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DBAs: The unsung heroes of IT infrastructure in crisis

Mon 11 May 2020 | Bob Potter

How Covid-19 has exacerbated challenges for Database Administrators across the board

Database administrators (DBAs) often seem to play a big part in many organisations or even within IT departments. While security or cloud experts are celebrated as rock stars and certainly their roles are important, DBAs often don’t get the credit they deserve for shoring up business-critical data systems through savvy capacity planning, database design, and performance tuning.

These days, data is the business. Whether a company relies on timely data to drive decisions; uses data to deliver goods to its customers; or provides services that are data-driven, such as IoT devices for healthcare workers – optimised data delivery is the number one priority. DBAs play a crucial role in the data pipeline by preventing databases from slowing down or coming to a halt when demand spikes.

With the recent global Covid-19 crisis, the task for DBAs becomes more difficult. Because many employees across the world are having to work from home, IT departments and data teams have had to quickly pivot to support remote work. Depending on the industry, some companies are able to carry on, if they are agile and have access to company data and tools. But even with the right infrastructure, DBAs’ jobs have become even harder.

For organisations facing rising demand, such as those within the government, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, DBAs must be constantly on guard to ensure databases are running smoothly and can cope with the growing needs of the organisation.

It’s even more challenging for DBAs working in industries such as airlines, leisure and hospitality, whose businesses are at a standstill because of government lockdowns and international travel bans. The IT systems of these paused businesses will suffer first, with limited staff or many on furlough, customers are experiencing “error” or “try again later” messages on their websites because of system overloads.

So, what are the challenges DBAs across the board face, and how has Covid-19 exacerbated these?

More extensive responsibilities

Two decades ago, database administrators were able to focus on supporting production. However, now, along with being operational DBAs, they are expected to also be DevOps DBAs. This means they must expand their knowledge and understand both SQL and programming languages such as C#. Software developers can make use of any type of database management system they choose, for example MySQL or MongoDB, based on their own personal preferences.

The expectation is that the DBA can comprehend all these programming languages. This is similar to saying that because you live in the UK, you can understand and speak Welsh. But these database systems aren’t as easy to optimise or manage compared to systems like Oracle and SQL Server, and they require time and effort for DBAs to learn them.

Carrying out two people’s jobs

One of the biggest struggles DBAs now face is the pressure from wider IT team and finance teams to reduce costs, along with the requirement to manage a higher quantity of production databases.

The problem is that production databases are not insignificant to the business. In fact, they are quite the opposite, these business-critical databases are the foundation of organisations across industries. In those such as healthcare, the performance of the database system can be a life or death situation. Despite this, IT departments are constantly faced with crippling budgets, year-on-year, yet still expected to deliver more with less. Because of these constraints, many DBAs often carry out two people’s jobs, working after hours and on weekends.

Any time an outage or a slow-down occurs, DBAs must be on call to monitor, diagnose and fix the issues. Ultimately, studies have revealed that it costs on average about $700,000 per hour for large organisations to experience downtime and $220,000 for a small business. About 70 percent of all system failures can be attributed to the database.

With the addition of the current global disruption, the DBA’s job is no mean feat. Their roles are highly collaborative as they connect with developers daily in meetings, aiming to understand queries, indexes and application updates. They also have to engage with business users, ensuring they recognise demand peaks, capacity needs and performance requirements. Having to cope with these demands from home, with incredibly high-performance workloads and without being able to discuss the issues face-to-face with their colleagues, is a tall order.

Learning to adapt

Covid-19 has made a difficult job even harder for DBAs – as it has for nearly every professional. At a time when DBAs require more servers, more resources, and better tools at their disposal, they find that finance teams are cutting budgets even more to keep businesses from collapsing. DBAs are now fully reliant on their vendors, who provide the database management and performance monitoring software, as well as service companies that provide hosting, expertise and employees.

Maintaining these partnerships will be critical. Vendors will either strengthen their business relationship with the DBA, or risk getting replaced. Every day is a new scenario, with everyone facing a crisis they’ve never experienced before and learning as quickly as possible. Today, DBAs are faced with learning to do more with less, all virtually, whilst managing and monitoring data patterns, dashboards and reports. The DBAs are the unsung heroes of IT infrastructure; they are the ones keeping systems running smoothly, all while business leaders and managers in other departments react and respond to the dramatically shifting needs brought by the crisis.

Eventually, life and business as we know it will go back to normal – or close to it – and perhaps autonomous databases that fix themselves will become a reality one day, too. However, until that day arrives, this is a wake-up call to get to know and show appreciation for your organisation’s DBAs and the work they do. After all, not all heroes wear capes, and not all IT professionals power your business like DBAs do.

Experts featured:

Bob Potter



database dba
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