Now is the time to sharpen your cloud database skills. Here’s how to start.

Microsoft Azure

Many of us DBAs have been able to put off dealing with the cloud. That time is quickly coming to an end. But when was resistance to change ever a great career strategy in a tech field? Besides, two or three or four years from now, you might not have much choice in the matter. You don’t want to be way ahead of the curve, but you do wanna be just ahead enough, and so the  time to start your cloud education is now.

The imperative to adopt cloud solutions will likely come down from on high. The good news is that you can ramp up fast. Operating a database in the cloud is different, but it’s not that different. Your mileage may vary, depending on whether you’re doing a lift and shift or moving to a different platform altogether. Thankfully, Microsoft has blessed the SQL world with a plethora of options, from running your favorite flavor of SQL as an Azure VM to the Azure SQL DB platform-as-a-service. (The plethora of options can be a curse, too – so many choices that you can get analysis paralysis, but that’s why you need to get educated about your choices to have a good discussion with management.)

You might get to make the change slowly—or you might not. In either case, if you play your cards right, the cloud has the potential to make your job a whole lot more interesting. I meet a lot of DBAs and I don’t know many who love to see their beautifully tuned database crunched by a disk failure, or enjoy getting up at 2:00 AM because an OS patch failed. In the cloud, those problems are someone else’s to deal with. You get to deal with the enjoyable problems – the problems where you look like a hero instead of a failure.

Other skills, like query optimization and performance tuning, are just as relevant in the cloud, if not more so. And hopefully, with the time you’re not spending babysitting hardware, you can do cool things like learn new technologies and muck about with machine learning.

There’s work to be done, for sure, but it’s nothing to be scared of. Microsoft has published a good one-pager about some of the most common myths that might stand in the way of your ascendancy to the Cloud DBA Throne. Here are a few:

  • “I’ll lose a lifetime’s worth of work.” Migrating doesn’t mean losing all your stuff. You can send your scripts, queries, and macros to the cloud using script libraries, and the vast, vast majority of your skills are still relevant – just used slightly differently.
  • “Cloud performance can’t compare to my on-prem server.” It might be better, especially if you take advantage of automatic performance tuning recommendations provided by Azure. Let’s be honest: you’re not doing a great job of tuning all of the indexes, on all of your databases, on all of your servers. You’re stretched a little thin.
  • “Cloud is cloud.” Not exactly. For one thing, Microsoft can save you big bucks when you apply your on-prem licenses to Azure. Plus, the platform for Azure SQL DB is tuned by the folks who make SQL Server. They know stuff, stuff like the new Azure SQL DB Hyperscale white paper that I’ve been giddily consuming.

You can check out the full list here. If you’re a sharp DBA, the cloud is more opportunity than threat. Grab it by the horns. (Wait, which one has horns, opportunities or threats?)

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16 Comments. Leave new

  • Mark Freeman
    June 11, 2019 10:04 am

    Overall, I’m happy with Azure SQL Database for applications that don’t need multiple databases. There was definitely a learning curve, the documentation (and especially the training materials and courseware) significantly trails the production reality, and I don’t think performance is as consistent as when you are running in an on-prem environment, nor are the configuration options as flexible.

    I love not having to deal with patching, but I don’t love having little or no control over when patching gets done (often during business hours). I don’t love not having access to the logs and having to file support tickets to research issues. I love being able to temporarily fix a performance problem by scaling up without worrying about whether we have enough CPU or RAM in a VMware host, which can turn an all-nighter on-call emergency into an “I’ll look at that in the morning” situation. The good news is you’re always running the latest bits; the bad news is you’re always running the latest bits :-), making you a beta tester for the boxed product.

    Overall the trade-off is reasonable. And now with Managed Instance (which I have not worked with yet), there is a middle ground between the simplicity of Azure SQL Database and the control available when running a SQL instance in an Azure VM.

    However, this blog post sounds like a Microsoft commercial, which is highly unusual for Brent.

    • Radu Gheorghiu
      June 11, 2019 11:34 am

      Brent’s business revolves around Microsoft technologies. I see nothing wrong in rooting for the tool he uses and he offers services for. Also, it’s not like people coming here will expect Brent to talk about Oracle.
      — This post isn’t sponsored by Oracle

    • I did think the same thing!

      Your insights are interesting; pretty much what I thought.

      I’ve also really struggled to find cloud training specifically targeted at DBAs (rather than, say, DevOps engineers or developers).

      • Mark Freeman
        June 12, 2019 5:54 am

        Lizzie, I agree! When I first started working with Azure almost two years ago I took the Microsoft Official Curriculum Course 50592: Advanced SQL Azure (3 days in a classroom). The materials and labs were very far behind. There had been at least one major overhaul of the Azure Portal since the course was last updated (and Azure SQL Database may have gone from v11 to v12 in there as well) which made everything very difficult.

        Because of my employer’s “Premier” relationship with Microsoft, I get free access to a lot of web-based “classroom” training (WorkshopPlus) and I don’t think there has ever been an offering that was focused on Azure SQL Database.

        • It’s tough as an instructor, too – I can’t afford to build training on Azure SQL DB. It takes, say, 10-20 hours of work to build 1 solid hour of training, so I need to be able to re-present the same material at several classes in a row for it to make financial sense.

          The bad news is that the product changes so fast that material is often out of date before it pays off. The good news is that the product keeps getting better, hahaha.

          It’ll be a good thing in the long term – but it makes learning challenging for folks right now. Your best bet will be Microsoft training material just since they can afford to lose money on building that. 😉

          • Mark Freeman
            June 12, 2019 6:06 am

            Brent, it is a quickly moving target to try to hit with course materials. The instructor teaching the course I took put in a huge amount of time (days) to update what he could before the class started and still had to do a LOT of tap dancing. The labs were especially problematic.

