How is automation impacting the dba role?

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I was at a dinner party recently, and talking with some colleagues. I had worked with them years back on Oracle systems.

One colleague Maria said she really enjoyed my newsletter.

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She went on to say how much has changed in the last decade. We talked about how the database administrator, as a career role, wasn’t really being hired for much these days. Things had changed. Evolved a lot.

How do you keep up with all the new technology, she asked?

I went on to talk about Amazon RDS, EC2, lambda & serverless as really exciting stuff. And lets not forget terraform (I wrote a howto on terraform), ansible, jenkins and all the other deployment automation technologies.





We talked about Redshift too. It seems to be everywhere these days and starting to supplant hadoop as the warehouse of choice for analytics.

It was a great conversation, and afterward I decided to summarize my thoughts. Here’s how I think automation and the cloud are impacting the dba role.

My career pivots

Over the years I’ve poured all those computer science algorithms, coding & hardware skills into a lot of areas. Tools & popular language change. Frameworks change. But solid deductive reasoning remains priceless.

o C++ Developer

Fresh out of college I was doing Object Oriented Programming on the Macintosh with Codewarrior & powerplant. C++ development is no joke, and daily coding builds strength in a lot of areas. Turns out he application was a database application, so I was already getting my feet wet with databases.

o Jack of all trades developer & Unix admin

One type of job role that I highly recommend early on is as a generalist. At a small startup with less than ten employees, you become the primary technology solutions architect. So any projects that come along you get your hands dirty with. I was able to land one of these roles. I got to work on Windows one day, Mac programming another & Unix administration & Oracle yet another day.

o Oracle DBA

The third pivot was to work primarily on Oracle. I attended Oracle conferences & my peers were Oracle admins. Interestingly, many of the Oracle “experts” came from more of a business background, not computer science. So to have a more technical foundation really made you stand out.

For the startups I worked with, I was a performance guru, scalability expert. Managers may know they have Oracle in the mix, but ultimately the end goal is to speed up the website & make the business run. The technical nuts & bolts of Oracle DBA were almost incidental.

o MySQL & Postgres

As Linux matured, so did a lot of other open source projects. In particular the two big Open Source databases, MySQL & Postgres became viable.

Suddenly startups were willing to put their businesses on these technologies. They could avoid huge fees in Oracle licenses. Still there were not a lot of career database experts around, so this proved a good niche to focus on.

o RDS & Redshift on Amazon Cloud

Fast forward a few more years and it’s my fifth career pivot. Amazon Web Services bursts on the scene. Every startup is deploying their applications in the cloud. And they’re using Amazon RDS their managed database service to do it. That meant the traditional DBA role was less crucial. Sure the business still needed data expertise, but usually not as a dedicated role.

Time to shift gears and pour all of that Linux & server building experience into cloud deployments & migrating to the cloud.

o Devops, data, scalability & performance

Now of course the big sysadmin type role is usually called an SRE or Devops role. SRE being site reliability engineer. New name but many of the same responsibilities.

Now though infrastructure as code becomes front & center. Tools like CloudFormation & Terraform, plus Ansible, Chef & Jenkins are all quite mature, and being used everywhere.

Checkout your infrastructure code from git, and run terraform apply. And minutes later you have rebuilt your entire stack from bare metal to fully functioning & autoscaling application. Cool!

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

How I’ve steered DBA skills

There’s no doubt that data expertise & management skills are still huge. But the career role of database administrator has evolved quite a bit.

Related: 5 surprising features of Amazon Lambda serverless computing

Pros of automation & managing databases

For DBAs who are looking at the cloud from the old way of doing things, there’s a lot to love about it.

Automation brings repeatability to work & jobs. This is great. It raises the bar & makes us more professional, reducing manual processes & mistakes.

Infrastructure as code is self documenting. It means we have a better idea of day-to-day processes, and can more easily handoff to new folks as we change roles or companies.

Related: Why generalists are better at scaling the web

Cons of automation & databases

However these days cloud, automation & microservices have brought a lot of madness too! Don’t believe me check out this piece on microservice madness.

With microservices you have more databases across the enterprise, on more platforms. How do you restore all at the same time? How do you do point-in-time recovery? What if your managed service goes down?

Migration scripts have become popular to make DDL changes in the database. Going forward (adding columns or tables) is great. But should we be letting our deployment automation roll *BACK* DDL changes? Remember that deletes data right? ๐Ÿ™‚

What about database drop & rebuild? Or throwing databases in a docker container? No bueno. But we’re seeing this more and more. New performance problems are cropping up because of that.

What about when your database upgrades automatically? Remember when you use a managed service, it is build for 1000 users, not one. So if your use case is different you may struggle.

In my experience upgrading RDS was a nightmare. Database as a service upgrades lack visibility. You don’t have OS or SSH access so you can’t keep track of things. You just simply wait.

No longer do we have “zero downtime”. With amazon RDS you have guarenteed downtime upgrades. No seriously.

As the field of databases fragments, we are wearing many more hats. If you like this challenge & enjoy being a generalist, you may feel at home here. But it is a long way from one platform one skill set career path.

Also fragmented db platforms means more complex recovery. I can’t stress this enough. It would become practically impossible to restore all microservices, all their underlying databases & all systems to one single point in time, if you need to.

Related: Is upgrading Amazon RDS like a sh*t storm that will not end?

DBAs, it’s time to step up and pivot

As the DBA role evolves, it also brings great opportunity. For those with solid database & data skills are sorely in need at startups and many fortune 500 organizations.

What I’m seeing is that organizations have lost much of the discipline they had as separate dba or operations departments. Schemaless databases have proliferated, and performance has suffered.

All these are more complex now, but strong DBA, performance & troubleshooting skills are needed now more than ever.

Related: The art of resistance in tech consulting

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