SQL Server 2012 BareMetal Workshop

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Last week Brent, Jeremiah and Kendra attended the SQL Server 2012 BareMetal workshop at Microsoft Headquarters. This was a special train-the-trainer style event where Microsoft Program Manager Dandy Weyn (blog | twitter) brought MVPs, Microsoft employees, and MCMs together. We talked about implementing SQL Server, training the community to use new features, and helping people adopt new technologies to scale out their applications.

What did we think? Here’s our highlights.

Brent Says, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”

I love the command line.  I love batch files.  I love queries.  But somehow, I could just never get into the habit of installing SQL Server via unattended scripting.  The GUI works well enough, and I don’t install that many SQL Servers, so why bother scripting things out when I’ve heard so many horror stories about the difficulty of unattended install scripts?

After Dandy Weyn’s #SQLBareMetal training in Seattle, I see the attraction.  Dandy’s put a hell of a lot of work into an elaborate set of scripts that:

  • Download evaluation versions of everything (Windows, SQL, Office, and more)
    Brent, Kendra and Jeremiah with Amit Bansal at #SQLBaremetal
    Brent, Kendra and Jeremiah with Amit Bansal at #SQLBaremetal
  • Create Hyper-V templates for Windows
  • Copy the templates into a domain controller VM and several SQL Server VMs
  • Creates a domain and joins the other VMs to it
  • And much more

It’s impressive.  Really impressive.  With a properly equipped host (24-32GB of memory and a single SSD or a RAID 10 of conventional hard drives), you can spin up your own SQL Server 2012 lab in an hour or two complete with a cluster and Availability Groups.

If everything works.

Unfortunately, we’ve still got a way to go.  Troubleshooting all these moving parts still isn’t easy, as evidenced by the number of stumped Microsofties, MVPs, and MCMs in the room that struggled for hours getting everything working correctly on brand-new clean virtual machines.  Troubleshooting machines in the wild is another matter altogether – scripting doesn’t make that much easier.  In fact, it’s probably worse: if you take a stranger’s scripts and run ’em, and you run into problems, you’re fighting two battles simultaneously.  You have to figure out what the scripts were doing, and figure out how to fix problems.

Sitting in the workshop, watching people struggle, it hit me: Microsoft’s not bragging about easier management of SQL Server 2012.  If you want easy management, the solution (supposedly) is SQL Azure.  SQL Server, on the other hand, gives you much more powerful features and tools, but you pay for that power by way of more difficult setup and troubleshooting.  Scripting doesn’t help that – it just makes the errors pop up faster with less repetitive manual labor.

We’ve come a long way, baby, but in terms of manageability, we’ve still got a really long way to go.

Jeremiah says, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

I love automation; the more I can remove a meat bag from a decision making process, the happier I am. It’s not because I don’t trust people; it’s because people go on vacation or play games on their cell phone, or don’t check their email for hours on end. Of course we all like to build complex Rube Goldberg style solutions to problems that should have simple solutions. To put it plainly – the more critical something is, the simpler the solution must be.

It’s pretty well known that I’m a big fan of large scale distributed databases. Part of the appeal is the massive fault tolerance that comes along as part of the deal. SQL Server 2012’s Availability Groups bring that massively robust and massively simple fault tolerance to SQL Server. Before going in to the training, I understood what Availability Groups brought to the table, but I didn’t quite see the bigger picture. As Brent mentioned, getting things up and running isn’t the easiest thing on earth. Once we were up and running with the Availability Group the administration wasn’t as simple as firing up a Riak cluster and throwing a switch, but it was really close.

During the configuration process, there were a few places where the wizards weren’t as clear as I’d like, but all of the functionality is configurable via PowerShell and T-SQL. Like Brent I love me some scripting. The ability to script Availability Groups once and then modify a base set of scripts means that I can deploy this feature fairly easily, provided that the Windows side of things is set up correctly.

George Eastman originally said “You press the button, we do the rest.” SQL Server 2012 is getting very close. The UI isn’t always as simple as pressing the button, but SQL Server will do the rest… most of the time.

Kendra says, “Give us a week, we’ll take off the weight.”

Brent told you above about how we built out a lot of installations with a great set of scripts. One thing that thrilled me about our installs was how fast and simple it was to deploy Windows and SQL Server onto Windows Server Core.

What’s different about Server Core? There’s only a very lightweight GUI: most of your work is done through a command prompt. There’s still a little bit of the old familiar, though– you can fire up Task Manager in a pinch for an easy graphic view of  what’s running on the server itself. For the most part, however, you administer Server Core locally either by command line or PowerShell. If you want to fire up the graphic Windows Event Viewer, other MMC snap-ins, or SQL Server Management Studio, you need to enable those to be run from remote machines.

Server Core is important to SQL Server database administrators for three reasons:

  1. A smaller surface area is stronger and has less room for attack. (Bonus: that means less of a surface to patch, and fewer downtimes!)
  2. Not having the GUI protects you from yourself. All those tools we run on servers use up precious resources in terms of CPU and memory. If the patient is having a hard time breathing, they don’t want a doctor who needs to sit on their chest to do an exam.
  3. In the future, Microsoft is headed toward minimal GUI features. It’s time to start adapting now.

Do yourself a favor: make one of your goals this year to install Server Core with a SQL Server 2012 instance into your development or test environment. Spend some time with it and include it in your experiments with the new features of SQL Server 2012.

Yes, there’ll be tricky points you hit. You’ll find yourself reading a few new blogs and learning a few new PowerShell commands. But in a few years, you’ll be really glad you did.

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