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PASS Summit 2018 spotlights new demands on SQL Server DBAs

This year's PASS Summit comes as SQL Server 2019 looms and the cloud becomes a bigger factor. PASS board member Tim Ford talks about key trends ahead of it.

SQL Server users have a lot to deal with these days. SQL Server 2019, out now in a public preview, comes closely...

after the 2017 and 2016 releases. Cloud migrations are increasing, and Microsoft's support for Linux and containers adds new deployment options. All of those things are likely to be big discussion topics at PASS Summit 2018 in Seattle next week.

PASS is the Professional Association for SQL Server, a user group for SQL Server database administrators (DBAs), data analysts and other IT pros. PASS Summit 2018 is the group's 20th annual conference. In this Q&A ahead of the event, Tim Ford, a DBA at Mindbody Inc. and a member of the PASS board's executive committee, discusses SQL Server trends and the changing role of SQL Server DBAs.

There are a lot of cloud-related sessions on the PASS Summit 2018 agenda. Are many PASS members migrating SQL Server systems to the cloud?

Tim Ford: We're finally starting to see the adoption rate in the cloud start to ramp up to where our members, whether they expected to or not, have to embrace that. There's a lot of interest in what goes into having to 'lift and shift' your on-premises architecture into the cloud.

And a lot of companies are trying to be cloud-agnostic and diversify where they put their systems in the cloud. So, it's not just that DBAs have to deal with a cloud deployment, but also understand which cloud providers excel at which parts of database provisioning. There's a big focus now on learning how to manage what used to be a fairly straightforward, single-architecture platform across multiple cloud platforms with SQL Server options.

Tim Ford, DBA and PASS executive committee memberTim Ford

What about running SQL Server on Linux? Is that a big deal for the PASS community?

Ford: It's still in its infancy. A lot of developers and companies are focused on Linux; they're not Windows shops. Microsoft had to be flexible and lean toward that. In the traditional SQL Server user base, DBAs by nature are conservative in their approaches to things, because we have to be; we have to be cognizant of performance, stability and reliability.

I think what you're seeing with the increased adoption rate around the cloud, that's the same state you're going to see with Linux. But it's probably a few years off before the bulk of the existing membership is going to move to Linux.

Microsoft released the first public preview of SQL Server 2019 in September, just ahead of PASS Summit 2018. Do any new features in particular seem noteworthy?

Ford: One of the things that look interesting is how they're bringing Spark into the fold, like they did with R and Python [in SQL Server 2016 and 2017]. With the support for big data clusters, they're integrating Spark even more into SQL Server itself, so you don't have to stage data in three or four places depending on who's working on it. That seems to be driving a lot of interest.

This is the third new version in four years. Does that kind of release cadence complicate the upgrade process for DBAs?

Ford: There's definitely a complexity factor that comes into play. You need to be more familiar than ever with what features exist in which version of SQL Server. And what you see now is a wider variance on which SQL Server versions are installed in organizations. You might see four or five different versions, and if you're trying to decide whether to upgrade a system, you might have more than one option on which version to migrate to.

You need to be more familiar than ever with what features exist in which version of SQL Server.
Tim FordPASS executive committee member

PASS Summit 2018 is the 20th edition of the conference. What has and hasn't changed for PASS and SQL Server DBAs over the past 20 years?

Ford: Going back to the first summit, the entire conference was focused around the DBA. Since then, we've expanded to really focus on any data professional who touches the Microsoft data platform. But, in PASS, there's still a lot of openness and desire to share knowledge. In the early days, a lot of that was the underdog mentality. Oracle was eating Microsoft's lunch, and we always had the feeling that we were getting shoved into a locker by the jocks. Not so much now, but the community hasn't changed.

For DBAs, there are still all of the core concepts: security, performance and making sure you're up on the latest technologies. I don't think that will ever change.

Are the duties of SQL Server DBAs evolving, though, because of things such as the cloud and increased database automation?

Ford: There's always going to be a need for people to continue on in the same style they have for years, doing all the manual tasks they have been to keep SQL Server running. But, with the cloud, a lot of those things go away, and DBAs are having to learn more about what their peers in the IT chain are doing so they can have conversations around how best to write code to run against SQL Server. They're becoming closer to developers and getting more involved in the role of a data engineer than a DBA, per se.

Is there trepidation among PASS members about that shift and what it might mean for DBA jobs?

Ford: For a long time, there has been a mixed bag of emotions from what I've seen in talking with members. There's a feeling that, one day, being a DBA is just going to mean pushing one button [to create a database]. But I think we're seeing that fade away as DBAs see new opportunities emerge. You won't have to spend the bulk of your day checking to see if a backup worked properly or troubleshooting the same thing over and over again. Where before the conversation was about their jobs being eliminated, they see now that it's starting to enhance their jobs and make them less mundane.

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