Jason Brimhall has an introductory-level post on server and database principals:

A fundamental component of SQL Server is the security layer. A principle player in security in SQL Server comes via principals. SQL Server principals come in more than flavor. (This is where a lot of confusion gets introduced.) The different types of principals are database and server. A database principal is also called a database user (sometimes just user). A server principal is also called a server login, or login for short.

Server and database principals are quite a bit different in function and come with different permission sets. The two are sometimes used, in reference, interchangeably, but that is done incorrectly. Today I hope to unravel some of what each is and how to see permissions for each type of principal.

Read the whole thing.

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