A Comprehensive Guide to SQL Server Data Tools for 2024


A client tool is required for any SQL Server DBA, Developer, or end-user to connect to SQL Server and utilize its functionalities. This is where  SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) helps you. You can leverage SSDT to create database projects in Visual Studio.

Read this article to know more about Microsoft SQL Server Data Tools and their amazing features. You will also understand the need for SSDT. In addition, you will understand the detailed steps to set up SQL Server Data Tools to make your workflows easy.

Table of Contents

What is Microsoft SQL Server?

SQL Server Data Tools - SQL Server Logo
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Microsoft SQL Server is a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS) used in corporate IT operations to serve a wide range of applications, including Transaction Processing, Business Intelligence, and Analytics. SQL Server, as the name implies, is built on top of SQL, a database management and search language used by database administrators and IT professionals.

Microsoft SQL Server was created in 1989 by Microsoft. It is widely regarded as a top-notch RDBMS for both on-premise and cloud deployments. This enterprise-proven flexible database comes with built-in intelligence that enables organizations to increase performance, availability, and security as needed. It’s compatible with both Windows and Linux systems.

Intelligent query processing changes have been added into SQL Server to improve the query optimizer output and make it more efficient. It supports SQL Server Management Studio, Database Tuning Advisor, SQL Server Profiler, and Business Intelligence tools, among others. It provides online help and support 24/7. SQL Server offers enterprise-level security and support, making it a popular choice among businesses with stringent compliance needs.

What are Microsoft SQL Server Data Tools?

SQL Server Data Tools - SSDT
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Microsoft’s SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) is a Visual Studio development solution for developing SQL Server relational databases. SSDT is a broader term that includes more than simply new database tools. It’s essentially a repackaging of the Business Intelligence Developer Studio (BIDS) product from Visual Studio 2008. In addition to the new database tools, SSDT supports the conventional BIDS project types for SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS), Reporting Services (SSRS), and Integration Services (SSIS). As a result of SSDT, Microsoft has now consolidated all SQL Server database development experiences into a single Visual Studio edition.

The Need for SQL Server Data Tools

As a developer, you might know that database development can be a challenge. It’s a major struggle to get everything right from the proper schema and relational architecture to the complexities of Transact-SQL (T-SQL) as a language, performance optimization, and more. However, there are some specific circumstances where the correct equipment may substantially improve the development process—the way you construct and alter a database. SQL Server Data Tools is the right platform that can help save your day.

SSDT now includes a single environment hosted in Visual Studio, as well as database tools tailored to the development process. As a result, you can now design and construct databases without switching back and forth between Visual Studio and other tools. The tool allows you to concentrate on the design while it takes care of developing the necessary change scripts to securely apply your design to a real-world database.

Key Features of SQL Server Data Tools

SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) effectively merge multiple distinct development features that were previously present in separate tools into a single integrated programming environment.SQL Server Data Tools effectively merges multiple distinct development features that were previously present in separate tools into a single integrated programming environment. Let’s take a glance at the significant features of SQL Server Data Tools.

  • Declarative Schema-Based Database Design: The database schema is the final specification of the database in SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT). The schema itself is version-controlled, making it easier to design and manage numerous database versions. SSDT can build the scripts needed to deploy new database versions automatically, eliminating the need to manually prepare lots of new ALTER scripts for each new version. It can also be used in both connected and disconnected modes.
  • Reverse Engineer Databases: You can either build a new database from scratch or import an existing database and begin making changes to the schema. You can also import the schema of an existing database into SSDT.
  • Schema and Data Comparison: SSDT’s schema and data comparison tools are direct successors of Visual Studio for Database Professionals. This feature allows you to compare the schemas of two databases and display all discrepancies. You can quickly determine the differences between your test and production databases.  It can also develop and run the T-SQL scripts needed to reconcile any differences discovered.
  • Generate XML Reports: SSDT can also be used for all BI development projects, including Integration Services, Analysis Services, and Reporting Services, and is more than simply a relational database development tool. A.dacpac file is generated every time you build the solution (or publish, which triggers a build). It contains all of the information about the database schema. You can create an XML report with all the modifications that will be deployed when a publish is run using the software sqlpackage.exe.
  • Refactor Code: Refactoring is also supported by SSDT. It comes with a restricted range of SQL Refactoring options. When you rename a table, for example, the name of the table in objects referencing the table is likewise changed.
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Steps to Set Up SQL Server Data Tools

Now that you have understood the significance of SQL Server Data Tools, let’s explore the key steps involved to work with SQL Server Data Tools. Follow the detailed steps below to leverage SSDT in your use case:

1) Install SQL Server Data Tools

When installing SQL Server, the first step is to select the appropriate features. If you already have it installed but don’t have these features, you’ll need to reinstall it and add them. To install the Visual Studio 2010 powered client tools, select SQL Server Data Tools and Management Tools during the Feature Selection step of the SQL Server 2012 installation procedure, as shown below.

