We have our standards, and we need them

The presenter suddenly broke off. He was midway through his section on how to apply to the relational database the Continuous Delivery techniques that allowed for rapid-fire rounds of development and refactoring, while always retaining a “production-ready” state.

He sighed deeply and then launched into an astonishing diatribe against Database Administrators, much of his frustration directed toward Oracle DBAs, in particular. In broad strokes, he painted the picture of a brave new deployment philosophy being frustratingly shackled by the relational database, and by especially by the attitudes of the guardians of these databases. DBAs, he said, shunned change and “still favored tools I’d have been embarrassed to use in the ’80’s“. DBAs, Oracle DBAs especially, were more attached to their vendor than to their employer, since the former was the primary source of their career longevity and spectacular remuneration. He contended that someone could produce the best IDE or tool in the world for Oracle DBAs and yet none of them would give a stuff, unless it happened to come from the “mother ship”.

I sat blinking in astonishment at the speaker’s vehemence, and glanced around nervously. Nobody in the audience disagreed, and a few nodded in assent.

Although the primary target of the outburst was the Oracle DBA, it made me wonder. Are we who work with SQL Server, database professionals or merely SQL Server fanbois? Do DBAs, in general, have an image problem? Is it a good career-move to be seen to be holding onto a particular product by the whites of our knuckles, to the exclusion of all else?

If we seek a broad, open-minded, knowledge of our chosen technology, the database, and are blessed with merely mortal powers of learning, then we like standards. Vendors of RDBMSs generally don’t conform to standards by instinct, but by customer demand. Microsoft has made great strides to adopt the international SQL Standards, where possible, thanks to considerable lobbying by the community. The implementation of Window functions is a great example. There is still work to do, though. SQL Server, for example, has an unusable version of the Information Schema. One cast-iron rule of any RDBMS is that we must be able to query the metadata using the same language that we use to query the data, i.e. SQL, and we do this by running queries against the INFORMATION_SCHEMA views. Developers who’ve attempted to apply a standard query that works on MySQL, or some other database, but doesn’t produce the expected results on SQL Server are advised to shun the Standards-based approach in favor of the vendor-specific one, using the catalog views.

The argument behind this is sound and well-documented, and of course we all use those catalog views, out of necessity. And yet, as database professionals, committed to supporting the best databases for the business, whatever they are now and in the future, surely our heart should sink somewhat when we advocate a vendor specific approach, to a developer struggling with something as simple as writing a guard clause. And when we read messages on the Microsoft documentation informing us that we shouldn’t rely on INFORMATION_SCHEMA to identify reliably the schema of an object, in SQL Server!