Designing an automated database deployment process: case study

Octopus reading an automated database deployment process case study

In my previous article, How to design an automated database deployment process, I wrote about the steps companies and organizations should take to introduce automation to their database deployments.

In this article, I’m going talk about the challenges I faced when I embarked on my own automation journey. Prior to joining Octopus Deploy, I was the lead developer on a pilot team that automated database deployments and reduced the time required from two to four hours per deployment down to ten minutes.

Why automate?

One of the DBAs in the company summed it up best when they said, “Our database deployment process is the wild west.” We had more developers joining the company every month, new teams were constantly forming, more code was being deployed every day, and the constant issues with database deployments like errors and delays had to stop.

It was time to form a work group to resolve the issue once and for all.

The DBAs and database architect all liked using tooling from Redgate, so they reached out for help. Redgate agreed to help out in exchange for a case study. They would fly out two people to meet with our work group for a couple of days. As I write this, I’m 99% sure they don’t do that all the time. We might have caught them at the right moment.

The DBAs identified the DBA who would represent them at the work group. The final decision was the pilot team. This is when I get involved, as my team was selected.

Being naive, I expected Redgate to help us implement their tooling within our existing process, so I set about doing that. However, the work group threw away about 75% of my work. That wasn’t a big deal; it was a good learning experience as it gave me a better fundamental understanding of how database deployment tools work, which helped me contribute to the kick-off meeting.

Kick-off meeting

The database developer from my team, a DBA, a database architect, two Redgaters, and I met for two days. The first day was focused on designing our ideal process. The end goal was to have a process to deploy to Development, Test, Staging, and all the way into Production.

First, we walked through the existing process, which looked like this:

  1. A developer makes a change in Test. All developers have sysadmin rights in Test. They should make their changes in Development but Test has all the data to verify their changes, so that’s the server their code points to.
  2. The developer changes the connection in SSMS and makes a change to Development. All developers have sysadmin rights in Development.
  3. The database developer or lead developer runs Redgate SQL Compare to generate a delta script between Test and Staging. Any complex database changes (move columns, combine columns, etc.) are removed and manually scripted. Scripts are saved to a shared folder. Everyone except DBAs have read-only rights for Staging. The DBAs have to run the scripts.
  4. DBAs are notified via email to run scripts in the shared folder on Staging. They run the scripts and send the output to the requester.
  5. Multiple changes can be pushed to Staging prior to going to Production. Because of that, a new Redgate SQL Compare delta script between Staging and Production is generated by the database developer or lead developer. Just like before, any complex database changes (move columns, combine columns, etc.) are removed and manually scripted. Scripts are saved to a shared folder. Everyone except DBAs have read-only rights for Production.
  6. DBAs are notified via a change request to run a set of scripts in Production. They run the scripts, save the results to the change request system, which emails the requester.

We tackled these questions next:

Q: Who are the people involved in the process?
A: Developers, database developer, lead developer and DBAs.

Q: What permissions do they have?
A: Developers, database developers and lead developers all have sysadmin rights for Development and Test. DBAs have sysadmin rights for Development, Test, Staging, and Production.

Q: Why are they involved?
A: Developers, lead developers and database developers make the changes to Development and Test. Database developers and lead developers create the delta scripts using Redgate SQL Compare. DBAs deploy the delta scripts to Staging and Production.

Q: Which environments have different processes?
A: There are three processes, one for deployments to Development and Test, while Staging and Production have similar but slightly different process. Production involves a change request system.

Q: Why are they different?
A: Permissions and auditing; Staging is refreshed from Production periodically and is used for staging and final verification, so Staging needs to be as close to Production as possible to help eliminate surprises. Any change to Production requires a change request because that is what the auditors check.

Q: What happens when the script fails to run?
A: In Development and Test, the person who wrote the script ran the script, and they make the necessary adjustments and re-run it. In Staging and Production the DBA notifies the requester of failure. The requester debugs the script and makes the necessary tweaks. They then ask the DBA to run the script again.

Q: Why do scripts typically fail?
A: Failures happen because each environment has different delta scripts. A schema change or migration script is missed.

Q: Who reviews the scripts and when?
A: The database developer or lead developer review the changes prior to going to Staging. Because of the different delta scripts, the DBAs review the scripts prior to going to Staging as well as Production.

Q: Who needs to be involved with each deployment?
A: Deployments to Development and Test only involve the person making the change. Deployments to Staging involve the requester, a database developer or lead developer, and the DBA. Deployments to Production need everyone because each environment has a unique delta script, and any issues require immediate fixing.

Q: What isn’t working, and what needs to change?
A: See below.

What needed to change?

The astute reader will notice a recurring theme in the answers above.

  • Three different processes.
  • Unique delta scripts per environment.
  • Unique delta scripts meant it was difficult or nearly impossible to test.
  • Shared development environment.
  • Reviews didn’t happen until it was time to go to Staging.
  • “All hands on deck” during Production deployments.
  • No history of who made what changes, when they were made, or why they were made.
  • Changes were manually tracked via a document.
  • No auditing in Development, Test, or Staging. A little bit of auditing for Production.

