Top four challenges for DBAs: Will they change in 2009?

With the kickoff of nominations for 2009’s Exceptional DBA Awards about two weeks away, it’s a good time to revisit the challenges faced by last year’s nominees and solicit opinions on whether they are still valid.

As a communications consultant in 2008’s Exceptional DBA Awards team, I was able to review all the nominations. I thought they provided some keen insights into the challenges facing today’s DBAs. Four challenges were cited above the rest, in roughly this order: (1) increasing database sizes and the effect it has on infrastructure and performance; (2) dealing with the rapid pace of technology change; (3) communicating with other people, both within IT and outside customers; and (4) keeping databases secure.

The size-performance equation

As databases grow inevitably larger, the burden becomes greater on DBAs. But, according to the nominees, DBAs are still expected to provide 24/7, rapid-response databases in an environment where data seems to double overnight.

Nominees said they are employing the following strategies to balance quality with performance:

  • standardization, specifically standardized monitoring and management practices across a variety of database platforms.
  • partitioning of tables.
  • excellent maintenance plans and monitoring procedures.
  • caching query mechanisms so that worst-performing queries are always executed in the background to keep them in cache.
  • new hardware and virtualization.

Change just keeps coming

Everybody must accommodate change, but few deal with the velocity and persistence of change that confronts DBAs. It means reading blogs and e-books, experimenting, attending conferences to continually update skill sets, networking with peers and experts, and becoming a chameleon as DBA processes become more automated.

In addition to traditional technical administration roles, one nominee says that DBAs are increasingly responsible for business matters; specifically, the question of how to add business value. They are becoming directly involved in eliminating inefficiencies and reducing management and administrative costs associated with business. For many DBAs, this means tapping into new creative veins and learning additional skills.

Despite appearances, it’s a people job

To the outside world, there is the image of the DBA as a loner, sequestered from the world in his or her dark cubicle, humming to the ambient grooves on the iPod. But, the reality is that in most organizations, the DBA job is a people-centric one. It requires dealing with developers, users and customers, often in a rocky and ever-changing landscape.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is crossing the traditional developer-DBA divide. One 2008 nominee has done this by becoming a developer himself. Others benefit from attitude adjustment – listening to developers’ needs, patiently explaining DBA issues, and coming to a diplomatic solution that doesn’t compromise performance or security.

One way of establishing credibility is to educate developers by showing how poorly performing code affects databases and the servers those databases reside on. The best way to do this, according to a nominee, is providing hands-on evidence via reports and statistics – hard data is much more readily accepted by developers than just telling them that code needs optimizing.

Another major people issue is setting expectations for users and customers. Nominees cite proactive information, clear communication and documentation as the keys to setting a realistic bar.

Security: the enemy within

When it comes to security, experts often provide a variation of the famous Pogo cartoon-character quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Most security breaches come from within an organization, which leads to a delicate dance between providing and denying access.

DBAs find that everyone wants access to their databases, even though they have little understanding of the potential problems that can accompany that access. One nominee recommends a security policy that limits access to the production database and educates clients about the danger of temporary access.

What’s your challenge?

Do your challenges and/or solutions differ from the ones given in the nominations for Exceptional DBA of 2008? Do you see new or increased challenges as a result of the recession? What new technologies or processes are affecting your job?

Perhaps the views in this article can seed a discussion of today’s challenges and solutions. Please comment.

And, please do yourself or a fellow DBA a favor: Submit a nomination for Exceptional DBA of the Year 2009 beginning on June 15. The Exceptional DBA Awards, sponsored by Red Gate Software, are open to all SQL Server DBAs. They provide an opportunity to recognize DBAs who are making significant contributions to their organizations. You can nominate yourself or someone with whom you work. To find out more about this year’s awards, visit