On June 18th I had the honor of being part of history for the SQL Server Community. That was the day that the country of Iceland held it’s first SQLSaturday – and word has it not its last. For those of you who are not familiar SQLSaturday is a series of locally produced events licensed from PASS, the professional association that provides education and learning for data professionals leveraging the Microsoft data platform. While these events were designed to focus on local speakers, those are in short supply in Reykjavik considering the entire population of Iceland is approximately 340,000. I was one of a few international guests that traveled to this small but engaging country to take part in the event that offered eighteen total sessions over three concurrent tracks.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. That event was only part of the journey. There were four days exploring Iceland’s rural southern coastal areas and central “Golden Circle” that led up to the events at SQLSaturday Iceland as well as a few post-event activities that I’ll get into towards the end of the article. Suffice to say they include what may be record-setting presentations in a less than typical classroom.
For this journey I brought along my oldest son Austen to help chronicle the journey and act as my videographer for some of the experiences that took place. Having just graduated from high school it seemed like the perfect opportunity to experience a life-changing event together. He’s been an active part of my SQL Cruise events since he was quite young – serving as a liaison for our attendees’ children and leading events geared towards them when possible. He’s also volunteered at both SQLSaturday events I helped to organize in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
We’re doing something a bit different in this series; we’ll be following events and life experiences from those that travel the globe providing training and community enrichment for consumers of the Microsoft data platform. So grab a cup of coffee or something stronger depending upon when you’re reading this and settle back as I take you on a tour of Iceland and of their first SQLSaturday event.
Day One: Keflavik Airport to Skógafoss
The flight to Iceland from Minneapolis-St. Paul is not long by many measures of travel between the United States and Europe – a mere 6 hours. Austen was able to sleep on the plane – 17 year olds can sleep anywhere I’ve come to realize. I, on the other hand was lucky to come up with three hours of sleep and that’s being generous. It was going to be a long day.
The airport major airport serving the capital of Reykjavik is actually located 45 minutes to the West and South in the small town of Keflavik. After getting a necessary espresso (and considering pouring it into my eyes versus drinking it in order to get even more of a boost) we toured the duty free store, collected our bags, and made our way to the rental offices where we were to pick up our converted camper mini-van; our home for the next three nights.
The one thing I didn’t realize was that the van was a manual transmission. For the record I’d not driven a stick since Backstreet Boys were still boys and Madonna wasn’t eligible for the senior discount at Denny’s. Luckily after grinding the gears once heading out of the parking lot it seemed like 1989 all over again.
We had opted to take our pre-SQLSaturday journey along the southern coast of the country because of the expectation of breathtaking waterfalls, glaciers, and black sand beaches. There is a “highway” (using the term loosely) that circles the entire country called the Ring Road. Landing on a peninsula that juts off the southwest of the country we had two options: follow the coastline there before joining the Ring Road near Selfoss or we could take the fast route directly towards Reykjavik and join up early with the Ring Road – scenery and experience be damned.
We opted for experience over expedience and were glad we did.
The peninsula we landed on is called the Reykjanes. At the far western edge of the Reykjanes are the Hafnaberg Sea Cliffs. Or as Austen coined them: “the most amazing place I’ve ever been.” We had not yet been in the van for 30 minutes and already were off-roading and making our first stop. It’s no wonder they say you can drive the ring road in four days but you need to allow for seven to ten days because you’ll be constantly stopping for photos and exploring.
