Are you overpaying for SQL Server licensing?

Burning money

If you use SQL Server, you know there is a significant price difference between the Standard and Enterprise editions. If you have had the Enterprise version for a while, you probably bought it for features not available at the time in the Standard version. But over the past few years, things have changed.

Today’s SQL Server Standard edition can make more sense to your organization with its lower license fee without sacrificing performance, features and availability. Its added functionality and resources, such as the increased number of supported cores, increased maximum memory per instance, database snapshots, table/index partitioning, compression, in-memory OLTP, and Transparent Data Encryption (TDE), make it an attractive alternative to the Enterprise edition.

When combined with third-party solutions that provide efficient replication and integrate with WSFC and SQL Server, SQL Server Standard Edition become a very cost-effective alternative to SQL Server Enterprise Edition, without sacrificing the HA/DR functionality commonly associated only with the SQL Server Enterprise Edition.

Many Features No Longer Limited to the Enterprise Edition

Take a look at the numerous features now available to both SQL Server Standard and the Enterprise editions. Unless you absolutely need resources found only in the Enterprise edition, you should consider the Standard Edition with its lower licensing fees.

More Cores

Since 2012, Microsoft has been applying a core-based licensing model to SQL Server editions. With more cores you have more power under the hood. In SQL Server 2016 Standard Edition, the compute capacity limit was increased to the lesser of 4 sockets / 24 cores. On a physical server running SQL Server, all the cores on the server must be licensed, whether or not your SQL instance requires them. On a VM, you only need to license the logical CPUs allocated to the VM, with a minimum of 4 license units.

As you can see, there is a significant difference in core fees between the Enterprise and Standard editions:

  • SQL Server Enterprise Edition: $7,128 per core
  • SQL Server Standard Edition: $1,859 per core
  • SQL Server Standard Edition Server Licensing $931 plus $209 per named user client access license (CAL)


Prior to Standard 2014, only the Enterprise Edition had up to 128 GB memory per instance. If that is sufficient for your SQL Server transactions, you don’t need the Enterprise edition. But if you need a terabyte of memory, that is a different story.

For example, multi-terabyte databases are common in high-transactional environments such as healthcare, insurance, and consumer retail. They need more memory, read-ahead reads, and "merry-go-round" scans (allowing multiple tasks to share full table scans). They also need online index rebuilds because these users commonly believe, "We should rebuild our indexes every week". If your organization is involved in these processes, you will need the features and larger memory support only available with SQL Server Enterprise edition. Otherwise, if your memory demands don’t exceed 128 GB and you don’t need advanced features like online index rebuilds, you could consider the lower-priced SQL Server Standard edition.

Data Snapshots

Until SQL Server 2017 Standard Edition, only the SQL Server Enterprise editions supported database snapshots. A database snapshot is a read-only, static view of a SQL Server database at the moment of the snapshot's creation and resides on the same server instance as its source database. Using database snapshots with database mirroring makes the data on the mirror server accessible for reporting. However, the size of the snapshot file continues to grow as changes are made to the source database. An alternative storage option for snapshots is block level replication and storage snapshot functionality.

Compression, In-Memory OLTP, and Table Partitioning

In SP1 of SQL Server 2016 Standard Edition, Microsoft offered compression and in-memory OLTP (Online Transaction Process) and table partitioning features previously only available in the Enterprise editions. With these features the Standard edition can handle many of the most demanding workloads.

Transparent Data Encryption (TDE)

With the introduction of SQL Server 2019 both the Standard and Enterprise editions support Transparent Data Encryption (TDE) for encrypting database files.

Edition Differences for HA/DR

The significant differences between Enterprise and Standard Editions in terms of High Availability and Disaster Recovery are:

  • Always On Availability Groups are only included in Enterprise Edition.
  • Basic Availability Groups are available in both Standard and Enterprise Edition but are limited to a single database per AG and a single replica.
  • SQL Server Failover Cluster Instances are available in both Standard and Enterprise Edition, but Standard is limited to a 2-node cluster.

Failover Clustering provides instance-level protection. This means that the entire SQL Server instance is protected, including every user database and all the system databases.

Whereas, Always On Availability Groups provides database level protection just for user-defined databases that are part of an AG. It does not provide protection for system databases.

When choosing between SQL Server Standard Edition and Enterprise Edition you may be surprised to see that Standard Edition is now feature complete enough to meet all your needs. If the only feature you need in Enterprise Edition is Always On AG, you may want to reconsider and use a SQL Server FCI paired with an efficient replication software designed for failover clustering environments. This combination gives you a complete HA/DR solution that works in the cloud, on-prem, or in hybrid cloud scenarios.

Image credit: aremafoto/

Dave Bermingham is the Senior Technical Evangelist at SIOS Technology. He is recognized within the technology community as a high-availability expert and has been honored to be elected a Microsoft MVP for the past 11 years: 6 years as a Cluster MVP and 5 years as a Cloud and Datacenter Management MVP. Dave holds numerous technical certifications

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