SQL Backup Software: Part 5 – Justifying the Cost

I’ve talked about how a SQL backup compression program can help database administrators, but now it’s time to convince the boss. We have to sell management on why it’s worth the money.

First, a few words about my approach to database administration, because I think it’ll help DBAs in general. Being a database administrator is a lot like running a company: our users are buying a product (a reliable place to put their data), and they pay us (our budget) for that service. Getting more money in the budget isn’t a matter of begging our managers: it’s a matter of convincing our users that they can get a better product from us if they want to spend more money.

I never go to my IT manager and say, “Don, I need ten grand for this.” He doesn’t care whether backups take 4 hours or 1 hour because it doesn’t make a difference to him. Instead, I have to go to the stakeholders – the people who really care about backup windows and backup sizes.

Data Warehouses: Putting a Price on the Nightly Window

We have a 1tb data warehouse that’s growing like a weed in a compost pile. The business wants to store more data from more sources, the users want to design cooler reports with more analytics, and the ETL guys want to build more aggregate tables to speed reporting queries. All of these things have one thing in common: they require more time in the nightly load windows.

At the start of each data warehouse expansion project or each new reporting project, I ask the developers a question: how much longer is this going to make your nightly window, and how do you plan to compensate for that? It’s like when the government adds a new department: sometimes they offset it by reducing expenditures somewhere else. The data warehouse developers can add more nightly load processing, but they have to compensate for it by making another part of the process go faster. If they can’t find that part to optimize, then I can sell them more time by reducing the nightly backup window – but that costs money.

The first step is usually to add backup compression software because it’s the lowest-hanging fruit. When the project manager looks at the cost of backup compression software versus the cost of refining the difficult ETL process, the backup compression software is a no-brainer.

Later in the process, reducing the backup window even further can be a justification for switching to SAN snapshot backups, and I’m implementing those now on this data warehouse I’ve been mentioning. In March, we’ll be moving the data warehouse storage from an IBM DS4800 to an IBM N-Series (a rebadged NetApp) and using snapshots for nearly instantaneous snapshots, effectively eliminating our backup window. Of course, most SQL Server setups can’t afford that capability – and that’s where backup compression is the next best thing.

Time to Restore: Putting a Price on Recovery Time

The smaller the backup file, the faster it is to read off disk or tape. Granted, there is CPU overhead involved in decompressing the backup, but generally speaking, smaller database backup files will restore faster than larger ones. In the case of a disaster where the server must be rebuilt from scratch, there’s a price to waiting that long.

In the case of our 2-terabyte SAP BW data warehouse, it’s the difference between fitting the database on a single LTO3 tape versus spanning multiple tapes. That single tape read means less time. Granted, for a data warehouse, time isn’t always money.

For our sales ordering system, however, time is definitely money. We have a tight window every day where all of our sales force places their orders for the day, and the database simply can’t go down. For high availability, we use database mirroring to our disaster recovery site. That ensures that the database can always take orders, but the DR site has slower bandwidth than our primary site. If the primary server crashes, we have to restore it as fast as possible to get our redundancy back and run at full speed again. I can’t get the 100+ gb of native database backups across the wire from DR to our primary site fast enough, and instead I would have to ship tapes from DR. That’s an overnight delay. If I use database compression software, however, I can restore across the wire and bring the primary database server back in a matter of hours instead of a day later.

Database administrators should be performing regular fire drill restores onto new hardware. The next time the shop does a fire drill restore, time it. Take the end result time, and ask management if that time lag is acceptable. If it’s not, ask how much that long window is costing the business, and there’s the justification to get backup compression software.

Refreshing Dev & QA Faster: Putting a Price on Developer Time

Developers like to work with the freshest data possible. Heck, if they could, they’d do all of their development on the production box itself. They don’t want to be down for hours or days while the development & QA servers are refreshed from the production backups.

This is especially true for serious production issues that can’t be replicated in development or QA. Sometimes an emergency comes up that requires immediate testing and remediation, and the issue isn’t seen in any environment other than production. The developers need a copy of the production data as fast as possible in order to test their fix, and every minute counts.

Ask the development teams if they’d be interested in being able to refresh even their largest databases on demand – like over lunchtime instead of overnight. If the current restores take hours, and if they could be done in under an hour with backup compression, then this is a real option. If their departments are willing to fork over the expense of backup compression licenses for their development & QA servers, the systems teams may be willing to fork over the remaining production licenses as a team effort.

In Summary: Look For Your Users’ Pain Points

Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas about how you can look at the problems your users face, and offer them solutions to those problems with the tools at your disposal. Sometimes SQL Server database administrators focus too much on our own problems and struggle with getting the budget dollars to fix them – when in reality, we should be looking at how those issues affect our users, and realize that the users have their own budget money to spend.

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