I should know. I was one of the judges of this year’s Exceptional DBA of the Year award. I had to read through tons and tons of submissions and help to arrive at a final list of people who truly personify the concept of both the DBA and the exceptional person. They are all worthy of your votes, but you can only pick one. Today is the final day to make your voice heard and get your influence in. Please, let us know who you think the Exceptional DBA of the Year is by clicking on the link, now, and voting.
It sure seems like there’s a lot of miscommunication between developers and database specialists. In fact, the communication can become so poor that outright hostility between the groups is common. At the end of the day we are all working towards a common goal, to add value to whatever organization we are working for. It’s a shame that we all lose sight of this commonality and create such a false dichotomy between the groups. I think there are some ways that we, as database specialists, can use to attempt to cross that gap.
Prior to being suborned to the dark side, I was a developer. I had a little over 10 years experience working in VB, Java & C#. I remember, distinctly, cursing our database team for being so problematic about how they did things. They slowed me down. They got in the way. When I had problems they were slow to respond, unless the problems were on production. I know I even instigated a few fights with them in an attempt to get them to move the way I wanted (hard to believe, I know). Then came the day when I shifted over to all database work.
Suddenly, I’m responsible for making sure the production system stays online and that the data is readily available to the business. Now I’m slowing down development, because I want a chance to review their design and validate their code to ensure it’ll work well and not affect production. Now I’m acting as a gatekeeper to prevent unauthorized access to the systems or at least keep people from making any of the 10,001 simple errors that could impact production. Now when a developer wants something fixed in dev, I’m the guy telling them they have to wait because something in production is wonky. And yeah, I’ve instigated fights from this side as I tried to get devs to understand that simply delivering code is not enough and that data persistence is there for a reason (again, shocking I’m sure).
Remember, both of these groups are more right than wrong, and both are working towards that common goal, value for the business. But they really don’t get along. What’s more, what they work on and how they work with it is frequently at odds. Ever heard of the object-relational impedance mismatch? How about the concept that you don’t have a database, but a persistence layer? What about managing data integrity within the application (one of my abiding favorites)? Never heard of those terms or concepts? Then you’re probably a database specialist and you’re probably not talking to your developers. If they haven’t already, they’ll soon be introducing an Object Relational Mapping tool to your enterprise. Best of luck.
A lot of these communication issues probably can’t be solved, but I know of one place where most database specialists are not communicating well with their dev teams, and database guys, it’s your fault. Source Control. Do you think of the structures and procedures within your database as code? You should, because, to a large degree, it is. The Data Definition Language (DDL) calls that make up your tables, views and procedures are code. That code needs to be checked into a source control management system. There, the individual objects can be versioned and managed. There you can create labeled releases of your code. There you can branch your code to create alternate development or support streams that contain variations of your database. There you can merge changes from multiple users and branches into a single main source for deployment to production. There you can keep your database directly in sync with application developers code.
Did you catch that last one? You can become more tightly coupled with your development team. Best of all, you can do this using their tools and their language. This is the communication problem I want you, the database professional to solve. Very few of us database types are using source control these days. This, despite the fact that there are fantastic tools and methods under development from different vendors that directly address the issue of getting and keeping database code within a source control system.
Years ago, when I first made the jump to databases, I was appalled that I couldn’t keep my code in source control. Then, as I worked more and more with databases, despite the problems, I abandoned the idea of managing the code in source because, frankly, it was way too hard. But several years ago new tools appeared on the market to make it possible (if still somewhat painful) to get the database into source control. I’ve been working that way for years now. It has completely eliminated one of the many problems I used to have with developers. They now know that my code is stored with theirs. That my versions are their versions. That their labels are my labels. That we branch the code together. It’s taken completely for granted, and we share a common language about change and deployment.
This has not solved every problem or conflict with database teams I’ve worked with. It has eliminated a source of friction. It has increased communication. It’s something that I could do, and you can do, to get a little closer to your development team. Not to mention the fact that you will now have your databases in a known state, all the time, that you’ll be deploying from a single location, that you can manage access to your code, and all the other things that having your databases in source control will bring.
For more details on the concept of putting your database in source control, and working better within teams in general, I’d recommend reading the SQL Server Team-based Development book. It’s a free download.
Addendum (3/27/2011): If you got this link through an email, could you post a comment below as to which distribution list it’s from? Thanks.
Quote: “Database stuff, all this programming stuff, is easy. Anyone can do it. That’s why everyone in the company has sa privileges.”