SQL Server Data Tools - Feature Selection
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To install SQL Server Data Tools, tick the box next to it. SSDT can be launched from the SQL Server 2012 Program Group in the Start menu after installation.

SQL Server Data Tools - Installed
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2) Create a SQL Server Data Tools Project

The SQL Server project makes it possible to create a SQL Server database in an integrated environment that includes typical Visual Studio capabilities like code navigation, validation and debugging that developers are used to. You will leverage the SQL Server project to create and maintain a SQL Server database. To make a new project, follow the steps below:

  • You will be requested to download Microsoft SQL Server Data Tools the first time you create a SQL Server project, as shown below. Click on the Install button.
SQL Server Data Tools - Install SSDT
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  • After the SSDT installation is complete, go to the Start menu and choose Microsoft SQL Server Data Tools 2012. When you start a new project, you will see the following.
SQL Server Data Tools - New Project Template
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  • Open the SQL Server Data Tools and choose File→ New → Project. Next, fill in the project name and location as shown below.
SQL Server Data Tools - New Project Details
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  • By right-clicking on the project in the Solution Explorer and selecting Import, you can import the schema from an existing database.  For this example, choose Database and complete the box that appears. Click the Start button once you are done. The sample database project can be downloaded here.
SQL Server Data Tools - Import Database
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  • The individual schema objects can be seen in the Solution Explorer when the import is complete, as seen below.
SQL Server Data Tools - Solution Explorer
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3) Modify Database Schema in the SQL Server Data Tools

Any schema changes you make are checked against a local database that is built automatically by SSDT. Let’s add a column to a table that already exists. Follow the steps below to get started:

  • In the Solution Explorer, navigate to the Customer.sql file under the Sales – Tables node. Double-click Customer.sql to open the table designer. For SQL Server databases, the Table Designer provides a visual experience in addition to the Transact-SQL Editor for building and altering table structure, including table-specific programming objects.
SQL Server Data Tools - Modify Database
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  • To the Customer table, add a CustomerType column. Fill up the grid in the manner depicted below in the highlighted row. Save the changes by selecting File → Save Customer.sql from the menu or by clicking the diskette symbol on the toolbar.
SQL Server Data Tools - Add Column
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  • To create a database object, right-click on a node in the Solution Explorer and choose the type of object you want to add. 

Refer to SQL Server Database Project for more information to import your existing database schema.

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4) Compare Schema  in SQL Server Data Tools

The Schema Compare utility in SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) allows you to compare 2 database definitions. Any combination of connected database, SQL Server database project or snapshot, or .dacpac file can be used as the source and destination of the comparison. The comparison’s findings show a list of activities that must be performed on the target in order for it to match the source. When the comparison is finished, you can either update the target directly (if it’s a project or database) or create an update script that achieves the same result.

Follow the steps below to compare your schema:

  • Right-click on the project in the Solution Explorer and select Schema Compare to start a schema comparison. The schema comparison dialogue opens by default with the project chosen as one schema and a dropdown to pick the target schema to compare.
  • Select a database from the Select Target dropdown list and fill in the Select Target Schema as shown below.
SQL Server Data Tools - Select Target Schema
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  • To see the schema comparison, click the Compare button, as shown below.
SQL Server Data Tools - Schema Comparison
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Note: Comparisons can be saved as part of a SQL Server Database project or as a separate file. You can also modify the scope of the comparison and characteristics of the update via the options provided. The comparison can then be saved so that you can quickly repeat it or use it as a starting point for a new comparison. To understand how you can update your schema refer to the Update Schema documentation.

5) Publish Project with the SQL Server Data Tools

You can use Publish to publish your database project to SQL Server 2005, 2008, 2008 R2, 2012, or SQL Azure. The database project is “Published” to the target you designate, and validations are run to ensure that the database code is appropriate for the target. 

To publish a project, right-click it in the Solution Explorer and choose to Publish; then fill in the fields as shown below. A script can be published and/or generated. To specify the destination database, click the Edit button.

SQL Server Data Tools - Publish Database
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Great Work! You have learned the detailed steps to install, configure, create and publish your SQL Data Server Tool Projects.


In this article, you were introduced to Microsoft SQL Server and its promising SQL Server Data Tools. You understood the need for SQL Server Data Tools and its various features. Moreover, you learned the key steps to set up your SQL Server Data Tools

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Share your experience with SQL Server Data Tools in the comments section below!

Former Research Analyst, Hevo Data

Shubnoor is a Data Analyst with extensive expertise in market research, and crafting marketing strategies for data industry. At Hevo, she specialized in developing connector integrations and product requirement documentation for multiple SaaS sources.

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