Microsoft's TerraServer Proof Point Still Serving Aerial Data

The TerraServer project that began six years ago as a proof point for the scalability of the then-unreleased SQL Server 7.0 is live and still growing, serving up free aerial images of neighborhoods, stadiums and harbors at half-meter resolution.

Microsoft Research vice president Richard Rashid called attention to the program during remarks at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond this week while talking about some of the projects his team is working on.

"Back in 1998, [Microsoft researcher] Jim [Gray] and his team did something called TerraServer, and we put up initially a terabyte, and now it's close to 20 terabytes of data on the surface," Rashid said.

He used the TerraServer example to provide a dramatic illustration of how much technology miniaturization and other improvements have reduced the footprint and cost of such massive database systems.

"It was originally a system about a quarter of the size of this room with all the disk drives in it. Now the system is dramatically larger, supports more users, and it's actually just two small racks about this high. And it went from being about $2 million worth of hardware to being about $70,000 worth of hardware," Rashid said.

The system relies on aerial imagery from the U.S. Geological Survey. Rashid says the new half-meter resolution data from USGS can actually show people in the images. "You can't really tell who they are, but as we get better data from USGS maybe we'll be able to do that too," he said.

Microsoft rolled out TerraServer to show that its unreleased SQL Server 7.0 would scale to meet the requirements of the largest enterprises. Scalability limitations were a significant knock that Oracle and other competitors used at the time to discourage customers from considering Microsoft's database. TerraServer has since migrated to SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition.

TerraServer is located at

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also working on a newer project with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to provide a free, public database of astronomy images and data. The Web site to access those images and that data is located at

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to remove incorrect references to satellite imagery. The TerraServer data comes from aerial imagery taken from cameras in airplanes.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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