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July 30, 2018

The Changing Role of the Database Administrator

Today's database administrator has to emerge from the shadows for a much more visible role helping set business strategy, argues Ken Rugg, CPO of EnterpriseDB

By CBR Staff Writer

Since the development of “modern” computing, which arguably started in the 1960s with technology such as the IBM/360 hardware, the evolution of computing has gone hand in hand with the development of ever more sophisticated, flexible and powerful database products.

Hierarchical, Relational, Object-Relational and Non-Relational Database models have brought with them the possibilities of better and faster access to more varieties and larger stores of data; and the twin drivers of Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law have relentless pushed back the boundaries of performance and ubiquity respectively.

The result is that today organizations and individuals alike often need and expect to have swift and secure access to relevant and accurate data in real time.  Thus the cloud is born with its promise of an infinite repository of instantly-available information accessible from anywhere.

The Unseen Mechanic

All this data has got to reside somewhere, and in the case of organizations the vast majority of the kind of data that is critical to their business success sits in databases of various sorts.  The tasks of installing and maintaining those databases are today and have been over the past decades the preserve of the Database Administrator (DBA).

Patching, upgrading, backing up (and recovering), securing, planning capacity, troubleshooting – all these are the traditional roles of the DBA.  The DBA has been like a garage mechanic – unseen, unsung and covered in grease until routine service is needed or something goes wrong, and then suddenly a critical resource for keeping the car on the road.  And, just as technology’s impact on cars is changing the role of the garage mechanic – more often armed with a computer than a spanner these days – the cloud’s impact on business data is the catalyst for a change in the role of the DBA.

Get the DBA Behind the Wheel

The cloud is playing havoc with the traditional environment of the company data centre, with its corporate standard for database software, manually administered to serve traditional development projects. Today, a variety of databases is being adopted, often by user departments opting unilaterally for cloud-based solutions that meet their needs but don’t match company standards; agile development replaces and speeds traditional methods; and IT resource provisioning is of necessity automated in order to keep up with the proliferation of repositories.  Thus, instead of lurking in the data centre doing routine maintenance and capacity planning, the DBA today has to become a data expert with a key role in the teams who are developing new business solutions.

Some things haven’t changed, of course.  The increased data needs across the economy ensure that traditional DBA skills are in high demand, employment prospects are good and salaries are still growing.  Organizations may be scrambling for talent, but the savvy DBA has to be moving on in order to stay ahead of the competition, in several significant ways:

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  1. From database administrator to data strategist
    Moving away from the decisions about the infrastructure to decisions about the model – working side by side with the teams to enhance the strategic value of information.
  2. From Hardware “tweaker” to master of cloud technologies
    Moving away from the minutiae of implementing databases to understanding and dealing with whatever cloud database environments the applications mandate.
  3. From schema indexer to master modeler
    The good old days of “any database you like as long as it’s relational” are gone; there are so many new models out there to be aware of, to understand and to be able to handle.
  4. From server jockey to utility provider
    Workloads go up, workloads go down. The modern DBA has to deal with it using an insightful mix of traditional and cloud technologies.
  5. From licence gatekeeper to budget owner
    Moving away from specifying characteristics of installations for dealing with traditional workloads to optimizing costs for the various use cases that developers and operations decide to adopt.
  6. From site administrator to platform broker
    Moving away from tinkering with a corporate-mandated standards-based setup towards collaborating with both developers and operations teams to support their needs – on premise and in the cloud, both public and private.
  7. From query optimizer to performance pro
    Moving from routine systems updates and troubleshooting towards data modeling, query tuning, indexing strategy; finding ways to help improve infrastructure performance.
  8. From account administrator to security expert
    Not just ensuring appropriate access, but encrypting the data, developing security protocols, advising on threats, supporting regulatory compliance.
  9. From operational support to development collaborator
    Moving away from the centralized IT department out towards line-of-business and application teams, focusing on continuous deployment and delivery.

…whilst still keeping things running!  Backups!  Disaster Recovery! Meeting SLAs!  The DBA is still fundamentally responsible for these, and also increasingly these days for handling scalability and fault tolerance in today’s cloud-based environments.

Upskilling the Database Administrator

The vendors you work with must be able to provide both deep expertise and software technologies such as Database as a Service (DBaaS) to support your organization as you embrace the cloud.  That said, ultimately it is up to you as DBAs.  You have a critical role to play in the move to the Cloud and the continuing success of your organizations.  It means you must widen your brief to include understanding the new demands, the new models coming to market and the new ways that technology can help you address these modern challenges.

The key is to move from being seen as data administrators to data strategists.  This requires both a deep technical understanding of how you implement, manage and integrate data in pure cloud, multi-cloud and hybrid IT environments, but it is also necessary to demonstrate – and communicate – the critical business value of data to your organizations.  While the board appreciates the impact of “Big Data,” getting the right person to translate the technical reality into its business value is a role that has not been properly filled.  The Chief Data or Digital Officer was meant to be the answer, but that has not really transpired.

So, rather than believe the hype that automation will replace DBAs now is the time for DBAs to step forward and claim a role that is rightly theirs!

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