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Apple MacBook Air 2011 13″ Review

As I was finishing recording the Microsoft Certified Master videos last month, my beloved and well-traveled MacBook Pro started giving me fits.  It survived three very rough years on the road, encoding HD videos at home, and running multiple simultaneous heavy-load VMs.  I was really pleased that it lasted as long as it did, but I have to confess that I’ve had my eyes on a new MacBook Pro for a while.

As much as I love whipping out the plastic at the Apple Store, December 2010 was a really, really bad time to buy a new laptop.  Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors were scheduled for release at CES in January, and that meant an all-new lineup of laptops arriving too.  Sandy Bridge CPUs were said to be 10-23% faster while using less electricity – great numbers for a laptop.

I took a deep breath and evaluated my needs:

  • One heavy-duty laptop to demo clustering – and I really wanted that to have 16GB of memory, something unavailable in Apple’s 2010 laptop lineup.
  • One backup presentation device – ever since my epic 2009 European trip disaster when my laptop failed and I had to use a Swedish-speaking netbook, I always travel with two devices capable of giving presentations.  The iPad fulfilled that role.

I was pretty happy with the iPad, but not completely.  It has a phenomenal 8-12 hour battery life, keeps me occupied on airplanes with movies & games, and shows PowerPoint slides.  Well, that’s not entirely true, because it doesn’t import all PowerPoint features perfectly.  Custom fonts, SmartArt, and animations don’t always work, and I hated having to make excuses for imperfections in my slide decks.  (Other than the factual errors, which everybody expects from me anyway.)

Suddenly the light went off – what if I bought a new MacBook Air to be my backup presentation device?  It could run the real PowerPoint, displaying my slides in all their font-perfect glory.  Sure, it would suck as a primary laptop due to its limited CPU power, memory, and storage space, but as a backup presentation device, it made pretty good sense.

Choosing Between the 11″ and 13″ Air (2011 Model)

The 13″ has faster available processors, longer battery life, and an SD card slot, but for me, the decision point boiled down to this:

  • 11″ – sexy, but maxes out at 128GB of storage
  • 13″ – conventional laptop footprint, 256GB of storage

The drive space is especially important because the Air uses a new format of SSD drive that isn’t available to consumers yet.  It’s technically end-user-replaceable, but you just can’t buy a replacement off the shelf yet, so love the one you’re with.  For me, that made the 128GB drive a deal-breaker because I wanted to sync my complete home directory with all my client documents, presentations, and music.  I didn’t want to hassle with picking a subset of data to sync.

One of the cool things about replacing Apple gear is the Time Machine backup system.  You simply boot up your new Mac at home, and it asks if you’d like to transfer data from an existing Time Machine backup.  I use an Apple Time Capsule for my backups, and the Air detected it automatically and asked which of my Macs I was replacing with the Air.  I picked my old MacBook Pro, and a few hours later, it was just as if my old laptop had been transformed into an Air.  OSX backups include all of your applications, settings, documents, you name it.

Sort of.

The problem with replacing your main machine with an Air is that the Air probably doesn’t have enough hard drive space to accommodate your years of junk.  Before I did the Time Capsule boogie, I did some strategic drive planning.

How I Store Stuff on the Air

Before the Air, I had a simple strategy – all my stuff went on the laptop’s internal drive except virtual machines.  I stored my VMs on an external hard drive.  My old MBP had a 750GB internal drive with around 400GB used, and I needed to identify the drive space hogs.

GrandPerspective Drive Map

GrandPerspective Drive Map

I fired up GrandPerspective, a free tool that scans your hard drive and builds a graph of the big files and directories.  It’s easy to move your mouse around over the map and figure out which paths and files are sucking up too much space.  I made a few quick passes, deleting stuff I didn’t need anymore, and suddenly my entire drive was down to just about 300GB used.  I got excited – what if I could actually use my MacBook Air as my primary machine?  Unfortunately, one big thing kept me from squeaking under the 256GB border: my iPhoto library, already over 100GB and growing daily.

After a lot of sighs – really, just 256GB, Apple? – here’s how I decided to carve up my storage:

Internal 256GB SSD drive – my documents, music, and my most commonly used virtual machine.  I run one VM with SQL Server 2008 R2 for most of my demos and client work.

USB 1TB drive – my iPhoto library, movies, virtual machines, and downloaded software.  The drive has four folders:

  • \Backed Up and \Not Backed Up – almost everything goes into subfolders of these.  For example, my downloaded Microsoft software goes to \Not Backed Up\Software because I can always re-download it from MSDN, but software I buy online goes into \Backed Up\Software.
  • \iMovie Events and \iMovie Projects – I’m futzing with iMovie to produce a HD podcast on the cheap, and that means lots and lots of big video files.  I don’t want those on the solid state drive, so I put them on the external, but iMovie won’t allow you to pick a specific FOLDER to store your videos – only a drive.  Ideally I’d put these in \Backed Up, but I’m sure Apple knows better about this sort of thing than I do. </sarcasm>

I use the built-in Time Machine software for backups, and by default, Time Machine doesn’t back up external USB drives.  It implements that by adding an entry in the exclusions list for the root of each USB drive.  I removed the exclusion for my 1TB USB drive, then added an exclusion for its \Not Backed Up folder.  That way my \Backed Up and iMovie folders automatically find their way to my Time Capsule.  (Yes, the Time Capsule is overpriced, but it matches my computing lifestyle: I’m willing to pay more if things get easier so I can focus on what I love to do.)