The application my team was responsible for had 700 tables. All database access was done via stored procedures, including CRUD operations. The database had roughly 5000 objects (tables, stored procedures, functions, etc.). All development was done on the same database. When we did a release, some changes were pushed, while other changes were excluded. We kept track of which changes to include on a piece of paper. This wasn’t 20 years ago; this was happening in 2014.

Those issues resulted in two to four-hour Production deployments, and we didn’t trust the process, which led to an intensive verification process. The actual deployment could be done in 30 minutes, but the remaining 90 minutes were spent verifying the deployment. This included QA, the business owner, business analyst, developers, lead developer, and a manager running various scenarios. Even with all that effort, we still missed some random thing that only 0.5% of our users encountered.

A point to note

Roughly 60% of the time, we had to do an emergency fix the next day due to a missed schema change.

Draft of the ideal process

Drafting the ideal process took quite a bit of time. This was caused by a lack of knowledge of what the tooling could provide. At the time, we knew about source control, build servers, and Redgate tooling, but we were all unfamiliar with what deployment tooling could provide. Thankfully, Redgate was there to help educate us.

First, we listed the various tools and the functionality they provide:

  • Source control
    • Stores all the SQL scripts.
    • Acts as the truth center of changes.
    • Includes the ability to create branches for new features.
    • Provides the ability to review changes prior to merging.
  • Database tooling
    • Provides a way to run scripts stored in source control on the destination database.
    • Includes some sort of preview functionality which can generate a file for people to review during deployments. The file could be the actual delta script or an HTML file summarizing the changes.
  • Build server
    • Takes SQL scripts from source control and packages them.
    • Pushes packages to the deployment server.
    • Can monitor multiple branches and build for each branch.
  • Deployment tool
    • Invokes database tooling to deploy database changes.
    • Uses database tooling preview functionality to create a file to be reviewed during deployments.
    • Provides auditing and approvals.
    • Used to deploy to all environments.
    • Has security features to allow for scenarios such as only allowing DBAs to deploy to Production.

With the tooling responsibilities out of the way, we spent a great deal of time discussing a shared database model vs. a dedicated database model. A dedicated database model means each developer runs the database server on their own machine. Using a shared database model, we found:

  • Database changes were made, and code changes took an hour to several days to use the new database change. Some of the time that stopped other developers and QA from using a specific feature or area in the application.
  • There were two truth centers, source control and the shared database which all changes were made to and then saved to source control. If there was a conflict between source control and the shared database, which won?
  • We were unable to leverage branches effectively. There can be one to many branches, but only one database.
  • Changes were made to a central database prior to review, but when should the review occur?
  • Everyone used the same test data. One person changing data affected multiple people on the team.

We decided to switch to dedicated databases. In our case, it made a lot of sense. We knew how the tooling worked, where changes would be made, and it was time to outline the ideal process:

  1. A developer/database developer/lead developer created a branch.
  2. All database changes and code changes are made on that branch.
  3. Changes are completed and checked into the branch.
  4. A merge request is created, which kicks off a build. The build verifies the changes are valid SQL.
  5. The database developer or lead developer reviews database changes in the merge request and provides feedback for fixes.
  6. The branch is approved and merged.
  7. The build server kicks off a build, verifies the changes are valid SQL, and if they are, packages them and pushes to the deployment server. The build server tells the deployment server to deploy to Development.
  8. The deployment server deploys to Development.
  9. A developer/database developer/lead developer tells the deployment server to deploy to Test.
  10. The deployment server deploys to Test.
  11. Changes are verified in Test.
  12. A developer/database developer/lead developer tells the deployment server to deploy to Staging. The deployment server uses database tooling to generate the review file for the DBA to use for approval.
  13. The deployment server notifies the DBA of the deployment request to Staging. They review the changes and provide feedback for fixes.
  14. DBAs approve changes to Staging.
  15. The deployment server finishes deployment to Staging.
  16. Changes are verified in Staging by the developer/database developer/lead developer.
  17. A change request is submitted to the DBAs to promote a specific package in the deployment server to Production.
  18. After hours, DBAs tell the deployment server to deploy to Production. The deployment server uses database tooling to generate the review file for the DBA to review.
  19. DBAs review the file as a final sanity check.
  20. The deployment server finishes deployment to Production.
  21. The team responsible for the application verifies the changes in Production.


When coming up with that process, we purposely avoided tooling. Tooling wasn’t discussed until after we had a draft of the process. First up was the tooling already being used:

  • Build server: TeamCity was being piloted as a replacement for TFS 2012.
  • Source control: Teams piloting TeamCity had moved to Git.
  • Database deployments: Redgate’s SQL Change Automation.
  • Deployment server: None, although at the time, I thought the build server = deployment server.

TFS 2012 was on its way out, so it didn’t make sense to continue using it. My team was part of the group who switched over to Git and TeamCity.

