The Incredible Shrinking DBA Skillset Rant #1 – Scripting
I’m back from Asia and teaching in Singapore. I have some time off over the next few weeks, so I’ll be doing a bit of catch up (including finishing the scripts for the book … no, really). Part of that catch up will be doing a bit of blogging. I try to post things that are not just throwaway, and after speaking in Singapore, I think it’s time I get a bit more outspoken on this topic: the shrinking DBA skillset. This is going to be a small series on what I feel many DBAs today are lacking to do their jobs better. This series has its genesis back when I did a series of 6 webinars in the springtime of 2009 for Penton Media/Windows IT Pro on SQL Server DBA basics. It had been a long time since even I had revisited what we sometimes like to call “101” here in the States. (101 is what colleges sometimes call the intro courses to a subject.)
Transact-SQL – It’s What’s For Dinner
For years, I’ve felt that the “modern” DBA has become reliant upon graphical-based tools, and not really learned how to do things in alternate ways. Scripting is like an evil curse word to some. Besides teaching my consolidation/virtualization course, I also did a presentation at the World of Windows Server Conference on failover clustering (I know, big surprise). I asked if people wrote Transact-SQL or any kind of admin scripting. No one raised their hands. I was shocked.
I’m going to sound like a crotchety old man here (I’m not; I just turned 38 last month, but I’ve been around SQL Server for nearly half of my life going back to about 1992). When I started on Sybase SQL Server, there were no GUIs. Just T-SQL and command line. Even 4.21a of Microsoft SQL Server only had a pretty rudimentary Enterprise Manager. Scripting was a way of life.
Transact-SQL dates back to the Sybase days, and is the most fundamental SQL Server programming language. Microsoft and Sybase still use Transact-SQL, but they diverged as of Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 so they are not exactly the same. It was/is the common thread for SQL Server professionals until the era of the GUI was ushered in.
In 2009, I have a hard time finding people who can write even basic BACKUP and RESTORE statements. Let me clarify what I’m saying before people go off on me: I’m not talking about having to memorize every parameter of every Transact-SQL statement here. That’s what Books Online is for; it’s a great referenec. Even I don’t memorize everything; there’s only so much I can keep in my head. I’m also not talking about writing T-SQL for applications (that’s a whole different ballgame and developers – I’ve got a bone to pick with you; just not in this blog post); I’m talking for administrative purposes. T-SQL is not a retired feature, DBAs. It’s one of your most powerful tools available to you. All of that information you see visually in SQL Server Management Studio? You can generally get at it easily – or easier – via scripting. When I’m doing a consolidation gig, I use things like the SERVERPROPERTY function as part of my scripts that I have clients run. Microsoft has even made it easier to get at some things – you don’t even have to remember system tables in many cases. Just know about the dynamic management views (DMVs) first introduced in SQL Server 2005. They are a great way to gather information and monitor what’s going on.
Scripting Sometimes Means More Than T-SQL
Over the years I’ve also written many OS-level scripts in languages like WMI for DBA use. Now, I’m not a coder in the sense that you’d want me writing optimized application code, but admin code is a whole different thing. For example, my backup retention scrips (also included as part of the download for the Pro SQL Server 2005 High Availability book) are all WMI. My current consolidation scripts for gathering OS-level information are all WMI. I’m currently porting a lot of that stuff to PowerShell, which I will talk about in a second. A DBA’s job description does not begin and end with just SQL Server (a continuing theme through this series). SQL Server is part of a larger ecosystem that ESPECIALLY includes Windows. That’s a topic for another day. I don’t even ask DBAs if they can write other code if they can’t write T-SQL.
I can’t say it enough at this point: learn PowerShell. And if you didn’t understand me, this should clear it up for you: L E A R N P O W E R S H E L L. You’d be foolish not to. Microsoft has often (and sometimes rightly so) been criticized for not standardizing toolsets between products. PowerShell is becoming that unifier, and you WILL be left behind as an administrator if you don’t learn it. On the Windows side, for example, the clustering team is sunsetting the .exe version of command line tools for PowerShell only versions. I predict many Microsoft products doing this over time. Windows is a bit ahead of the curve here.