SD cards stick out

SD cards stick out

My storage design means I can’t use iMovie or iPhoto if I’m on the road without my USB drive.  Not a showstopper for me, since I use an Eye-Fi SD card anyway, which automatically uploads my photos to Flickr or Facebook.  However, it’s a little annoying when I plug in my iPhone – OS X asks what iPhoto library I’d like to use because my USB drive isn’t plugged in.

Mini-review of the Eye-Fi SD card: As long as I’m mentioning it, everybody should own an Eye-Fi Explore.  It’s a $90 SD card with built-in geotagging (marking your photos with physical locations), WiFi, plus hotspot access.  Your friends and family at home can follow along with your adventures without you having to drag a computer around to upload stuff.  It’ll even selectively upload only the pictures you choose (handled by your camera’s lock-image function – if it’s locked, it gets uploaded).  Even if all your pictures are taken at home, you’ll appreciate the Eye-Fi’s automatic uploading of pictures to your desktop computer – my photos automatically go straight into iPhoto as soon as my camera is turned on within wireless range of my Mac.  I can configure the Eye-Fi to tweet, post FaceBook messages, or send emails whenever new photos go out, so my friends & family can see what I’ve been up to.  Topping things off, the Eye-Fi has an “unlimited memory” setting: when your card hits 80% used, it starts deleting images that have already been uploaded to your computer.  Your friends and relatives who hate computers will love this card because it’s automagical.  (Your friends who take dirty pictures, however, should think twice.)  $90.  Just do it.

Now back to the laptop.  The Air has an SD card slot, and while 32GB SD cards have gotten pretty cheap, I wouldn’t recommend using those as a full-time storage device.  The Air’s SD card slot isn’t full depth – cards stick out of the side – and the klutz in me would break that pretty quickly.  I do use a 32GB SD card to back up my primary demo VM because it’s just so darned convenient.  I leave the postage-stamp size card in my laptop bag as insurance against demo disasters.

My kind of brick

Now THAT is the right size for a laptop power supply.

What I Like About the 2011 Air

When I want to work at a cafe, I grab the Air and go.  No charger (not that the charger is bulky, either), no cables, and most of the time, I don’t even put the Air into a case.  I just walk out the door with it under my arm because the one-piece aluminum body is rock freakin’ solid.  The battery life is astounding for such a lightweight device, and the best way I can explain it is to say that I don’t care about battery life anymore.  The Air’s battery can outlast my ability to work at a cafe, period.  I’ve ordered coffee at 7AM, worked until 1-2PM, and still had battery life left.  Anandtech said it best in their Air review:

“The 11-inch Air delivers nearly 7 hours on a single charge and the 13-inch managed 11.2 hours. For a writer, you can’t do better than this.”

As an IT professional, though, we need more than web browsers and Word, and that’s where virtualization comes in.  With just 4GB of memory, I can’t do complicated clustering demos on the Air, but for a single virtual machine running SQL Server 2008R2 and my array of utilities, it’s perfectly fine.

What I like the most, though, is the speed.  The Air uses an ancient CPU, but the solid state drive and the OS optimizations make it feel blazing fast.  Close the lid and it sleeps instantly – then open the lid again, and you’re working within two seconds.  Tell it to shut down, and the screen’s dark within three seconds.  Coming from my three-year-old MacBook Pro with a spinning hard drive, the Air is an upgrade.  Sitting next to Paul Randal’s brand-new $6,000 laptop running Windows, the Air still seems faster at basic tasks – I shake my head while I watch him power down.  “I just need another few seconds, it’s almost there…”

What I Meh About the 2011 Air

To get to this tiny form factor, Apple stripped out a couple of features that Apple veterans loved: FireWire and a backlit keyboard.  I miss the backlit keyboard when I’m working on dark flights.  I miss FireWire every time I do a videoconference because I used to use a real camcorder plugged in via FireWire.  The built-in iSight camera isn’t bad, but it doesn’t hold a candle to a real camcorder.  (Those of you who think your HD webcam is good should check out the results of even a $250 consumer-level camcorder with FireWire out – the camcorder’s low-light handling is much, much better.)

I thought the lack of integrated 3G wireless would bother me, because that seamless connectivity is one of the things I love about my iPad.  It hasn’t been an issue because the Air pairs over Bluetooth with my iPhone whenever I can’t get WiFi coverage.  That does deplete battery life quicker on both the phone and the laptop, though, so it’s not ideal.

High definition Flash videos make the fan kick on.  Most PC users I know don’t notice this because their computer fan always runs anyway, but on a completely silent Air with a solid state drive, even the slightest noise stands out.  This isn’t really a problem with the Air as much as it is a problem with Adobe’s craptastic programming, but it bears mentioning.  The Air can still play 1080p videos without stuttering.

Okay, let’s get to the elephant in the room – money.  The total purchase price including AppleCare and a few video adapter cables rang up a little over $2,300.  That is one hell of a lot of money for a backup presentation device, and it’s the most I’ve ever spent on a laptop.  (My prior laptops have all been company machines or gifts.)  It’s pretty much the cost I would expect to spend on a very nice primary laptop, which brings me to…

My Workspace 2011

My Workspace 2011

What Surprised Me About the MacBook Air

1. It’s become my only laptop.

With my trusty $320 28″ monitor, my old-school Microsoft Natural Keyboard, and my Magic Mouse, I work on this thing all day long and it rarely crosses my mind that this is an ultralight laptop.  Even the new Sandy Bridge laptops haven’t tempted me at all, and I can see using the Air as my only laptop for the next couple of years.  Now I just have to figure out portable demos for clustering & virtualization – right now, I’m leaning toward cloud-based solutions.