Redgate had flown out to help us. We had a prototype working with their tooling. We discussed SSDT and RoundhousE, but they failed for roughly the same reason. 95% of the people making the database changes did so in SQL Server Management Studio, and too many people forgot to migrate those changes over to SSDT or RoundhousE. Our discussion, along with the process we designed, led to the following key requirements for the tooling:

  1. Can save database changes from SSMS.
  2. Automatic detection of database changes.
  3. Majority of changes handled by the tool (add a column, delete a column, change stored procedure) with the ability to have complex changes manually written and stored (move column to a new table).

RoundhousE met 1 out of the 3 (can save database changes from SSMS), and SSDT met 1 out of the 3 (majority of complex changes handled by the tool). It made sense for us to continue using Redgate with the pilot.

We didn’t have a deployment server, but after the Redgate folk explained the benefits and features of Octopus Deploy, we did a quick POC using TeamCity, Redgate, and Octopus Deploy. The POC took about an hour to put together and showed a great deal of promise, so we decided to use Octopus Deploy for the pilot.

Implementing the process

The agreed-upon process was put into place using the tooling. Getting it going in Development and Staging took very little time. We did run into a couple of hiccups we didn’t anticipate in the kick-off meeting:

  • Permissions: What can the automated process do vs. what can’t it do. We landed on preventing the process from creating new users and adding them to roles. This way, someone couldn’t give themselves db_owner permissions in Production.
  • Resolving the delta between all environments: There were schema changes in Production not on Development. The first time we tried to run the process in Production, we almost wiped them out. We quickly added that change into source control, rebuilt the package, and pushed it through the environments to Production.

After resolving those minor hiccups we were able to get the process deploying to Staging and Production.

Speeding up deployments

Immediately, the number of emergency fixes due to a missing schema change dropped to zero. That alone was a massive win. Because of that, the amount of time we spent verifying deployments started dropping.

That, in turn, made us want to deploy more often. Frequent deployments meant smaller changes. Smaller changes meant less verification. Less verification meant faster deployments. Faster deployments meant we wanted to deploy more often. The cycle continued until we’d moved from spending 30 minutes deploying changes and 90 minutes verifying them to spending five to eight minutes for both.

Early adopters and iterations

A couple of other teams (out of nine remaining teams) saw what we were doing, and they came on board as early adopters. Having three teams use the process identified pain points and what needed to improve:

  • Not deploying what was approved. I wasn’t using the Redgate tooling correctly. I used a command to generate a preview for approval. Then I ignored that preview and used a different command to deploy the package directly. One out of every 30 deployments ended up having an unexpected change made. With a bit of research, the correct commands were found and implemented.
  • Saving the preview file to a file share. I didn’t know Octopus had the ability to save files as artifacts. Artifacts can be downloaded by the approver from Octopus. That was better than finding the right file in the file share. A small tweak to the script fixed that.
  • DBAs being the bottleneck. The three teams were deploying to Staging so often the DBAs couldn’t keep up. They also got tired of having to be online during deployments to approve the deployment to Production. We changed the process to generate two files when deploying to Staging, one for Staging, and one for Production. The deployment would occur on Staging, and the DBAs approved everything after the fact. We added a step to page them when a deployment failed in Production.
  • Developers not using their dedicated database. There was no testing data in the developer’s database, so they pointed to Test to test their changes. We solved this by creating a backup of the database in Test after each deployment. Developers could restore that database to their local instance and have all the data they needed.

A point to note

No process is 100% perfect from the start. Expect to iterate multiple times.

General adoption

Eventually, the time came for general adoption. I was very surprised by the push back, specifically from the database developers. So much of their time was spent generating deployment scripts they believed that was how they brought value to the team. The fear was this process would automate them out of a job. That wasn’t the case. The process was designed to eliminate all the wasted time generating and tweaking deployment scripts, which freed them up to focus on important things like database structure, performance, reviewing changes, and working on complex changes.

Hindsight being what it is, I should have:

  • Scheduled a meeting with the database developer and lead developer on the team to walk through the process.
  • Scheduled another meeting for the two of them to get an application’s database into the process.
  • Scheduled a final meeting for them to teach their team how to use the process, with me in the background to answer questions.

But I didn’t do that. I combined all of that into one big meeting. Live and learn.


We had to change quite a bit to automate database deployments. In the end, it was worth it. Deployments to Production became a non-event. The last Production deployment I did with that company involved myself, the business owner, and my manager. We were online for 30 minutes. 25 of those minutes were spent telling funny stories and bad jokes. The deployment went through with minimal fuss.

If you’d like to know a bit more about the core concepts and structure required to design an automated database deployment process, read my first article.

This post is a guest article from Bob Walker, VP of Customer Success at Octopus Deploy. Octopus Deploy is the most popular deployment automation tool in the world and takes over where the CI server ends, enabling companies to easily automate even the most complex application deployments, whether on-premises or in the cloud. Find out more.

Tools in this post

SQL Change Automation

Automate your database changes with CI and automated deployment

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SQL Compare

Compare and synchronize SQL Server database schemas

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