From there we drove on in search of the Ring Road and food – not having eaten anything substantial since the previous night in the Minneapolis airport. Luckily we had our trusty Lonely Planet Iceland book and found Bryggjan, a café in the fishing village of Grindavík. There is not much to see in Grindavík from a tourist standpoint but when we saw our first tour bus outside this small café we knew we stumbled on to something good. What we ended up with was a self-serve lunch of lobster soup and Icelandic bread. You have to appreciate a café that provides such good fare that they only have two things on the menu – a verbal menu at that! Refreshed we set off for the Ring Road and the larger path in front of us having taken the road less traveled…
Refreshed we drove and finally met up with the Ring Road in Selfoss, which is the largest city in the south of Iceland. We provisioned for the camping portion of our trip at a grocery chain. Grocery shopping when I travel is one of the things I enjoy doing. You get a good sense of what a region is like based upon where locals buy their food. It was a bit difficult trying to discern what we were buying. Even though everyone speaks English and most packaging is in English not all of it is and the translation can be a bit dicey. Take for instance what Icelanders call “Cool Ranch” Doritos
Placing Selfoss in our rear view mirror we shot off towards the East. I had the plan to make it as far as Vik the first night but then realized that exhaustion and the periodic stops for photos was going to invalidate that plan. Considering we didn’t need to be in Reykjavik until Friday for the SQLSaturday speaker dinner we decided to forgo all plans and stop when we were tired – wherever that may be. One of our biggest diversions was the waterfall known as Seljalandsfoss.
This was one of the sites that specifically set our course to the south when planning this trip. It’s one of the few accessible waterfalls in Iceland you can walk completely behind. We were lucky enough to be there at the right time of day with the right weather. At just about every angle we were faced with a rainbow we felt we could reach out and touch.
From Seljalandsfoss we decided to find a campground for the night. Showers, food, and a good book seemed like a great way to cap off the day. Luckily we were less than ten minutes away from a perfect campground to fulfill all those things. Campsites and private guesthouses abound in Iceland. We paid the nominal fee for a site and joined other camper vans and tents near yet another waterfall at Skógafoss. Plans change quickly: we didn’t procure any local currency because by all accounts Iceland is a cash-free society and credit cards are taken everywhere. Except for where credit cards are functionally impossible. Take for example pay showers.
Resigned to smelling bad for another 24 hours we made our way to the cafeteria that was on site, not because we were going to abandon the luxury of cooking out of the back of a camper van but rather because the camp owners were extending the hours to allow for everyone to catch the Iceland v. Portugal Euro Cup football match. It was an amazing experience as we sat with perhaps 30 other campers comprised of various nationalities cheering on a team we didn’t even know existed before that night. The energy of the Icelanders watching was contagious and by the time the match that Iceland was expected to lose by a large margin ended in a tie we were hooked as fans.
We returned to the van to cook diner and must have been doing something uncommon for the area. Our meal of grilled salmon, stir-fried frozen vegetables (that remained more “frozen” than “fried” and a dessert of dark chocolate Hobb-Nobbs drew the attention of a few of our fellow campers as well as an entire bus of Asian tourists who were there to see the waterfall that lay at the north end of the campground. They even stopped to take photos of us cooking our salmon. It’s a shame they didn’t come back the same way they came because we planned to share a bit of our remaining salmon should they do so. After cleaning up it was still quite bright out. We figured we packed a great deal into our first day (as you can see from the length of my description about the day) and that it must be only about 8pm. We were both surprised to see it was after 11pm. Sure, we realized the days would be considerably longer than back at home with Iceland located in the 65 latitude range and our home back at latitude 42 but I did expect at least a dusk.
Dusk never came the entire time we were in Iceland.
Austen climbed into our bedroom in the back of the van and called it a night. I decided to try to exhaust myself and climb the 30 flights of stairs next to the waterfall to catch the view and take some photos thinking it would lend to my sleeping better. Little did I know when I returned to the van that even though we had no windows in the back of the van we had only a curtain between our bedroom and the driving compartment and whether it was a van in rural Iceland or a modern hotel in Reykjavik the one thing we never experienced – in addition to dusk – was complete darkness resulting from properly-fitting curtains.
Day Two: Skógafoss to Skaftafell and Svinafell
We woke hungry and decided to pack up and head out to Vik for breakfast. Within minutes we noticed a sign at the end of a dirt road for a restaurant. We also caught the phrase “black beach” and felt we could cross two things off our list at once. The restaurant was a closed but what we did discover was an amazing black sand (rock) beach with massive sea stacks located just off shore. Exploring this area was a highlight for me just as the cliffs the day before were for Austen. Everything was black thanks to the volcanic birth of this country; the lava columns transitioning to smooth rocks and then black sand the close you went towards where the island was battered by the North Atlantic.
