This discussion of building a database using SQL Server and VB.NET may seem "backward" because, although Microsoft offers a very complete set of their free "Express" versions of SQL Server (Especially since they are free!), they're not integrated into a single product like they are in Visual Studio. To make this introduction as simple as it can possibly be, I'm going to use Visual Studio 2010 standard edition and the full SQL Server 2008 R2 (the latest version when this article was written).
What is SQL Server?
The first hurdle to get over is that SQL Server is a product without an interface. Products like Visual Studio, Excel, or even Access, always have an interface. When you start them, you see a nice splash screen that tells you they're starting to run and then an initial screen that tells you what to do next. SQL Server isn't like that. SQL Server is usually started automatically when the computer boots and doesn't display anything. In fact, you have to "connect" before you can use the databases. It's just there waiting, available to do what you need with your databases.
(Technically, SQL Server is "started" as a Windows Service. A Windows Service can't have an interface. To work with SQL Server, you must use a different application, like the SQL Server utility SSMS, which does have an interface.)
You can either download the free version, SQL Server Express, or buy a "Developer" version at less than $50. Read about the differences at About.com's "Databases" site.
Installing SQL Server can be a significant challenge all by itself if you've never done it before. It's generally a multi-step operation with several reboots required and also several places where you have to select from confusing options. The most important software requirements are .NET 3.5 or greater and Windows Installer 3.1. Here's a quick list of the options that will work for you if you're installing SQL Server 2008 R2 on your own computer.
In Feature Selection, you only need these "Instance Features":
- Database Engine Services
- Management Tools (both Basic and Complete)
In the Security section of the install, select "Use the same account for all SQL Server services" and select NT Authority\System from the dropdown for the Account Name.
Click the Add Current User button as the SQL Server administrator.
There are a number of tools that you can use with SQL Server but the one you will use is SQL Server Management Studio, often called just SSMS. If anything can be considered to be a GUI for SQL Server, this is it. If you're using the Developer edition, this will be an option under All Programs, Microsoft SQL Server 2008. If you're not, there is an Express version that can be downloaded. But since we're going for the simplest possible version, we will do all of our work in Visual Studio instead. One word of warning: Visual Studio can't do everything. Inevitably, you will need SSMS at some point to continue to work with SQL Server.