            To make it worse, there were only three of us in the class – I really appreciated his not cancelling. His company probably lost money on it, and the instructor probably had to overhaul it a lot more before there was enough demand to offer it again.

            The pace of change with the Portal can be a bit dizzying at times — not just new features, but things moving around or features disappearing altogether.

          • If the study materials were a little bit out of date, it would be understandable, but virtually nothing in Microsoft’s cloud products’ training materials have been updated in even a remotely acceptable time frame for the last 5+ years. In many cases, training materials have been released for something AFTER a certain version of the product had been deprecated or completely retired.

            Add that to the fact that there is almost guaranteed to be something in the official training materials that are outright wrong.

            I’ve completely given up on any of MS’s training courses. It’s more effective to sort through their incomplete and partially incorrect documentation and get on the phone with their nearly completely incompetent Azure support engineers. Out of the kindness of their hearts, MS sales managers will also regularly promise features and functionality out of their cloud products that they just can’t do, and there really is no better way to figure out what something is capable of doing, than investigating capabilities that don’t exist and figuring out workarounds to make something similar happen!

  • Chris Fournier
    June 11, 2019 2:11 pm

    Overall I agree with the theme of Brent’s message. Query/Index performance tuning has been a big part of my DBA career. I’ve looked at PaaS solutions with the thought that query performance improvements could be directly translated into $$ saved and very visible to the business.

    I manage a few production databases in Azure today and find their query insights as well as DTU consumption to be really useful. Query insights kind of remind me of products like Solarwinds DPA. The PaaS DB is perfectly fine it you don’t need agent or linked servers. Putting backups and patching on MS is a nice bonus. Just too bad that 3rd party monitoring tools like Idera or Spotlight suck and are practically useless for PaaS DBs.

    The only other thing I’m struggling with on the PaaS DB is getting the service end point to bring the DB into our network, so I can route traffic to it over the express route, but I have a workaround in place and will get there eventually.

  • I’ll admit I’ve been a sceptic, and resisting change. I just did an MS course on Azure and it was really useful helping me understand how it all hangs together. However what I’ve found is that Azure Db still lacks some features we use On-prem that will hinder our migration. (e.g No Dbmail or CLR’s for a start), but the biggest barrier for me is integration and lack of cross db queries. Having our ERP & Data warehouse on premise means we’re not paying huge sums for I/O ETL between them. We also use SSRS & Multidimensional SSAS, which aren’t supported as a service, so we’d have to redevelop in PowerBI and SSAS Tabular, and the costs start mounting.
    If I had a standalone app/db i’d happily consider Azure, but right now it’s more of a headache than a relief.
    If SSRS and & SSAS Multidimensional were supported as a service I’d be much more interested in moving.

  • Prakash Bhojegowda
    June 12, 2019 8:06 am

    My experience with SQL databases in Azure (IAAS) resonates with what Mark Freeman has written above. SQL IAAS is currently the only suitable candidate to host very large databases (> 10 TB) in Azure. There are some cool features like creating storage pools, backups to containers etc. Yes. we need to get adept with powershell scripting.
    SQL MI has come a long way and still has a long way to go before it becomes a mature usable product in big IT shops.

  • It’s a job killer.

    If you’re the only DBA: you’re golden, if you learn Azure.
    If you’re in a team: someone’s going bye-bye, because “You’ll have more time to focus on optimization,
    experimentation, and deeper-level insight” is, for most, Not Really a Thing™, apart from optimization. So thumbs start twiddling and fights for something to actually start happening. Management notices, and the next thing is that a “We’ll Miss You!” card is being secretly passed around the office along with about $40 in change slowly accumulating in an envelope with your name on it.

    • I’ve not experienced anything remotely close to that. what I have found is that administrators become busier than they ever have been before when the majority of the monitoring and management tools they used become incompatible and paas replacements for them are severely crippled. You end up spending huge amounts of effort on workarounds for things that were done natively before and end up spending massive amounts of time scripting.

      The only people whose lives get easier in the cloud have been in the accounting department and the developers.

    • Kellyn Pot'Vin-Gorman
      June 12, 2019 9:28 am

      To quote Steve Martin, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Azure is introducing new technology, new features and new options to do more with data and technology- EVERY DAY. It is a full time job just trying to keep up with the announcements and to be technically skilled in just one stack, takes a lifetime. Make a goal of learning a new feature each month. Make the most of all those IQ points and make yourself so indispensable that the title DBA means nothing. The need to have you on the team means more. And yes, I do work for Microsoft…and worked for startups and Oracle and work in more database platforms than can be counted on fingers. I like technology and I think that’s why most of us got into it. The natural life of databases are growth, which means the team we’re on is going to have to do more with the people we have. I believe getting rid of the tedious and repeatable tasks is one of the first things I automate anyway. Who really cares if I let Azure do it or if I do it with a set of scripts? I’m good with giving this to Azure and working on more interesting things. I like interesting. 🙂

      • Well, in the real world that i know, i am the last full time SQL guy. We used to have a team of 7. Now it’s 3 and no one else is really supposed to work on SQL tickets. Or as Gartner puts it in some of their papers, “sweating the resources”. Meaning apply resources to new stuff while cutting below a bare minimum the resources assigned to ‘old’ stuff as you seek to move away and/or wind it down.
        Of course it doesn’t really play out that way. Lots more stuff and not enough time and need to learn new stuff. I did get my AWS Certified Architect Associate (company wanted it) but get no chance to do anything with it. Someday, they will just want me to do that in addition perhaps. But by then it will be very rusty and maybe much forgotten.
        In other words, the biggest problem for everyone is trying to handle/manage the change.
        P.S. Totally agree with automating as much as possible.


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