Recently several people looking to jump into SQL development have asked me about resources for at-home practice. I’ve shared these resources via email for some time. The next logical step was a webpage to compile those resources as an easy-access point for anyone looking to set up SQL at home.
Firstly, SQL Server Express is freeware. You can install an instance of it on your home machine entirely free. SQL Server Express does have its limitations. Usable space (10GB in 2014) and features namely. Even with those limitations it can be a great tool for learning to write SQL at home.
Freeware aside, it is my humble opinion that the best way to play with SQL at home is SQL Server Developer Edition. It has all the features Enterprise Edition does and is just 60 bucks.. Maybe you are just getting started with SQL Server. Perhaps those extra features seem unnecessary for your needs. If SQL is something you intend to pursue seriously you will, in time, want to work with Integration Services, Analysis Services Cubes and Availability Groups. The Developer Edition has you covered.
Once you’ve decided what version suits your needs, simply install. When you install be sure to disable the setting that starts SQL Server automatically, as it is a resource-intensive program.
Your server is now set up, now you need some data. The data sets I use for all of my at home testing come from either Adventure Works or the Stack Exchange Data Dump however the later will be in XML which means you will need to extract them to a database using code similar to this. Keep in mind: you will need to modify this code to work in your particular instance and may want to add structure to your tables as well.