How “free” is Microsoft SQL Server Developer Edition really

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SQL Server
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Since July of this year, Microsoft has been offering the SQL Server 2016 Developer Edition free via the Visual Studio Dev Essentials (VSDE) program. Many organizations will find this an attractive proposition, and in some circumstances, it is. However, there are a number of disadvantages and restrictions making it important to consider very carefully whether taking advantage of the VSDE route makes sense.

Five reasons to take a chance

  1. It is free – although the commercially licensed version of SQL Server is often less expensive that other leading database products anyway, you cannot get it cheaper than for zero cost. While it may only be used for non-operational purposes, the developer edition is still a good way of trying out new functions, testing, training, and so on.
  2. It is fully loaded – it has all the same functions as the licensed SQL Server 2016 Enterprise edition, not a cut down version. This is important if you are using it to build applications that will eventually become real products or services.
  3. It is unlimited – you can deploy any number of copies on an unlimited number of devices, including virtual machines hosted on multitenant infrastructure.
  4. It is easily downgradeable – you can use the license to access SQL Server 2014 Developer Edition, without having to acquire a separate license for it.
  5. It is free – did I mention that already?

Five reasons to skip this option

  1. Usage is restricted – design, development, testing and demonstration of programs using the SQL database engine are all permitted, as long as the user has permanent access to the license owner’s internal network. Therefore, while you could demonstrate an app to a client, you could not let that client play around with it themselves afterwards. Using the license in any other way, such as to support a commercial software installation, would constitute a breach of the license terms.
  2. Microsoft gets access to your data – it is mandatory with any non-commercial installation of SQL Server that all your usage data covering performance, errors, feature use, IP addresses, device identifiers and more, is sent to Microsoft. There are no exceptions. This will likely rule it out for any company that deals with particularly sensitive data.
  3. There is a risk of side effects using SQL Server 2016 Developer Edition instead of the real edition for operational use in the future. Although features are the same, the binaries may differ – who knows? This is unavoidable, so thorough final testing is essential to ensure you can sidestep any potential conflicts.
  4. No other licenses are included – just because you are licensed to use SQL Server, does not mean you are licensed to run the operating system or any other software running underneath or alongside it. So unless you only need it for a short period, in which case you could potentially use a free trial version of an OS like Windows Server or Windows 10, you need to make sure you have commercial licenses for all the relevant software.
  5. Compliance may be complex – SQL Server 2016 Developer Edition can also be licensed through the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN). This has several advantages, including licensing for the underlying operating system and additional test and development tools such as Visual Studio. However, MSDN requires that all users, including sales people or support staff who access that SQL Servers, possibly need additional licenses. This can make it expensive. Not only that, all the installation files for the VSDE and MSDN routes are identical, so you need to prove which one you have installed. Otherwise, you will not get the benefit of the doubt.


In a nutshell, the reality is that the VSDE route to SQL Server 2016 Developer Edition may only be suitable for a very specific set of circumstances within an organization. If developing applications and services is essential for your business, then eventually the approach of licensing SQL Server through MSDN may be the better choice.

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10 thoughts on “How “free” is Microsoft SQL Server Developer Edition really”

  • Brett Allen says:

    “Microsoft gets access to your data – it is mandatory with any non-commercial installation of SQL Server … This will likely rule it out for any company that deals with particularly sensitive data.”

    This sounds misleading.

    Them collecting telemetry data, is not them taking copies of your whole database.

    I’d assume you mean if a crash occurs and you have sensitive data in memory which gets sent along with the report, that could be an issue.

    But the way you phrase it, makes it sound like they get a copy of your database.

  • Torsten Boch says:


    Thank you for leaving your comment. You are right – it’s not about data stored in the database. However, from a compliance point of view it’s important to be aware of the fact, that your SQL Server deployment is not “private”.

  • Michael Ferrante says:

    Not sure about the conclusions under “1. Usage is Restricted”. The actual license agreement from the SQL Server 2016 Developer Edition states:
    a. General. You may install and use copies of the software on any device, including third party shared devices, to design, develop, test and demonstrate your programs. You may not use the software on a device or server in a production environment.
    b. Demonstration. Any person that has access to your internal network may install and use copies of the software to demonstrate use of your programs with the software. Those copies may not be used for any other purpose.
    c. User Testing. Your end users may access the software to perform acceptance tests on your programs.

    I think “c. User Testing” may cover the case when end users might be doing acceptance test on software and not have access to internal network.

  • Karel Moijson says:

    Hi Torsten, can you provide a link or source please concerning the usage data access etc.? I agree with you that this is a show stopper in e.g. banking industry, but would like to verify in detail…

  • Andrew B Brown says:

    The developer version encourages more people to become trained in SQL Server.

    It works great for consultants who need to have a full development platform, and sells their software & services to companies.

  • Neil Knapp says:

    To substantiate the slightly alarmist statement of “Microsoft gets access to your data” I did some digging and found the following resources from Microsoft.

    “Note You can disable the sending of information to Microsoft only in paid versions of SQL Server. You cannot disable this functionality in Developer, Enterprise Evaluation, and Express editions of SQL Server 2016.”

    Their privacy policy with details of what data is collected and under what circumstances is available here:

    As highlighted by another comment it seems a memory dump with sensitive data is the biggest risk, I haven’t reviewed the policy in depth but it generally seems to be operational statistics.


  • Rafa says:

    According with

    there is not datacollection as is described in this post.

  • Torsten Boch says:

    Hi Karel. Sorry for the delay, since I was out-of-duty for a couple of weeks. The post is primarly based on analysis done by DirectionsOnMicrosoft. While this is paid content, I’m not allowed to share it.

  • Juliano Soares says:

    Hey Torsten, how’s it going?

    Thank you for this article.
    I just have a question: do you have your source of information for this affirmation in “the reason” 2? About privacy?

    I was reading about in Microsoft privacy terms but I got nothing.

    I’m just asking because I’m trying to convince someone to not use it because the complexity for management is considerable.

    Thank you.

  • Torsten Boch says:

    Hi Juliano. The post is primarly based on analysis done by DirectionsOnMicrosoft. While this is paid content, I’m not allowed to share it.