2. It’s almost replaced my iPad.

I loved my iPad for its light weight, more-than-good-enough speed, and long battery life.  It’s such a pleasure to use that I found myself trying to figure out how to make it my primary travel device, but the iOS apps just aren’t there yet.  The Air sacrifices some of the iPad’s strengths – it’s a little heavier, and the battery life isn’t quite as good – but adds in all the application goodness of a real laptop.

If you’re considering an iPad with 3G, go take a MacBook Air for a spin.  You were probably going to spend $899 on the 64GB iPad, and for just $70 more, you can get the MacBook Air 11″.

Just be careful.

Once you take a sip of the OS X Kool-Aid, you’ll never be the same.

Wanna learn more? Read my post about How To Buy Your First Mac.

InfoBoom: My Experiment in a Different Blogging Voice

Back in November, IBM’s InfoBoom contacted me about writing for them.  Normally I turn down those kinds of requests because I’ve already got a platform for my voice (my blog), and I’m a freak about controlling ownership of my content.  InfoBoom made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I stepped back and took another look.

InfoBoom’s slogan is, “Validate, network, and share with a community of respected midsize business leaders and experts just like you.”  That’s very different from how things operate here at BrentOzar.com, and the more I read the content, the more I realized I had to write differently.  I decided to approach it as an experiment: what if I tried to write more like someone who gets paid to write?  What if I was John Dvorak or Robert X. Cringely back before they jumped the shark?  What if I purposely tried to write things to get people engaged?

Over the last two months, I’ve written articles like:

Now it’s time to take a breather and think about what I learned from my experiment.

Writing is hard work. My peak writing hours are 7AM to 10AM, and when I’m in the zone with nothing else going on, I can bang out two good posts.  The problem is that other things are going on – especially these days when I’m doing consulting.  I’m booked 2-3 months in advance right now, and I get new requests from existing clients all the time.  “Can you just remote in and look at this one thing?”  Every day, I have to choose between consulting and blogging, so blogging quite literally costs me money.

I can’t succeed without scheduling blog posts. Since I don’t get as much blogging time as I’d like, I usually schedule my stuff to publish in advance.  I’ve got 2-3 weeks of blog posts scheduled at BrentOzar.com ahead of time, but InfoBoom’s blog platform didn’t have a scheduler.  I ended up writing posts ahead of time in my own WordPress, but saving them as drafts, and then publishing them on InfoBoom manually.  (I have this same issue over at SQLskills, which is why you don’t see me writing as often as I should over there either.)

I enjoy writing in a different voice. Looking at the collection, I’m really proud of what I wrote in the last two months at InfoBoom.  It’s good stuff.  Even though I like it, I wouldn’t have written those same posts here at BrentOzar.com.  Writing for a different site with a different audience encouraged me to take a different look at topics.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about these posts that wouldn’t have worked at BrentOzar.com, but if I was writing for this site, I wouldn’t have ended up with those posts.

Other people are crafting their messages too. After writing a couple of InfoBoom posts, I started paying more attention to what other bloggers there were saying, and I started questioning why they wrote what they wrote.  For example, when a tech journalist writes a post titled “The Social Media Hangover is Upon Us,” what’s his real motivation there?  What’s going on behind the scenes that makes him want to write that, and what does he stand to gain by writing it?  Because writing is such hard work, there has to be a gain involved in writing at sites like this, so what is it?  I enjoy that mental exercise – not just reading their work, but parsing their personality.

There’s nothing wrong with using a different voice here. Working with InfoBoom encouraged me to step outside of my usual comfort zone and bring a different kind of post to BrentOzar.com – my Consulting Lines series.  I figured that even though most of you aren’t consultants, you could benefit from hearing me talk like a consultant and kinda coach you into thinking like a consultant.  I got my start on that more than a decade ago working as an internal consultant for a hotel company; they billed my time out to various hotels and departments, so I had to think about providing value for that billed amount.  Ever since then, I’ve focused on providing value to my managers and coworkers.  That sounds so sleazy, and I’ve never wanted to write anything sleazy here, but the reality is that focusing on value really works.  It got me to where I am in my career, and me sharing it can help you too, so I just gotta find a non-sleazy way of doing it.

Consulting Lines: “Sounds like you’ve got it all under control.”

For us geeks, the hardest part about consulting isn’t the technology.  Technology’s easy.  I know when I poke SQL Server a certain way, it’s going to respond a certain way.  That part of consulting is predictable and reliable.

The Techie

The Techie

The hardest part is the people.

I’ve been consulting part time for years, and the last six months of full-time consulting has been a real eye-opener.  Thanks to other consultants and writers, I’ve been able to accumulate a little treasure trove of ways to poke people the same way I poke technology and achieve predictable results.  Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing my Consulting Lines series with you, fellow geek, so you can help manage your end users and managers.

The Situation: Experienced and Frustrated Client

This particular situation usually pops up in groups.  Our players are:

  • The Manager – he’s frustrated because the application isn’t performing the way he wants.
  • The Techie – he’s got years, maybe a decade of experience, and he’s just as frustrated.  The tips, techniques, and tools he’s used have never done him wrong, but this one problem has him frazzled.  He might be a little offended that the company is second-guessing him by bringing in an outsider, and he sees it as an intrusion on his territory.
  • Me – your hero, but in this conversation, imagine the part being played by Brad Pitt, only sexier.

The conversation goes a little something like this:

Me: “Based on everything I’ve seen so far, it looks like the flux capacitor needs to be rotated to the right.  That’ll get us the extra power we need to reach 88 miles per hour under load.”

The Techie: “That’s impossible.  You should never rotate the flux capacitator to the right.  It leads to burned-out muffler bearings.”

Me: “Normally that’s true, but in this particular case – ”

The Techie: “No, you just can’t do that.  I’ve read it in all the books, and I sat in Marty’s session last year when he said rotating the flux capacitor to the right is one of the most common mistakes.  It just won’t work.  Clearly, the problem is our impeller.”

