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In this Q&A, consultant and book author Craig Mullins expands on a few of his rules of thumb for database administrators. More appear in his book, Database Administration: A Complete Guide to DBA Practices and Procedures, which offers context and advice on an increasingly complex set of DBA tasks and responsibilities. Mullins, who is president and principal consultant of Mullins Consulting Inc. in Sugarland, Texas, urges DBAs in his comments here to be proactive in reaching out to other departments, to understand the businesses they support and to take measured steps when confronting database emergencies. This is part two in a series; also read part one, which covers such issues as how heterogeneous database administration and the emergence of NoSQL databases are affecting DBAs.
One of the key parts of your book is the rules of thumb for DBAs. Let's go through some of them. Take, for instance, 'Measure twice and cut once.' We know what that means in carpentry -- what does it mean here?
Craig Mullins: If you're a DBA, frequently you're working in heated environments, trying to resolve problems. And you're tempted many times to say, 'Oh, I know what I need to do,' and you just quickly enter a parameter. But you can bring a database to its knees if you enter the wrong thing or 'fat-finger' something. So, the general idea behind 'measure twice and cut once' is to make sure that you really think twice about what you're doing, understand the problem and aren't driven by the general hectic nature of what's going on around you -- all the stuff that's forcing you to try to solve that problem too quickly. If you do the wrong thing, you can make the problem worse.
Here's another: 'Understand the business, not just the technology.'
Mullins: That is to emphasize that the more you know about your business, the better you're going to be at [administering] the data your business relies upon. In the book, I talk about the difference between knowing that there's a service outage related to 'Transaction x.5.3.2 in the PRD8 environment' and knowing that demand-deposit customers can't get access to their accounts. Knowing what number event it is, and in what environment -- that's all-important, and you need to know it as a DBA. But you also need to know what it means to the business if that transaction isn't up. If, for example, demand deposit customers can't get access to their accounts, that creates a severe impact on the business, and it can cause you to lose business. So there should be more of a focus on solving this problem before solving another one. You can do that only if you really understand the business. Some of that comes with the time spent just working in the business.
And this is another rule of thumb from the book: 'Don't become a hermit.' Can you discuss that one?
Mullins: Well, it's true that the DBA lacks a warm and fuzzy image. It's like you are going into the cave with the troll when you go to the DBA to ask for advice. That's unfortunate -- and it has happened because the DBA is at the center of all the development going on in the organization, because that's where the data is. There is a just a lot of work placed on the DBAs -- they're all constantly on-call, and they aren't really looking for additional work when you come by. We tell DBAs to be proactive, but you may not be proactive if you're already hunting down a problem, and your phone's ringing, and there are three people queued outside your office.
But the more DBAs can convert out of that mind-set into the proactive mind-set, the better. When you have time, walk around, talk to people and see what they're doing. Engage with them instead of having them fear you. Then, the chances of them coming to you with a problem before something goes into production go up -- and you just made your job easier.
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