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Why Do You Need a Database Administrator?

More than ever before, businesses are relying on data. It is the currency of the digital age. Decision makers need data to back up their decisions. And that data is most likely stored in a database (or multiple) somewhere.

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More than ever before, businesses are relying on data. It is the currency of the digital age. Decision makers need data to back up their decisions. And that data is most likely stored in a database (or multiple) somewhere.

More than ever before, businesses are relying on data. It is the currency of the digital age. Gone are the days of ‘seat of your pants’ managing. Decision makers need data to back up their decisions. And that data is most likely stored in a database (or multiple) somewhere.

What is a Database?

In my first job interview for a Database Administrator position, I was asked, “Explain to me what a database is in non-computer terms.” My response? “It is a collection of information, usually related and organized in some way, like the old rolodex contact cards people had on their desks.”

The modern database is stored electronically in tables. Complex databases can run into hundreds or even thousands of tables. Often, several databases are hosted on one server. The database design (layout of the tables, etc.) is always specific to the application, but the software to host the database is more than likely a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS).

But simply collecting, storing, and reporting on data may not be enough. The data, and the systems that handle the collection, storing and reporting, need to be maintained. Enter the Database Administrator. Larger corporations usually have one or several DBA’s on payroll. These companies have the operating budget and continuous need to justify full-time staff. Not so much the small, or mid-sized business.

A common scenario is that a business may purchase a software product to handle a line of business, sales, financials, or a manufacturing process. The system stores its data on SQL Server, which may or may not be installed by the software vendor. Oh, sure, they will still support their product regarding bugs, hot-fixes, and updates, but keeping the SQL Server piece operating is up to the business owner. Larger companies can assign the maintenance duties to the DBA Team. But smaller companies, those lacking full-time DBA staff need not be left out in the cold. Many organizations are also finding benefits from outsourcing their database administration to a trusted partner.

For a lot of these types of installations, things run fine for quite a while, years even. Then they start to deteriorate. It may not happen rapidly, just slightly, immeasurably slower each day. Pile that cumulative slowness up over months or years and you will eventually have an issue. Finally, someone asks, “Hey, this system used to be lightning fast when we installed it, but it’s just not working the same way now. Why? Nothing has changed!” And therein may lie the problem. What may have worked for 100,000 rows of data two years ago is insufficient for 10 million rows today. Other potential causes of performance degradation are errant configuration settings, which, again, may have been fine for the size of the database in the past, but no longer. How do you trace down these issues? You need a specialist. You need a Database Administrator.

What is a Database Administrator Responsible For?

  • Server configurations– SQL Server has about as many ‘knobs and switches’ as a Lear jet cockpit. Knowing what they all do, how they interact with each other and the data stored within, is nothing trivial. Further, configuration settings can be specific for the hardware on which SQL is installed as well as the workload it is expected to handle. The ‘out of the box’ settings for SQL Server are generic at best. Most of the time they are sufficient, but there remains a few that are a throwback to the old days that should be changed to get optimal performance from the system.
  • Database configurations– These are the ‘knobs and switches’ inside each database. While not as extensive as the server configurations or affecting as much, they are just as important.
  • Backups– Backups are the ‘insurance policy’ of the database world. Most businesses do not need to rely on them unless something happens. And when that something does happen, it can be catastrophic. Your database backups are only as good as the last time you tried to restore one.
  • Performance Tuning– This is sometimes referred to as the ‘black art’ of the Database Administrator’s job. While it can encompass configuration settings of both the server and the individual databases, it is more likely to include tweaking things like the index structures, statistics, or the queries themselves. It is often a delicate balance; what really helps in one area of performance can degrade another.
  • Security– Everyone is worried about security. But it is not just about the security of the data itself. It is about keeping the un-trained user from making an error inside your server.

Can these responsibilities be handled by the IT Team? For some of the items, yes. But IT staff are often more focused on user and desktop support, system integration and network infrastructure. Database administration can be a highly technical undertaking and an internal IT team can enhance their capabilities by working with someone who specializes in this area.

I go to my family physician for an annual checkup. But if I needed surgery, I would go to a specialist. The Database Administrator is your surgical specialist. He/she is knowledgeable and experienced enough to cut open the SQL Server and databases to make repairs, patches, and adjustments that the IT Team is not trained to handle. Doing this keeps your database server running smoothly, responding quickly, and gives you peace of mind that your data is backed up and secure.

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