For nine months, I worked in an environment where everyone, from developers to QA to the sales people to the receptionist, had SA privileges. You know what? DBA skills are necessary.
I speak from the point of view of someone that has had to recover a server after a salse person helpfully “cleaned up the temporary stuff on the server” by dropping tempdb, causing a late deployment for a client. I speak from the point of view of the guy who kept a window open on his desk with the database restore script ready to run, all day long, because of “accidents” that stopped development until I could get the database restored. I speak from the point of view of someone who had to explain, multiple times, “No, you can’t hit the undo button to get that data back” in client systems. And yes, I could go on and on about this nine month gig, but I won’t. You might consider it an extreme case, mainly because, it was.
Instead, I’ll talk about another job. It was a free-wheeling dot com. We were doing some amazing stuff. We were running well over 300gb of data into SQL Server 7.0 in a 24/7 environment… until the day one of the managers of the organization said “You database guys are spending too much time working on maintenance of the server. SQL Server manages itself. You will stop all maintenance, immediately, and don’t work on it any more.” It only took two weeks for the server to crash. It took us three days (72 straight hours) to rebuild the system and recover the data, with no web site available for our thousands of clients during that entire time. Funny enough, a memo came down from management, not thanking us for putting in all the effort, no, but instructing us that we should spend adequate time performaning maintenance routines on the server.
And before you ask, yes, I can keep going. I have tons of examples. How about the application development team (different company) that built the entire database out of multi-statement table valued UDFs that called other UDFs that called other UDFs that called other UDFs… which led to a delayed production roll-out.
What I’m saying is, these are not isolated or extreme examples (OK, the first one was extreme, but only a little). This is real world stuff occurring on regular basis, every day, all over the world that negatively impact the businesses that we support. It’s not that people are stupid. They’re absolutely not. It’s just that databases and database servers, and data for that matter, are still pernicious and difficult. It’s not rocket science, not by any stretch of the imagination. Why do I say that? Because I can do it. In fact, I’ve been quite successful as a DBA and Database Developer. If I can do it, it’s not that hard. But it is a specialized set of knowledge, and one that is quite extensive. There’s just so much to learn about how data is stored, retrieved, and managed within SQL Server, it’s crazy to assume you wouldn’t need a specialist as you move deeper and deeper into managing more and more information. The lack of that knowledge, can, and does, have an impact on the bottom line.
If you’re a business person or a developer (and by developers, I’m not talking about the exceptional Brainiac that can really do it all, I’m talking a normal human being), ask yourself, do you know how to restore a database to a point in time? Just in case you don’t know, this means recover the database from backups and log backups to a point, usually just before a failure or a bad update or some other problem, again, that will cost your company money. Ask yourself, do you know how to set up backups so you can do that point in time recovery? Do you know how to tell why a query is running really slow and keeping customers from buying your stuff? Do you know how to tell why you’re getting deadlocks and losing transactions? Do you know how to tell if a process is blocked or just taking a long time? I’m clearly belaboring the point, and this is still fairly basic information. I haven’t even started delving into configuring systems for mirroring, or gathering metrics for a performance tuning effort, or any other of hundreds of tasks that need to be performed to build large scale data management systems that keep your business in business. If you don’t know what all this stuff is, or you don’t know why it’s needed, you might just need someone in your organization who can help out.
And yeah, there are tools out there now, like Object Relational Mapping (ORM) tools, that take away vast amounts of the labor that used to go into building databases. But, having worked with teams building tools with an ORM, while they’ve successfully removed the database from their thoughts & designs by using the ORM tool, they’re still storing data on a database system. Guess what? The problems, such as deadlocks, index scans, blocking, still exist. Sometimes, these problems are even exacerbated by the ORM tool. Now what? You need a specialist.
Fine, what if you toss all the mess, get rid of relational storage, go for one of the NOSQL database systems. Yeah, that might work, a bit. But guess what. You’re still storing data. It’s still going to, in most circumstances, outlive the application that built it. It’s still going to need to be reported against, backed up, recovered, protected, performance tuned… In other words, you’re going to run into situations where, despite the fact that you’ve eliminated the things that irritate you, like SQL, like constraints, you’re still dealing with pernicious data and you’re going to need someone who has been working out how to deal with that.
Does every single company with any installation of SQLExpress need to hire a DBA? No, of course not. But as soon as your business starts to rely on having data around, all the time, you just might need the skills of someone who has been working with this stuff for a while.