I will admit I do not love SQL Server’s implementation of PowerShell at the moment as it does not use a lot of commandlets (cmdlets), but is basically a PowerShell interface directly to SMO. Windows uses a lot of cmdlets and is easy to use, while SQL Server needs a bit more “finesse” at this point. I’m hoping that changes in future releases of SQL Server.
Having said that, the beauty of PowerShell even over older programming paradigms like WMI is that you can write integrated scripts that cross products to administer them. For example, I can write cluster-based scripts with a SQL Server focus that do both OS-level and SQL-level tasks in one fell swoop; I don’t need to write different code in different scripts. I’m already experimenting with that, and it’s very powerful.
PowerShell is currently at version 2.0, which ships with Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7, and can be downloaded for other platforms like Windows Server 2003). SQL Server 2008 ships with its own provider, and you can even have PowerShell stored procedures.
Don’t believe me? Talk to other SQL folks like my friends Buck Woody or Allen White. Read their blogs. See their webcasts and presentations at TechEd and PASS. PowerShell is here to stay.
At the end of the day, why should you care about scripting? Here are but a handful of reasons:
1. Better control of what you want to do.
I’m sure as a DBA you’ve had that moment where the GUI doesn’t exactly do what you want. Scripting – whatever language you use – is a way to handle that. And it’s sometimes incredibly efficient. What you can do in sometimes a few lines of code (and sometimes more than that … won’t lie) can be powerful. That code can then be scheduled as a SQL Server Agent job or via some OS-level scheduler to be run.
2. Understand your environment better
I’m a big believer in knowing how things work underneath the covers so that even if you use the GUI, you have a better idea of why things are the way they are. Scripting helps you get there.
Coding also means that there’s no black box, which is really what a SQL Server Maintenance Plan is; you don’t see the T-SQL or SMO run under the covers. Coding means there’s intent. What do I mean by that? Too many people use Maintenance Plans with no thought behind them. Having jobs you’ve coded and are executing gives you that control and understanding of why, not just selecting something because it’s a checkbox on an option screen.
3. Some features are only available via script or have script-only options
Not everything has a GUI equivalent or has all options exposed via some fancy interface. I know that may be news to some of you, but it’s true. You’d be better off learning a scriptable way to do things because you may have more options at your disposal – some of which may actually be useful.
Anyone ever use BCP these days? It’s one of the more powerful SQL Server tools, still ships with the product, and has been around since the Sybase days.
As an administrator, there’s nothing you want more than repeatability and consistency in what you do – especially in terms of how things are executed and the results. Scripting is one of the best ways to make that happen. Scripts can be tested and results easily verified.
5. Disaster recovery/problems
What happens if your SQL Server is locked up and you do not have SSMS accessible? Do you know how to access and use the Dedicated Admin Connection via sqlcmd, and then run the proper commands to see what’s going on and resolve the issues? Never assume you’ll have a GUI available to you, and quite frankly, scripting can be faster than GUIs – especially if you know what you’re doing and/or what has to be done.
What if you need to do something like restore a server from bare metal and need to restore backups in a particular order. Are you really going to do that via the GUI if you’ve got 100 backup files (most of which are t-logs)? No, you’re going to script that. Hopefully you’ve generated it (like the script I wrote to generate that as part of my last book and downloadable on this website as well as at Apress) already. If you’re going to do it via GUI, that may lead to problems (human error) or just be cumbersome.
Scripts can save your proverbial bacon, and can serve as documents of your current environment. A good example is scripting your replication configuration.
Back to Reality
I don’t expect this blog post (or any in this upcoming series) to change anyone’s mind overnight, nor is it designed to turn anyone into a coding genius; it’s just me posting observations about what I see out there in the SQL Server community. I’ve done enough research over the past few years to see this as a very disturbing trend.
Yes, I know learning how to code takes time when you’re already overloaded with other tasks. Stop thinking of code as a development task. Coding has an administrative side that has nothing to do with application functionality. Exploit it for your own good and productivity.
I don’t want to seem like I’m not a GUI user here – I absolutely am. I mix both script and GUI in how I deal with my own environments and test harnesses in addition to how things get done at customer sites. A good administrator knows when to use a tool, or what will be best in a given situation.
What are your thoughts and comments? Agree? Disagree? What are you seeing out there?