From here we headed into Vik expecting much and realizing nothing in terms of restaurants. We only saw tour buses and gas stations so continued on to a small city much further east called “The Cloister” by the locals because they even find the name a burden to pronounce: Kirkjubæjarklaustur, which essentially means church farm cloister. One of the things we found out later in our journey was that the naming conventions used by Icelanders is extremely observational: “see those red hills over there? They only exist here and on Mars,” we were told a few days later; “we call them red hills.”
From a roadside lunch in “Cloister” we headed through what locals called “the craters” a barren waste of geologic castings-off from the retreat of glaciers that were visible on the mountains to our North as we drove towards our second night stop in Svinafell. Last night was waterfall time – having seen and walked above or behind two of them. Today was all about glaciers: their present and their past. We ran across a piece of twisted metal that we thought was a sculpture covered with graffiti which ended up being the remnants of the previous bridge in the area that was torn apart in ensuing flash flood that occurred when the Katla volcano erupted in 2011. The eruption instantly melted a large portion of the glacier encasing the volcano and the glacial floodwaters’ volume and speed tore the bridge asunder as the waters headed south following the existing riverbed towards the Atlantic. This was a shrine and warning to what nature can do to anything built by humankind. Taking chances on a turn down a road that appeared as though it could lead to the Skaftafell glacier near our destination for tonight we were pleasantly surprised to find our assumptions correct. This appeared to be a trailhead for a popular glacier hike. Though the glacier appears content we are reminded it’s a sleeping giant when we come across a memorial to two young hikers lost here on the glacier years ago. Exploring complete it was off to our campsite – a family owned property that allowed us the hot showers and a community cooking area with hot plates, dishes, and pots. There would be no cooking behind a vehicle tonight!
It was really interesting being part of a community of vagabonds all peacefully taking turns with the limited cooking utensils and cooking areas. Listening to the various conversations in at least six languages from my count while small groups pulled out their various bottles of whatever libation they were interested in sharing around the table. Playing cards came out, voices raised as people loosened up. It was a nice way to end day two and I didn’t realize it yet but I was getting quite used to how well everyone here got along here and with exceptions for excited talk assisted by alcohol and good times spent playing games Iceland was a relatively quiet society.
Day Three: Svinafell to Þingvellir Through the Golden Circle
Originally we planned to head much further East in Iceland to the city Höfn. We were getting a bit tired of driving though and knew we had to double whatever additional miles East we went when it was time to turn towards Reykjavik and SQLSaturday. That in mind we decided to turn back to the West and take our time – a full day actually –to get us to what is known as the Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle provides opportunities to visit three very popular attractions that lay less than an hour from Reykjavik and with a bit of route changes we figured we could knock that off our list on the way to Reykjavik rather than as a day trip while staying in the capital. First stop on the Golden Circle for us though wasn’t one of those attractions at all though – it was a hot spring spa in the aptly named Fludir. Iceland is the land of ice and fire. The country runs primarily on geothermal energy and there are sulfur springs heated by the very fire that made this island just about everywhere. We had been both told to visit and to steer clear of the most well known of these spas so when we saw a smaller one in our proposed path for the day we decided to make it a destination as much as for the shower mandated before using the communal hot spring pool as for the pool itself. It was a bit of a culture shock for the local custom is for everyone to shower naked before donning suits and heading to the spa area. That would be fine if not for the number of available showering heads and the number of visitors to the spa. Shyness abated quickly and soon we found ourselves in a natural rock pool fed from a hot spring with an associated geyser next to it that would erupt every few minutes. We had a nice conversation with a group of women traveling from Missouri and after we had our fill showered off, checked email thanks to the free Wi-Fi and were off to the three destinations of the Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is comprised of three attractions. The first attraction we visited was Geysir – an area of highly active geothermal activity that (in keeping with the Icelandic method for naming things) includes a prominent geyser along with hot pots and sulfur springs. This was followed by stop number two, a waterfall called Gullfoss that in my opinion exceeds Niagara Falls, which is my only form of comparison, in sheer scale and beauty. Leaving Gullfoss we found ourselves weighing hunger versus distance to the final site in the Golden Circle: Þingvellir National Park. Luckily Austen’s search engine skills turned up something we didn’t expect to find in rural Iceland, a restaurant in our route that was owned and operated by a Cordon Bleu graduate that seemed out of place in the small town of Laugarvatn (population 250). Though the food was decent, the service was lacking and we didn’t get out of Laugarvatn until quite late; thanks in part to discovering an abandoned home and junked cars that kept us entertained with our cameras for an hour. We resigned ourselves to driving into a rainstorm through the grey landscape of Þingvellir looking for a side road or camping site we could pull into for the night. Finding one we finished our last evening on the road with expectations of civilization, familiar friends, and SQL Server in less than 18 hours.
