Both Microsoft SQL Server (MSSQL) and PostgreSQL are popular, enterprise-scalable relational database management systems (RDBMS), commonly and inaccurately called databases out of simplicity. They are both competent tools for managing your business data but differ in structure, support, and features. So, how can you decide which is best for your system?
Here, we will compare the two database giants to help guide you, but before you leap into changing your business system core data infrastructure, it is important to understand your business expectations, your team expertise, and cross-system compatibility. If your business already runs several database instances of one type, then there would need to be good reasons to break the mold and introduce another product for your team to manage and support.
CAUTION! PostgreSQL is open-source software, which is a big attraction for businesses on a budget – don’t let it be your one and only guiding factor.
This is the most obvious difference between the two systems for most budget controllers. The PostgreSQL license is simple; the bottom line is that it is free for everyone, forever. That is tough to beat!
MSSQL Licensing is complex and often misunderstood, leading to businesses running under incorrect licenses. An audit after you have committed to a solution is not the time to find out that you are under-licensed. Most applications will need to use MSSQL Standard Edition. If your data is used in web applications with public access or thousands of internal users, then you will need the per-core license, NOT the seemingly inexpensive CAL license. There is a minimum of 4 licensed cores on any one machine, and licenses are sold in 2 core packs at a list price of $3,954 USD for each pack at the time of writing (that is a minimum of $7,908 for a server). The fully featured Enterprise Edition is roughly four times the cost of Standard, and you would probably want to purchase Service Assurance for maximum benefits. That said, the free SQL Express Edition is a very capable small-scale solution for less intensive requirements.
Read on to understand why you might consider paying for a database vs taking the free option.
Product support lifecycle
PostgreSQL is an open-source project, and they have historically supported major releases for five years after the initial release. The most recent version is 16.2, which is supported until Nov 9th, 2028.
MSSQL follows the Microsoft fixed lifecycle policy. SQL Server 2022 is in mainstream support until Jan 11th, 2028, and extended support until Jan 11th, 2033. Historically, Microsoft has offered an extra three years of Extended Security Updates beyond the end of extended support.
The definition of support vastly differs between PostgreSQL and Microsoft, but you will only get critical and important security fixes for up to 5 years with PostgreSQL, making MSSQL a better, longer-term option.
Needless to say, the support with a paid license is much more comprehensive than community support for open-source.
Ease of use
PostgreSQL is a Linux-first solution but can also be installed on Windows. Most documentation and community support is Linux-based, so your technical support will need to understand both Linux and Windows to develop and apply solutions. Maintenance typically involves command line instructions and file manipulation, but GUI tools are available to assist with this.
MSSQL is a Windows-first solution that can be installed on Linux since version 2017. Most MSSQL administrators will use Management Studio (SSMS) to manage the database. Installation and configuration tools are also GUI-based, making MSSQL much easier to support.
The PostgreSQL project relies on other projects (many also open-source) to extend the features and capabilities. The support of the required extensions should also be considered when choosing your database. Not knowing what you need at the outset will make a balanced decision difficult. That said, there are thousands of add-ons to be found in the PostgreSQL community.
MSSQL is much more feature-rich out-of-the-box and has included reporting services (SSRS), analytical services (SSAS), and integration services (SSIS) since version 2005. Interaction with other Microsoft products is built in, and it offers easy patterns for hybrid cloud architecture. It is unlikely that you will be required to extend your MSSQL, but there are partner solutions available for specific use cases.
MSSQL supports geospatial data out-of-the-box, simplifying the support and management of a spatial data system.
PostgreSQL requires the PostGIS extension to manage spatial data effectively and provides advanced spatial functions and support for a wider range of spatial data formats. Unsurprisingly, since it was designed for this specific purpose, PostGIS outperforms the more generic MSSQL for geoprocessing.
Be sure to check compatibility when choosing PostgreSQL and PostGIS versions. Your choices will affect the product lifecycle. Note that certain spatial features also depend on GEOS, SFCGAL, GDAL, PROJ, protobuf-c, and json-c.
Your business may require compliance with certain standards such as HIPAA, FERPA, GLBA, PCI DSS, or SOX.
Compliance with SQL Server can be achieved through out-of-the-box features.
PostgreSQL relies on extensions to achieve compliance, which is complex to achieve on a low budget. That said, there are plenty of hosted versions of PostgreSQL that can achieve compliance for you at additional cost.
Cost of Ownership
License costs tend to be the lead selling point of a PostgreSQL solution, but there is much more to consider in the total cost of ownership.
- What skills do you have in-house or through current partners? Choosing a Linux platform with PostgreSQL in a primarily Microsoft-supported environment may need additional resources or training.
- Does your data already exist in a database? Migration across database types will be a considerable cost.
- Do you need to integrate with other systems? Controlling user accounts with Active Directory (or Azure Entra), for example, is much easier with SQL Server.
- Custom development requires different tools and skills for different database types. SQL written for SQL Server may not work in PostgreSQL or vice-versa. Consider any reporting platforms, even spreadsheets, that query your data.
SQL Server is a generic, feature-rich database that is suitable for most business scenarios. It is easy to manage and maintain with a long support lifecycle provided by the vendor. SQL Server is relatively easy to forecast costs and upgrade policies for the long term.
PostgreSQL has a generic core suitable for many solutions and can be extended to become the perfect match for specific roles. Management and maintenance rely more on extensions and specific skills with support from the community or third parties. The five-year lifecycle and the compatibility of extensions make long-term planning more complex.
Our recommendation is to consider what is the most compatible for your business and the support available to you. In most scenarios, the cost of managing PostgreSQL in a primarily Microsoft business will outweigh the cost of the MSSQL licenses. Take time to calculate your total cost of ownership balanced with the features you need.