Me: “So it sounds like you’ve got it under control then.”

What That Line Does

Call the Consultants

Call the Consultants

The Techie is trying to corner me into his version of the problem.  He’s come to a conclusion that I don’t agree with, and this line is my way of refocusing the conversation back on him.  If he knows what the problem is, and he knows how to fix it, now is his chance to deliver.

Except, of course, that he can’t.

If his answer was right, he would have tried it already, and his manager wouldn’t have brought me in.  There’s two ways the conversation can go next, but either way, it’s absolutely imperative that you handle the situation with grace.  The Techie really believes in his skills, and you don’t want to pull his pants down in front of his manager.  Any consultant can get one gig – to be successful, you have to be invited back, and that’s not gonna happen if the client staff are all walking around with red behinds because you spanked ‘em so hard.

What Happens Next: The Easy Way

The Techie: “Ummm – well – it’s not working.”

Me: “Ouch – replacing the impeller didn’t work?”

The Techie: “No, we still only make it to 83mph.”

Me: “Yeah, been there.  Do you have any other ideas or options?”

The Techie: “No, everything I try isn’t working.”

Me: “Let’s try rotating the flux capacitor.  If it doesn’t work right away, you can put it back.  If it explodes, hey, now’s your chance to blame the stupid consultant and look like a hero, right?”

You have to smile really big when you say that, and you have to actually be willing to put your reputation on the line with The Manager.  At this point, The Techie has admitted out loud that he’s out of options, but you haven’t shoehorned him into saying he’s wrong.  You’re just presenting it as an option, and you’re only presenting it because they don’t have the situation under control.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go this easily….

What Happens Next: The Hard Way

If it turns confrontational,

The Consultants Arrive

The Consultants Arrive

The Techie: “So you agree with me that the problem is the impeller?”

Me: “Hmmm, well, that hasn’t been my experience, but you know how that goes – the answer to any SQL Server question is that it depends.  If replacing the impeller fixes the problem here, that’s great.”

The Technie: “So you’ll replace the impeller for us?”

Me: “Me? Well, I can, but I wouldn’t do it under these situations.  Besides, I bet you know how to replace the impeller, right?  The Manager would probably rather have you replace the impeller than me, since I’m more expensive than one of Charlie Sheen’s dates.  If that doesn’t work, let me know, but otherwise, it sounds like you’ve got it under control.

Keep dancing away from the gun with that same line, and force The Techie to take his own shots.  If The Techie absolutely demands that a certain change be made, he needs to be the one pulling the trigger.  Whether you’re a consultant or an in-house employee, never do something you don’t believe in.  If someone else believes in the change, they need to make it.

Upcoming Webcasts and Presentations

I’m coming soon to a theater (okay, well, conference room) near you.  Here’s where to catch me online or in meatspace:

February 26 – SQLSaturday Vancouver
Virtualization and SAN Basics for DBAs

These two technologies can make a very big – and very bad – difference in how your SQL Server performs. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get the real, honest lowdown from a virtualization administrator, a SAN administrator, and a DBA? Wouldn’t it be even better if one person had done all three, and could give you the pros and cons of each point of view? That person is Brent Ozar, a Microsoft Certified Master who’s been there and done that.

(I’m also doing the keynote!)

March 6-11 SQLCruise Miami
Grand Cayman, Cozumel

We’ve still got a few spots left for the most laid-back and personalized SQL Server training around. Our sessions this year include:

  • I Knew You Were Waiting – Turns out George Michael and Aretha Franklin were right all along: our SQL Servers have been waiting for all kinds of things. Join our own pop duo who will show you how to interpret SQL Server’s wait stats. Not sure this session will be any good? You gotta have faith.
  • Defensive Indexing – Nobody ever gets you involved in schema design AHEAD of time, do they? Oooh, no. They drag you in when the server’s on fire, queries are dragging their feet, and users are screaming for relief.
  • SAN Admin Lie Detector – Your SAN admin is probably lying to you. You’re frustrated because SQL Server is dead slow, you’re seeing all kinds of storage waits, and everything points to the SAN, but the SAN admin says it’s not his problem. It probably is – and Brent will give you the tools to prove it. Strap him to the SAN Admin Lie Detector
  • The Periodic Table of Dynamic Management Objects – Our history with, and fondness of, computers probably meant we spent a bit of time with our friends in the band and those that frequented the chemistry lab back in high school. Therefore we are probably all at least familiar with the Periodic Table of the Elements. Tim Ford will use a similar approach when it comes to graphically presenting and organizing the DMOs available up through the current release of SQL Server. Partitioned by purpose and assigned corresponding coding for type (DMV v. DMF), SQL release, and tasks; the Periodic Table of Dynamic Management Objects will serve as our reference point for examining the myriad of performance tuning opportunities we can take with the DMOs.

To book on the cruise, check out SQLCruise.com.

March 14-18 – SQLskills Master Performance Tuning
Dallas, TX

Paul Randal, Kimberly Tripp, and I present a solid week straight of intense performance tuning sessions including SQL Server IO, SANs, SQLOS, benchmarking & baselining, Profiler, DMVs, wait stats, extended events, and more. It’s targeted at SQL Server database administrators with at least a couple of years of experience who need to tune large (>1TB) or mission-critical databases, and folks who want to become a Microsoft Certified Master.

Early bird registration is $2,995 until Friday, February 18th, and $3,495 after that. Classes are limited to 32 students to keep the sessions interactive and make sure everyone gets their questions answered. Check out more information about the Dallas Performance Tuning event.