Day Four: Þingvellir to Reykjavik and SQLSaturday Speaker Dinner
The interesting thing about Þingvellir is that it lay on the meeting of the two tectonic plates that comprise the North American continent and the European continent. These two plates continue to pull apart in small measures each year and contribute to the geological diversity that is Iceland. Additionally Þingvellir literally means “Parliament Plains” in Icelandic and hosted their Alþing (general assembly) between 930 and 1798. This history lives on through interpretive areas and walking tours throughout the region of the park. These two worlds: the geologic and historical come together at Þingvellir as we learned when we discovered that various areas along the shifting plates, waterfalls, and lakes were named for the various execution purposes of the sites associated with punishments for various crimes starting after 1662 once Iceland swore allegiance to the King of Denmark as absolute monarch and resigned independence. It was then that Þingvellir became an execution site for Iceland rather than a legislative center.
We were both getting anxious with the thought of visiting the capital city and checking into our hotel with all the modern amenities we lived without for the last four days. We could have spent days in Þingvellir but a few hours suited us just fine. It was a short drive out of the highlands and into town. We checked into our hotel and I drove the 45 minutes to Keflavik to turn over our van/home and pick up a rental car that was small enough to store in the back of our van. By the time I returned to the hotel and took my turn cleaning up it was late afternoon and we quickly set off to find friends and SQL Family before the scheduled SQLSaturday Iceland speaker dinner.
A quick check on Twitter and we met up with two fellow speakers for the next day’s event: Rob Volk, the only other speaker from the United States; and Cathrine Wilhelmsen, a fellow Microsoft Data Platform MVP from Norway whom I met at a SQLSaturday a few years previously and who since has attended one of my SQL Cruise events. The meeting site was the main landmark in Reykjavik: Hallgrímskirkja Church. The church stands over 240 feet (73 meters) in height and is fronted by a statue of Leifr Eriksson, the first European to discover America in 1000 A.D. (500 years before Christopher Columbus stumbled upon it). What was interesting to us is that the statue was a gift from the United States to Iceland on the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir and that it was designed by Alexander Calder who is a well-respected artist with a very notable art installation in a city near our home. The Hallgrímskirkja is also home to an amazing pipe organ that weighs in at 25 tons and is comprised of 5,275 pipes. For the record it sounds fantastic. Another fantastic note was the view from the bell tower we were able to experience. However be warned that the tower bells are fully operational as we discovered at half past the hour.
SQLSaturdays typically are structured with a full day of classroom sessions with some events choosing to host half and full day paid training events the day before. Of the over 500 events to date since inception most take place on Saturdays but there is no rule stating they need to take place on a specific day of the week. Culture and the organizers’ preference dictate the actual date. One of the other aspects of SQLSaturday is the speaker dinner held the night before the event. This gives the chance for organizers, volunteers, and speakers to get together and socialize in advance of the day ahead. These individuals are volunteers and are not compensated for their attendance, effort, and dedication. Speakers are not compensated for their travel and most of us pay for the entire trip out-of-pocket unless some form of corporate sponsorship is arranged or they’re speaking on behalf of a SQLSaturday sponsor. The dinner and a thoughtful gift and perhaps a shirt are the only compensation we receive. The speakers and organizers volunteer their time for the good of the SQL Server community. It’s one of the amazing things about those of us who have helped to build the community of SQL Server professionals over the years. We feel that in helping one another we all become stronger as a group. We aren’t losing competitive advantage when we share our knowledge. We collectively raise the bar when we share.
