Once you identify the need for a SQL Server installation, the next series of questions are usually around which version should you install. This has a major impact on server requirements, cost of licenses, features available after installation, and limitations imposed by the version selected. In this article from Grant Fritchey we get some additional details on which versions are available.
SQL Server Developer’s Edition
If you’re just getting started with SQL Server, SQL Server Developer Edition should be your first stop. With the release of SQL Server 2016 two weeks ago, this edition is now free. You should immediately go and download your own copy. You want to get this because it is everything that is available within SQL Server, all the way up to Enterprise Edition. It’s just licensed for development. If you want to learn about any aspect of SQL Server, start here. If you’re developing against any set of functionality within SQL Server, start here. If you need to support different parts of a SQL Server infrastructure, you start here. Prior to 2016, the Developer’s Edition was only $50-$60, and even then, I would have recommended it over free versions of the product. Now, with Developer Edition being completely free, there’s literally no excuse to not use this to get started learning SQL Server.
SQL Server Express
Assuming you’re just building out your first databases and your first server instances, you may be starting off very small, with only a few users and very little data. SQL Server Express allows you to grow your database up to 10gb, in a production environment (production and development are where licensing and costs differ wildly). This provides a mechanism for you to ensure that you really need SQL Server and all that it offers before you go into a full production installation and all that entails. If you’re only ever going to be very small, this offers a no-cost way to have a professional level database, despite the size. There are additional limitations in what Express supports and you can read about them at the link. It’s just a great way to help get you started.
Azure SQL Database
Here we begin to explore the paid versions of SQL Server. If you’re just getting started and you don’t have much experience administering SQL Server, then Azure SQL Database is a great option for you to start. It is a Platform as a Service offering. This means that it’s not a full instance of SQL Server like everything else listed here. Unlike everything else listed here, it’s not a full instance of SQL Server and that can be a good thing. Backups are managed for you as are a whole slew of other server-level settings, maintenance, etc. The cost model is completely based on what you need to store and how much activity you’re going to generate. You can start very small, and then grow as needed, only paying for what you use. This is extremely attractive if you’re just starting out. Further, the capabilities can grow with you as needed including setting up what would otherwise be extremely complicated things like geo-replication.
SQL Server Standard Edition
SQL Server Standard Edition is the workhorse for SQL Server. It does almost everything that most people need. It scales to the size that most people need to scale to. For your standard business and even standard enterprise needs, Standard Edition (note the name) works extremely well. There are limitations on what it can do. However, these limitations are primarily around extreme scale, or high-end behavior. If you’re just getting started, you don’t need to be messing with that kind of stuff.
SQL Server Enterprise Edition
SQL Server Enterprise Edition is the high end. Here is where you need to go to multi-terabytes in size and you have massive transaction loads. You’re looking at very sophisticated availability and disaster recovery. Again, the name gives it away. You’re generally only going to this edition when you’re working at an enterprise level of scale and architecture. Since you’re just getting started, don’t worry about this.