March 26 – SQLSaturday Chicago
Topics to Be Determined

I’ve submitted abstracts and we’ll find out soon if I’m speaking and which sessions are chosen.

March 28-31 – SQL Connections Orlando

I’m doing a few of my favorite sessions at this conference:

  • BLITZ! SQL Server Takeovers – You’re sitting in your cubicle, minding your own DBA business, when somebody calls for support about a SQL Server you didn’t even know existed. Learn how to quickly take over a SQL Server, assess its basic health, and catch the problems before they catch you off guard. You’ll leave with a script you can use every day in your daily work.
  • Consolidation, Clustering, and Virtualization: Choosing Wisely – Everybody’s under pressure to cut costs, but how should a production DBA react? In this high-level session, Brent will explain the pros and cons of active/active clustering, instance stacking, consolidation, and virtualization so that you can avoid mistakes before implementation. We’ll discuss why you might choose one over the other, and which ones you should avoid at all costs.
  • Tuning T-SQL Step by Step – Are you stumped by execution plans? Learn to think like the database engine in this introductory session. Brent will walk you through basic execution plans up to more advanced ones, pointing out problem areas and easily fixed flaws that can ramp up your query’s performance. No prior knowledge about execution plans necessary—just knowledge of how to write a SELECT query.

I’m also offering a full day Virtualization and SAN Basics for DBAs post-conference on Thursday. I gave this same post-con session at SQLbits in the UK to rave reviews:

  • “Got a lot out of the training day, perfect for what I needed at that point, picked up a few tips that have already been applied and made it worth attending. Brent is that rare breed of Uber Geek/Guru that can also express himself, the day flew by, informative, funny, fun, couldn’t ask for more.”
  • “Really appreciated that fact that Brent got straight to the point. No time wasted on situational preamble. The pace was right. Although I was probably not quite the demographic for his target audience (I’m not a DBA), I felt I learned a lot and I found I enjoyed it much more than I expected.”
  • “I think Brent’s topic was too big to cover in a day. Each topic takes a couple of days each. So trying to cram two topics into a day was a big ask and did not do justice. Brent is great but he can only do so much in the allotted time.”

I wanted to make sure to include that last one because it’s absolutely true – if you want to truly master virtualization and storage, you need more than a day. However, if you want the highlights of what you need to know to get your job done, then I cram it into just one day. Register today.

May 29-June 6 SQLCruise Seattle
Alaska and Victoria, Canada

This cruise is aimed at SQL Server database administrators with 5 or more years of experience. We’ll be going into deeper technical dives on to high availability, performance tuning, and SAN storage as we sail, and then when we’re in port, you run off to see whales, bears, and glaciers. Buck Woody is our first guest speaker aboard, and I’m excited to be an attendee for that.

To book on the cruise, check out SQLCruise.com.

Top 10 Reasons to Attend SQLskills Immersion Training

If your New Year’s resolution was to become a better SQL Server professional, we’re here to help.  SQLskills is offering our new Master Immersion Training courses starting next month, and here’s ten reasons why you should sign up:

10. You don’t have to be a Microsoft Certified Master to attend.

We keep getting asked, “What certifications do I need to have before attending SQLskills Master Immersion Training?”  It’s the other way around: our training helps prepare you to slam dunk the MCITP and MCM exams.  This isn’t a boot camp, though – it’s real, actionable training you can use in your everyday work.

9. It’s cheap compared to hardware and licensing.

Before your company spends another dollar on SQL Servers, come learn from us.  Our Performance Tuning week agenda covers storage, CPU, memory, and everything about how to measure and improve SQL Server performance without spending a dime on hardware or tools.  You’ll leave ready to make all of your applications and servers faster, period.

8. Attendees vote us as the best speakers at conferences.

In 2009, we won 4 of the top 10 highest rated PASS Summit sessions, and in 2010, we got HALF OF THEM!  We take training very, very seriously, and we’re not happy until you’re absolutely blown away.

7. We have real-world experience, not just book learnin’.

Paul, Kimberly, and I have a roster of clients that keep us busy with some of the toughest SQL Server challenges around.  In the last few months alone, I’ve worked with software vendors, software-as-a-service companies, payroll vendors, and some of the biggest web sites running SQL Server.  We practice what we preach, and we never stop pushing the edge.

6. Our sessions go deep. Really deep.

There’s only so much you can learn at a conference when you’re rushing from one 60-minute session to the next, waiting for presenters to get their laptops set up, and struggling to get your questions answered.  Immersion events are all us, non-stop, and we go deep from the minute we start until the minute you leave.  We deliver an overwhelming amount of training covering all areas of SQL Server – thus the name Immersion.

5. Small audiences mean personal attention to your tough questions.

We limit attendance to 30 people to ensure everyone gets the personal attention they need.  At the last Immersion event in Bellevue, I worked with an attendee on her live production system over VPN to pinpoint a memory issue, and then discussed it with the class in my virtualization talk.  That’s the kind of attention we can give.

4. You don’t have to tackle all the courses at once.

I’m so glad Microsoft changed the MCM training so that it’s not 3 weeks straight in Redmond anymore.  Most of us just couldn’t afford to take 3 weeks straight off work.  With the SQLskills Immersion training, you can pick and choose which week you want to take when it’s convenient for you.  Take one or two weeks this year, one week next year, and then make a run at the Microsoft Certified Master.  We’ll equip you with the knowledge you need to fill out the gaps in your experience.

3. It’s a new year, and budgets just opened up.

The economy’s started to pick back up, and we’re hearing from our clients that they’re more interested in growth, purchasing, and training.  Now’s the time to go ask your boss for training because he might be able to approve it now when he wasn’t able to before.