That being said our group of four set off in search of our venue for the night. Eventually we picked up others along the way including fellow Data Platform MVPs and dear friends Mladen Prajdić from Slovenia and Andre Kamman from The Netherlands. Once at the restaurant we were able to meet many of the other speakers and discuss everything from logistics of getting to Iceland to PowerShell, SSMS plug-ins, football, and SQL Server 2016 over surprising good (and strong) beer as well as the standard Icelandic fare of roast lamb. It was nice to meet up with another of my SQL Cruise attendees – Christina Leo – formerly of Tennessee but now living in London and working for Microsoft as a Senior Premier Field Engineer. I also had the opportunity to finally meet Chrissy LeMaire, formerly of Cajun country in rural Louisiana now living in Belgium and working for NATO Special Operations. Chrissy is so integral to the PowerShell community that when you type PowerShell and Chrissy into Bing it autocompletes her last name for you. Joining us at our end of the table was Gail Shaw who traveled all the way from South Africa in order to lead a pre-conference session the day before SQLSaturday on the topic of execution plans. Gail, who blogs at SQLintheWild is one of the leading sources of truth on execution plans and is one of the top resources I cite for overall SQL knowledge.
The talk ran long and the beer flowed. Eventually Austen left for the two-kilometer walk back to our hotel. I eventually looked up and saw it still bright out – figuring it was only around 8:30pm or possibly 9:00pm. When I looked at my phone I discovered it was 12:30am! It was going to be a long day of training and learning tomorrow – well, today really – and I opted to leave as well while others stayed around for a few more hours.
Day Five: SQLSaturday
Sessions for SQLSaturday Iceland started at 8:30am and ran until 4:00pm. Typically SQLSaturdays run a bit longer than this but it was an important day in Iceland with their national team continuing on in the Euro Cup and taking on Hungary after their surprising stage 1 tie against the favored Portugal. The day kicked off with Microsoft Data Platform MVPs Oliver Engels and Tillmann Eitelberg covering mobile BI while sessions on Microsoft Azure and SQL Server 2016 security enhancements were presented concurrently. Insights into these sessions and the other fifteen sessions presented over the course of the day are available here.
Before I presented I was compelled to sit in on Chrissy LeMaire’s session on PowerShell, specifically on using PowerShell for simplified SQL Server Migrations. Chrissy has developed a suite of over 30 PowerShell commands to do everything from copying logins or copying all aspects of SQL Server Agent (jobs, operators, schedules, etc.) all the way to cloning a complete instance of SQL Server. The scripts cover all editions and versions of SQL Server from 2000 to 2016 and are available for free at dbatools.io. Her session was well received and for someone still committing himself to learning PowerShell I found the session engaging and a good starting point to using PowerShell immediately and using her coding to get an understanding on what I can accomplish with PowerShell. It also was interesting watching her migrate an entire SQL Server in the time it took to take a coffee break.
I was up after Chrissy speaking on the topic of SQL Server Dynamic Management Objects – specifically those objects associated with indexing. The purpose of the talk was to identify how you can use these coding constructs to identify successes and shortcomings in your indexing strategy. It’s not just about identifying fragmentation. It’s about discovering if your fill factors are not proper for your actual workload and data distribution by identifying page splits; its about determining if your choices for primary keys are appropriate; it’s about identifying your largest indexes – specifically the largest indexes that are not being used to satisfy reads. Overall, it is about knowing what questions to ask when poking holes in your indexing strategy and how to identify those “holes”. If you’re interested in the deck and the scripts for this session they’re available on my presentation files download page on my website: theSQLAgentman.com along with all other presentations from the past few years.
The organizers produced a great event for the first time attempting a SQLSaturday. It’s my understanding their registration exceeded expectations and considering it took place on the weekend of their national independence holiday I was pleasantly surprised with the turnout.The event complete, a handful of speakers and guests took the advice of one of the Iceland SQLSaturday organizers, Þröstur "Spörri" Jónasson and went to dinner at a local restaurant specializing in local Icelandic fare. This meant dining on fish as well as puffin (taste like whale) and whale (tastes like cow if cow was to live in the ocean). We added a final Microsoft Data Platform MVP to the list: Alex Whittles from the United Kingdom. It was these individuals that would be joining together tomorrow on a three-kilometer hike to the Thrihnukagigur volcano to descend 700 feet to the bottom of the crater and explore. It was easily on the top ten list of my life experiences. We also managed to do a little bit of technical training once we got down there.
