Does Your Company Need a Full-Time DBA?

Exactly one year ago, my commentary "What Do DBAs Need to Know to Do Their Jobs?" discussed the differences between what a DBA and database developer need to know to do their jobs.  Several people wrote to me to comment that as much as they enjoy working with SQL Server (or not!) and wish they knew more about it, they wouldn’t put themselves in either category. They all called themselves some variation of "the company IT guy."  What they meant was that they had to do anything technical that needed to be done, and usually with no training. These tasks could include hardware setup, maintenance, and troubleshooting; software installation of everything from the OS to Adobe Reader; and maintenance of all software products.

Microsoft marketing has made claims that SQL Server is self-tuning, and some people I’ve talked to seem to interpret these claims to mean that SQL Server works straight out of the box, with no tuning or configuration required after installation. For some people running applications supplied by a vendor who takes care of all maintenance, it might almost seem like that is true. But if you care about the data being stored in your SQL Server database, you might want to take a closer look. Does your application vendor supply 24x7 support? Are they proactive in managing hardware requirements as data volumes and throughput changes? Do they know SQL Server well enough to troubleshoot slow-running queries and fix them?  If not, does that mean you need a full-time DBA?

It would take far more words than I have available in this commentary to help answer that question completely. The short answer is, of course, "It depends."  However, the answer often is "Not in many cases." This means that not every SQL Server installation needs a full-time, SQL Server savvy DBA to manage it.  But I strongly suggest that if you decide not to have a full-time DBA inhouse, you should at least know how to find one fast when needed. Believe me, you don’t want to wait until your server crashes and you discover that you can’t restore the most recent backups, and then try to track down expert help.  You should have the phone number of that expert easily available.

If your employer is open to the idea, you might consider taking a basic SQL Server administration class. It can’t hurt and you might learn enough to be able to recognize if someone really does know what they’re talking about.  But one class won’t make you an expert, and if troubleshooting and tuning SQL Server is something you won’t do often, you won’t be able to hone any skills you pick up in a class.

For the price of a week-long class, you might be able to hire a good SQL Server consultant for a few days of one-on-one mentoring. The consultant could evaluate your needs, teach you some basic principles, help you get started performing some of the more basic DBA tasks, and direct you to resources for additional information. (For starters, you could do an online search for "Accidental DBA;" there are several blog sites and online resources that use that term.) You would then have a relationship with the consultant, and hopefully they would be someone you could call when you needed more experienced help.

Another option would be to consider a managed services contract. The managed services provider would set up all the jobs needed to manage your system, including backups and index maintenance, and would guarantee to be available for restoring your data, if and when necessary. Most managed services companies offer 24-hour support, and many also provide tuning services, either proactively or reactively.  If you consider this option, make sure you look for a managed services company that specializes in SQL Server, rather than one that primarily performs services for Windows and only dabbles in SQL Server.

Of course, all of these options cost money, so you’ll need to convince your boss to spend some. If your boss has been insisting you do all the DBA work just to save your company money, it won’t be easy. But you could start the conversation by asking him/her how much the company data is worth.

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