2. Early bird discounts are still available.

Here’s the upcoming class dates:

1. The worst your boss can say is no.

Pick the course you want to take.  Print out our student testimonials, the event agenda for the week you want, the event details, and this page.  Go to Bing Travel, search for flights, and print those out too.  Add up the total cost for the course, the hotel, and your flight, and circle that number.  Walk into your boss’s office and say, “Should I attend this training before we go buy another 10 drives for the SAN and before we spend another $50,000 on SQL Server licensing?  It seems like it might be a good idea.”

You’d be surprised – this is how I first got some of my own training approved!

Book Review: Applied Architecture Patterns on the Microsoft Platform

I usually hate architecture books.  I can’t stand ‘em.  Seems like every one I’ve ever read has been targeted at architecture astronauts – people who spend all their time talking theory, not practice.

Buy it. It's good.

Applied Architecture Patterns on the Microsoft Platform

This book is different.  Reading this book is like having drinks in the pub with a team of rock star consultants who’ve spent the last year jumping around from one cool project to another.  They give you the low-down on all the technologies they’ve been working with, telling you just enough information to help you understand what each technology is used for, but not so much that it’s boring.

Every chapter begins with a business challenge, discusses the requirements, and then compares and contrasts the abilities of various Microsoft tools to answer the business needs.  Every tool gets either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down in four attributes: design, delivery, operations, and organization.  After picking the most appropriate tool, the authors show just enough sample code to illustrate how the tool works.  You can’t pick up this book and suddenly become a rock star consultant with any of the tools – that’s not the goal.  Instead, the goal is to help you pick the right tool for your needs, and then you go learn the right tool instead of trying to use a hammer to fix every problem.

You, dear reader, can pick up this book with no background in architecture, consulting, or the Microsoft stack, and just start skimming.  When a business scenario jumps out as interesting, dig deeper into that chapter.  Along the way, you’ll learn about a bunch of Microsoft products:

  • Windows Communication Foundation
  • Windows Server AppFabric
  • BizTalk
  • SQL Server Integration Services
  • SQL Azure
  • Windows Azure
  • Service Broker
  • SharePoint
  • StreamInsight
  • Hyper-V

Every developer, DBA, and project manager who works with consultants needs this book because it opens your eyes to new solutions you might not have considered before, and it wises you up to real-world weaknesses.  This isn’t a sales-pitch whitepaper by somebody’s marketing team – it’s honest material that fesses up where products fall down.

I don’t say this lightly: this was the best tech book I read in 2010. I’m very grateful to Ewan Fairweather, one of the authors, for giving me a copy.

Here’s where to learn more:

Pimp My MCM Certificate Contest Winner

Wow – you guys are creative!  I got a lot of laughs out of the contest entries, and here’s some of the highlights.

Doug Lane certified Admiral Ackbar as a Master of Trap Recognition and Countermeasures:

Michael Swart captured the essence of what it feels like when Microsoft says you actually passed:

Robert Davis got a slightly different MCM – a Metallica Certified Master of Puppets:

NotAndy came up with a couple of good ones:

Another from NotAndy – gotta love the seal and the Gold Record Certified Musician:

Matt Velic catered to my SQLskills cohorts right down to the sheep seal:

Will Banta made me lol with his “Official Seal of Microsoft.”

And of course, it wouldn’t be a fun blog post without ripping on Microsoft Access.  Crys Manson does the honors.

It was a tough decision, but I gotta hand it to Rudy Rodarte.  He spun the certificate around and put it in my official Microsoft file:

Congratulations, Rudy, and your $50 Amazon gift certificate is on the way.  Thanks to everybody who participated for making my weekend funnier.

Three Questions You Should Never Ask Software Vendors

So your manager’s got some money burning a hole in her budget, and she wants you to go out and buy a management or monitoring tool.

Don’t ask, “How much overhead does this software have?”

Asking this question is a lot like saying, “Gosh, I sure would like to read a book to learn, but how long will it take to read?”  I bet your SQL Server has at least 3-5% CPU available most of the time, and that’s a typical number for a monitoring tool to require.  Besides, if your SQL Server is really running at 100% CPU, that is exactly when you need a tool to help.  You do want to reduce the load on your server, right?  That’s what a monitoring tool helps you do – identify the ugly queries, fix them in the least amount of time possible, and make your server healthier.

Every single time I’ve seen a good performance tool go in, the DBA has been able to quickly find performance problems they never would have caught otherwise in the same amount of time, then been able to fix those problems and reduce their server load by more than the load required by the monitoring tool.  Game over.

Monitoring and management tools all have overhead.  All of them.  Every single one. It absolutely stuns me that the very same DBAs say these same two sentences:

  • “Hey, Mr. Developer, you need to move your code into stored procedures rather than ad-hoc queries so I can improve performance.”
  • “Hey, Mr. Vendor, you shouldn’t leave any code in my database server because that’s overhead.”

See the conflict?  Properly-engineered databases and stored procs can be a much faster way of gathering data than pushing ad-hoc code and output data all over the place.  (Note that I said properly-engineered – this is not a blog post about why vendor code sucks, and before you go throwing stones, let’s open up your code, Einstein.)

Here’s the worst part: the vendors all know what you want to hear (“zero overhead”) so some of them will actually tell you what you want to hear.

They’re lying.

Some tools even take it to the next level by hiding their own overhead in their performance reports.  If you look at any performance tool’s report and you don’t see queries from the performance tool itself, ask why – because they’re probably hiding it from you.  That’s bad, because you can bust your hump tuning your own queries only to find out that the tool itself is a bottleneck!  Thankfully, that’s an exception rather than the rule.

