What Is A Production DBA, Anyway?

Oct 6, 2009

I have been managing DBAs for over ten years now and one question that always seems to come up, usually from management, is what do DBAs do anyway?  Hopefully, you have read my prior post, “Yes, Production DBAs Are Necessary!” and you know where I stand on this issue. 

 

I fully believe in the role of a production DBA and, as someone who has been in this role for well over a decade, would like to define, based on my experience, what I think that role should be.  The most effective way of doing this, I believe, is to define what a production DBA should and shouldn’t be expected to do.  Granted, this won’t work perfectly for every situation and this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but the following should be a good guideline for defining what a production DBA does and why they are critical to ensuring that your data is safe and available.

 

User data

A production DBA should not have anything to do with data. There, I said it. This statement alone is going to generate tons of controversy, but let me explain and specify that I’m referring to user data in user databases. This confuses many people because, after all, DBA does stand for database administrator. Let me clear up that confusion right now by saying that database is one word and is a manageable entity just like a server. Data lives inside a database, much like an application lives on a server. Typically, there is a lot of data in a database, just like there can be many applications on a server, each of which may have their own application administrator. As in the case of the application analogy, we don’t expect the system/server administrator to necessarily manage all of the applications on the server, the production DBA should not be expected to manage the data in the database. The production DBA is responsible for the uptime of the database, the performance of that SQL Server instance and the safety (backups/DR) of the data in the database, not for the data itself. There should be other roles in the enterprise responsible for determining how the data gets into the database and how it is used from there, namely, data architects, database developers, etc.

 

Optimizing T-SQL

A production DBA should work with database developers to help them optimize T-SQL code. I emphasize work because production DBAs should not be writing code, outside of administration automation. This goes hand in hand with #1 above and, when you think about it in practical terms, makes sense. A production DBA may be responsible for managing hundreds or thousands of user databases all containing data for different uses. A production DBA can’t practically understand all of this data and be able to write code against it effectively. What the production DBA can do, though, is help the database developers optimize code by looking at available indexes and discussing with them how to best to arrange joins and where clauses to make the most effective use of indexes and/or create additional indexes. Additionally, if your organization falls under the Sarbanes-Oxley or PCI regulations, this segregation may be mandatory. Your developers should not have access to production databases. Their code should be promoted by the production DBA, who does have access to the production databases. This also means that you should have a development environment that reasonably approximates your production environment.

 

Managing Instances

The production DBA should manage the SQL Server instance(s). This is a big job and if your data is important and you have more than a handful of instances, it is a full time job. Let me breakdown what this actually includes to illustrate just how large a job it is:

  1. Install/patch SQL Server instances – The production DBA is responsible for installing any new instances of SQL Server and making sure that existing instances stay current on Microsoft patches. This isn’t just a matter of running through an install wizard. A number of things have to be considered by the production DBA when a new instance of SQL Server is installed. These include:
    • Collation settings. Questions have to be asked about how the application that uses this data expects the database to handle the case of words, accents on words, code pages that the application expects to be used (this gets into localization and language for those shops in other countries or that are responsible for servers that reside or are going to be accessed by users in other countries).
    • Drive/File Layout – To make the database instance run optimally, the production DBA has to consider what drive resources are going to be available and how the database files should be laid out across those resources. During this phase of the installation the production DBA has to consider whether only local storage is available or whether storage will be housed on a SAN. If it is going to be housed on a SAN, the production DBA needs to work with the SAN administrator to ensure that the LUNs are set up appropriately for optimal SQL Server access, which in and of itself requires a lot of knowledge and experience.
    • Scalability – The production DBA should be involved in developing the specifications for the hardware. Questions that the production DBA will be asking of the various parties include, how many concurrent users will be accessing the data, how many databases will there be, is the data static or changing and how does it change (i.e., batch load, transactional updates), etc. This will give the production DBA a better idea of what kind of resource utilization to expect and drive the hardware specification process. It will also help determine recovery model and backup strategies.
  2. Create, and periodically test, a backup and recovery scheme for your enterprise’s data. Things the DBA has to consider as part of this include:
    • Is the data development or production data? Yes, development data gets backed up and is considered in an effective backup/recovery scheme because, after all, you don’t want to lose any of your development effort; it just isn’t prioritized as highly as production data.
    • How often data is updated in databases and how is it updated (online transactions, batch, etc)? This determines the recovery model that should be used and leads the DBA to ask another question, what is the maximum acceptable data loss in terms of time? With the answers to these questions, the DBA can more effectively determine the type and the frequency of backups (full, differential, transaction log, etc).
  3. While somewhat tied with backup/recovery, the DBA is also tasked with helping to come up with a disaster recovery strategy for the SQL Server environment, within the constraints of the enterprise’s available resources.
  4. Uptime/performance – The DBA is tasked with managing/monitoring those things that would impact the availability of the databases. This includes CPU utilization, I/O performance, disk space, reviewing event and SQL Server logs,etc.
  5. Help design the security model for SQL Server instances. Within SQL Server, there are a number of built in security roles, both at the instance level and database level that users can made members of in addition to the ability to create custom roles. Additionally, SQL Server can operate in Windows Authentication mode, which integrates your domain security and uses the users’ Windows domain accounts or Mixed (or SQL Server and Windows Authentication Mode) Mode, which allows accounts to either be Windows domain or native SQL Server accounts. There are a number of factors to be considered here to make sure that your users can use your system while still protecting and safeguarding sensitive data and the SQL Server configuration.

 
So as you can see, the production DBA has plenty of things to contend with in order to effectively and efficiently maintain a SQL Server environment.  The bottom line comes down to how valuable is your data to you and how much are you willing to risk by not allowing your DBA to dedicate themselves to maintaining and safeguarding it.

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