availability and/or disaster recovery. One nice thing about FCIs and AGs is that they play well together, unlike FCIs and DBM. That latter combination, depending on what you wanted to do, could work well together but it was never 100% ideal. There are certainly some caveats to the FCI/AG combination, but that’s a whole separate topic I’m not going to even touch here. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea – combining isn’t bad nor impossible, but like anything else, you do need to plan properly to have them work optimally.

I hope this clarifies things. If not, let me know in the comments and I’ll address any questions there or in another blog post.