Ask instead, “How do you gather your data?” Ask them to list DMVs, system tables, traces, and any other collection methods.  If you download a demo, trace what it’s doing.  When in doubt about the performance effectiveness or data accuracy, ask the community.  Transparency is the best way to get the right answers about overhead and ensure that the vendor’s using the lowest-impact methods possible.

Don’t ask, “What’s coming in the next version?”

Like the stock people say, “Past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes.”  Development dates slip, features get pulled out of the product at the last moment, and bugs get unearthed as the product’s going out the door.  You probably don’t want to deploy any .0 versions on a production server, and it’ll take at least a couple of months to get the bug fixes released.  Therefore, don’t gamble on the future version of any product – buy what’s out there today.  Every software vendor is putting resources into vNext of their product.  When your maintenance agreement is about to expire, revisit the market again.

Ask instead, “Can I see the supported SQL Server version list?” Supporting new versions of SQL Server is hard work – especially now that Microsoft’s starting to push out feature pack releases like SQL Server 2008 R2.  You want to know if your vendor will support the latest and greatest SQL Server version, and how long it takes them to do it.

Don’t ask, “Does this software require SA access?”

One of the most eye-opening experiences I had working for a vendor was Microsoft telling me, “If you want to use the ___ feature in SQL Server, you have to be SA.  End of story.  No plans to change it.”  Tweaking some security features doesn’t sell more licenses of SQL Server, and customers aren’t clamoring for it.  As a result, the vendor is stuck requiring sysadmin-equivalent permissions in order to do ridiculously common tasks like back up a database via the VDI interface.  As long as even one tiny part of the third party product requires SA privileges, then the whole thing does.

Ask instead, “Does this software use the SA account?” While the software might need sysadmin-level privileges, it should not require access to the SA account itself.  You should be able to create a separate login for this software, make an absurdly complex password, and lock it away in a vault.  This makes security audits and whodunit investigations much easier.

MCM Certificate Photoshop Contest

The SQL MCMs just got access to digital copies of our achievement certificates, and you know what that means.

Pimp My MCM

Pimp My MCM

It’s time for some good old fashioned plagiarism!

Whip out that Photoshop and show me what you’ve got.  Change the name, the signature, the cert, the product, whatever you think most needs to be changed.  Or maybe it just needs more cowbell.

Show me what you’ve got!  Tweak the image and put a link to it in the comments by the end of the day Thursday, January 13th.  I’ll pick the funniest one to win a $50 Amazon gift certificate via email.

Good luck!  Show me some lolz.

How to Rehearse a Presentation

Buck Woody (Blog@BuckWoody) and I did a presentation at the PASS Summit called, “You’re Not Attractive, But Your Presentations Can Be.”  The audience asked a lot of good questions, and I wanted to recap some of ‘em as blog posts.  The first one – and one of the most frequent questions I get – is, “How often do you really practice presentations before giving them?”

Teleprompters - also invented by Al Gore.

Teleprompters – also invented by Al Gore.

I’m really, really picky about the transitions between slides – and I don’t mean animations.  I love it when people tell me, “Wow, you must have given this a hundred times, because every time you popped the next slide, it was just perfect timing.”  For some reason, that one attribute really screams PROFESSIONAL to me.  Therefore, when I think I’m done writing a presentation, I’ll step through it a few times just talking through my transitions.  I won’t say every word of the content, but I’ll talk through my last point on the slide, hit next, and keep talking – and it has to be out loud.  During that process, I’ll usually find things that don’t work as well as I’d like, or things that are tongue twisters. I’ll rework the slide order to tell the story better, or come up with better pictures to be punch lines.

There’s a drawback to my presentation style: I don’t always leave an opening for the audience to ask questions mid-presentation.  I’m so focused on my slide segues that I don’t pause at the end of a slide and say, “Any questions?” Instead, I try to build in points every few slides where there’s a natural pause.  I’m also learning to build in more pop quizzes to encourage audience interaction.  As I’m going through the presentation, I try to count the number of slides between audience interactions so that it doesn’t become a barrage of Brent.

When I’ve got the transitions done, then I’ll step through the whole thing out loud once and time it.  One of the points Buck and I made was to over-prepare, then cut – build up way more material than you think you need, then cut down to fit the time you’ve got.  If I’m doing a 45-minute presentation, I like to have 60-75 minutes worth of spoken material, and then I choose which sections I can skip entirely, yet still have smooth transitions and deliver the audience everything I promised in the abstract.

Confident that I’ve got good timing and transitions, I’ll hide the clock and give the presentation out loud from start to finish at least twice.  I check the time at the start and end, and that helps me make sure I’m guesstimating the right time for my natural delivery.

Don't even get me started.

Don’t even get me started.

After I’ve given it a couple of times and it feels comfortable to me, then I review it for questions.  On each slide, I ask myself, “What questions are going to come up from this slide?  What technology on this slide sounds too good to be true or too tough to bother with?  What common errors will people struggle with, and what objections will they raise?”  For example, when I’m talking about the missing index DMVs, people usually ask about heaps, ask when the DMVs reset, or complain that the DMVs give bad suggestions.  I think about how I’d respond to those questions, and if I need a slide to show an answer, I’ll build it – but leave that slide hidden.  That way, when the question comes up, I can wow ‘em with a slide answer instead of going, “Well, uh, I, uh, never thought about that.”  Picture how your worst enemy would try to pick your presentation apart, and then arm yourself to defend your position.  If you can’t defend what you’re saying, pull it out – you’re not ready to present that point yet.  You will be someday, but just not yet.