Day Six: Let’s Talk SQL in a Volcano!
The aforementioned volcano descent started with a trip by bus to the staging site, which also serves as a ski resort in the winter. A misty three kilometer hike over terrain reminiscent of those shots you see from the Mars Rover – but in shades of green and black – took us to a warming shack on the edge of the three volcanoes that are a part of the ridge we were to climb before boarding the same form of transport that you’ll see window washers use on exteriors of skyscrapers. Outfitted, we walked the 500 meters to lip of the crater, clipped into safety rigging, then began the 6 minute ride to the deepest point in the world most of us – if not all – have ever been.
It should be noted I’m deathly afraid of heights. It should also be noted Austen is as well. This likely is the result of childhood trauma. I lost my father at the age of three - he was 26 – in an industrial accident that included the same type of transport we boarded to reach the bottom of the crater. He was installing fire suppression systems and a dangling rope caught on a forklift, which caused the platform my father was on and the one that was above him to shift and a coworker of my father’s to fall from above him. My father reached out to grab him and fell to his death in the attempt to save a friend. So here it was – Father’s Day with my son descending in a rig that reminded me of all of this while 700 feet in the air.
The journey down was amazing. The natural light fades away quickly and before long the only light is artificial from below. Once you arrive at the bottom of the crater in what is known as the “iPhone Drop Zone” you are quickly escorted to the walkway that encircles the crater’s base. You’re given some guidance on what to do and where not to go and then have 30 minutes to explore. The geology of this place is utterly amazing. As far as anyone knows this is the only volcano on the planet that is dormant and where the lava from its final eruption didn’t fill in the volcano. The shades of blues, reds, greens, and blacks paint the walls as far as you can see before darkness reclaims the landscape. We took the opportunity to explore and take photos from every angle as well as record three lightning talks about SQL Server, SQL Cruise, and Biml. We are working on editing those talks and will post them here once they are available. The trip back up and returning to Reykjavik was no less amazing than the journey there. A long dinner with the group afterwards with talk of SQLSaturdays forthcoming this winter in Prague and Slovenia ranked high as did further review of Chrissy LeMaire’s dbatools.io PowerShell scripts and SQL Cruise 2017 planning rounded out the night. Many of us were departing the next day now that our SQL events were over. Some of us were planning a few more days in Iceland. This was by far one day in our lives though we would never forget no matter where life took us. For those of you who may be interested in following our lead and heading to the heart of a dead volcano you can arrange the tour here.
Days Seven Through Nine: About and Around Reykjavik Plus Bonus Time
Austen and I were scheduled to leave a couple days after. We had time built in to spend in the city since most of our Reykjavik time was consumed with SQLSaturday and the subsequent volcano tour. We also spent a day heading north along the coast to Borgarnes and finally Grundarfjörður checking out the differences in landscape between there and the places we traveled earlier in the trip. We also ended up with an extra twelve hours in our Icelandic stay thanks to fog and the fact that our airline only has two flights a day out of Iceland to the United States. I want to take a moment to thank Delta airlines personally for how that was handled, communicated, and executed. I also want to thank the personnel at the Keflavik airport and those individuals local to Keflavik who took us in at various locations and made us comfortable. We were entertained – our group spent the day at the Icelandic Rock and Roll Museum – where we had free reign of the event spaces and were able to watch the Iceland Eurocup game in the theatre. After collecting us and getting us on a flight scheduled for 8am local time – finally departing at 11pm local time we were on our way home.
Looking in from the outside SQL Server professionals – data professionals as a whole – appear to lead boring lives behind computers and in dark recesses of company basements. Just as with any profession it’s up to us to make our days interesting and the tale told here was one of those. If you have experienced anything extraordinary you’d like to share in the course of working with Microsoft’s Data Platform offerings please reach out to us here. I would be happy to interview you about your experience and publish it here. Until next time – as they say in Iceland “þar til næst” (until next time.)