If I have to do demos in front of a live audience, I try to have a dedicated virtual machine per presentation.  For example, I’ve got a VM dedicated just to my Blitz presentation.  I know exactly how that server is configured and how it will react.  I get the VM set up for the first time, then shut it down and save a copy of it to a different drive.  Then I start it back up, step through my demos, and make sure they work.  If they don’t, I set it back up again, save another copy of the VM, and try again.  When I’ve got it fully baked and it works perfectly, I save copies of it on two USB hard drives under three names like BLITZ1, BLITZ2, and BLITZ_Original.

It gets worse.  On presentation day, I fire up both BLITZ1 and BLITZ2.  I do my demos on BLITZ1, but if it blows chunks, I switch to BLITZ2.  It’s like database mirroring for your demos.  When my demos are done, I copy BLITZ_Original over BLITZ1 and BLITZ2 so that I’m ready to go next time.  That way, if I did anything to disrupt the status of that VM (like fix one of the purposely-broken databases), I don’t screw up my next Blitz demo.

And when your demo works, you have to say 'Boom.'

And when your demo works, you have to say ‘Boom.’

I know I sound black-helicopters-and-aluminum-foil-hat paranoid, but I believe the audience deserves it.  I am just so sick and tired of seeing professionals up on the stage saying, “Hmm, I’m not sure why my demo did that.  Well, here’s what it should have done….”  If you’re going to stand up in front of an audience of a hundred people, think of their time as $100 per hour – so your demo is $10,000 per hour.  Take some basic precautions to ensure that your demo, like Colt 45, works every time.

Finally, I give the presentation in front of people.  I try to never give a presentation for the first time at the regional or national level or on a webcast.  Webcasts are tough because it’s hard to gauge the audience to know whether or not you’re holding their attention and bringing it home.  Regional and national audiences tend to be bigger rooms, and I don’t want to be experimenting in front of more than 50 people.  As I’m giving it, I make mental notes about what felt like it worked, and what needs to be reworked.

When people stop me during the presentation to ask a question that I hadn’t anticipated, I’ll stop right there and write down the question or type it into the PowerPoint slide notes.  If someone cares enough to ask it out loud, there’s probably a few more people in the audience who wanted to ask but were afraid, so I’ll build it into the next version of the presentation.  If nobody asks questions or laughs when I expect them too, I’ll note that, because I gotta keep things engaging.  My goal isn’t to eliminate the questions; my goal is to be able to celebrate them happily and intelligently when they occur.

I often respond to questions by saying, “That’s a good question,” and it’s not because I’m buttering them up for good evaluation surveys.  I believe it’s a good question because I thought of that exact same question during my preparations, and I’m mentally excited because it means two great things have happened.  I’ve engaged them enough to think like I think, and I’ve prepared myself enough to think like they’ll think!  I’m at one with the audience.  It’s my very own moment of Zen.

At the PASS Summit, an audience member asked how Buck and I pulled all these rehearsals off since we live in different cities.  We were lucky enough to get together a couple of times before the Summit to rehearse, and we focused on the transitions.  When you’re co-presenting in front of big audiences, it’s so important to know how the handoffs will work.  With smaller audiences, I don’t mind winging it when I’m co-presenting with someone I know well.  I’ve co-presented in front of 15-20 people with Tim Ford and Tom LaRock on various occasions, and because we know each other’s backgrounds, it’s easy for us to pause mid-slide and hand things over with a question.  If you have to co-present with minimal planning, think basketball: don’t hog the ball.  Pass back and forth as frequently as you can.  The audience appreciates the banter and chemistry.

If you get the chance to be a guest on a podcast or interview, listen to a couple of past episodes to learn the rhythm and host personalities.  For example, when I’m on Virtumania, I know I can play things fast and loose with the innuendos, but on a SQL Server Magazine interview I have to keep things a little more straight-laced.  You get massive bonus points with the host if you know some of the in-jokes they use, like running gags or sound effects on the show.  Give them ample opportunities to interact with you – stop, take a breath, and ask questions like, “Have you had any experiences like that?”  Remember that you’re a guest, not a host, but by all means, speak up.  I keep a stopwatch up on the screen so that I can see seconds moving, and when I start talking, I make a mental note of the time.  If I’ve gone on for more than 45-60 seconds, it’s time to shut up and let ‘em get a word in edgewise.

Huge Blogger Panel Discussion

Huge Blogger Panel Discussion

If you’re invited to a panel discussion or roundtable – a presentation where several speakers share the stage – that stopwatch advice is especially relevant.  Before the event starts, I jot down a few talking points on a Post-It note or a napkin, whatever’s handy, so that I can jump start discussions if things get quiet.  On the other hand, I also do some quick math: I take the length of the session, divide it by the number of speakers (including the moderator), and that’s my share.  If there’s an hour-long session with four speakers and a moderator, that means I get about 12 minutes.  It’s my duty to help the moderator by livening up the room with 12 minutes of fun banter, and it’s my responsibility to the other presenters to make sure they get their 12 minutes.

Reading back through this, I realize I’m probably making it sound more intimidating than it is.  I certainly didn’t start out rehearsing my presentations this thoroughly!  The only reason I approach it this way today is that I’ve come to realize my presentations are a valuable library.  When I’m working with a client, I love being able to say, “Here’s the issue you’re having, and I’ve got a presentation that talks about how to solve it.  Let’s get the staff together for an hour and we’ll cover this presentation with specifics about your environment.”  My clients love this highly personalized training, and they see real value in it.

Yes, companies will actually pay you to give your presentations to their staff – even the very same presentations that might be available for free on the web.  The value is having the right presenter give the right presentation at the right time.  There’s an overwhelming amount of free material online, and nobody’s got the time to peruse it all.

Your presentations are worth the effort.  Your audience and your clients will love you for it!

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