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DBA Job Description: What type of DBA are you?

By Brian Knight,

One of the common questions I see asked in the newsgroups quite often is what exactly does a DBA do? You hear answers that range from “walk on water” to “look at the ceiling tiles counting the number of divots in a given tile”. Of course the first quote was from a DBA in the field and the second one was from someone that was very aggregated with their DBA.

 

So what exactly does a DBA do? Many organizations that don’t have a DBA don’t realize how much a DBA actually does do (or can do). Many DBAs are very under-utilized, which further strengthens the complaint that DBAs don’t do anything. Really, it’s hard to classify a DBA in one category. In this article, I’ll show you some of the types of DBAs and their job descriptions I often see in the field.  Keep in mind, that there are tons of other roles/responsibilities that may not be mentioned here.

Production DBA

The production DBA spends most of his or her day trying to work themselves out of a job. This is because that no DBA in his right mind would run a backup manually every day. Instead, he would automate it and schedule it using SQL Server agent. A true production DBA usually has the following base tasks:

 

§         Install SQL Server – Usually, a production DBA will use the corporate standard to install SQL Server. He may also develop an unattended method of installing SQL Server. This also includes service pack deployments.

§         Install and deploy databases – A pure production DBA would use pre-made scripts to upgrade and install databases.

§         Create backup plans – Based on the business needs of the company (how valuable is your data), find the best solution for the budget and create a backup schedule around the plan. The production DBA would also raise the red flag if there are any vulnerabilities in his company.

§         Test disaster recovery scenarios – Performs regular random drills to test the backup plan and to test the integrity of the company’s backups. Needless to say, a backup is only as good as your ability to recovery from it.

§         Manage security – Work with the security department, the development DBA and the product planners to determine how much access the application will need to the database. The production DBA is the gatekeeper of this access typically.

§         Sizes out machines – He will take in the benchmarking evidence and find out what type of machine will be needed for deployment.

§         Receives projects from development DBAs - Works with the development DBA for a clean handover of a product.

§         Performance tuning – This type of DBA tunes the physical layer of the database. He may choose to do this by tuning the file structure and organization, scheduling index rebuilds, and any hardware-type decisions.

 

One of the key tasks that I purposely did not mention above was a pure production DBA does not control the data. He would only control the physical implementation of the data, not the model or the data inside the tables. I know very few pure production DBAs anymore. With SQL Server 2000, most have migrated into a hybrid role, which I will discuss momentarily.

 

Development DBA

Development DBAs are tightly coupled with the developers of a project. It is generally a good idea to have a ratio of 3 developers to each development DBA. Some projects that I’ve seen need a 1:2 ratio due to the amount of involvement in the DBA. This is typical in projects that use Analysis Services, where the DBA has to create the cubes and ETL process. Here are a few of the typical tasks that the development DBA does:

 

§         Data modeling – Creating the physical data model and modifying the model on an as-need basis. This usually means working closely with the data analyst and product planners. Some development DBAs find themselves also working on a closer level with the analyst to explore what the logical model must look like as well. This can be very time consuming and in most companies, it is preferred that the analyst create the logical and conceptual models since they know the business better than the DBA.

§         Creating DTS packages – This is a new task for a DBA in SQL Server 7.0 and greater. This is where the DBA must create processes to load and scrub data.

§         Creating the installation scripts – This of course includes the base installation scripts to create the tables, indexes, stored procedures and initial data. This also includes though any upgrades.  Controlling the database builds is the most frustrating and time-consuming part of a DBA’s time.

§         Stored procedure writing – This is the most controversial item in the job description. A pure development DBA writes, tunes and modifies the stored procedures. Most DBAs do only assist in the complex queries, leaving the simple ones up to the developers. My personal feeling on this topic is that I can help tune 10 select stored procedures versus write 1.

§         Performance tuning – The development DBA handles the performance tuning at the query and index level. He can do this by running Profiler to determine where poorly running queries are and provide any assistance in rewriting the query. He must also look at execution plans to determine where indexes can be built to improve performance.

 

Hybrid DBA

In a recent article, I discussed a new type of DBA that I’ve noticed evolving over the past few years. As time passes, the line is blurring between the two main types of DBAs to where almost no DBA is a pure development or production DBA. This is how the hybrid DBA was born. This type of DBA is ideal because he can walk a project from its infancy to deployment.  Essentially, performing a combination of all the tasks mentioned in the two types of DBAs' portfolio. For more information about this evolution read "Death of the Production DBA".

 

Other new DBA skills:

  • Loading test data

  • Manage the XML communication

  • Learn CLR  for stored procedures (we'll go into this topic in a later article)

Organization

 

With the tasks laid out, you may be wondering to whom would these DBAs would report?  I’ve seen tons of varying organization charts for each type of DBA. I prefer a central DBA group that supports, develops and analyzes databases. I’ve also seen where a production DBA would report to the support group (typically the same people supporting the Windows server machines). I don’t like this model because it creates a divide between production and development DBAs. This divide could lead to the production DBA asking the development DBA, “How in the world could you hand me this?”.

 

I see even more controversy to where organizationally the development DBA report. It seems that this type of DBA usually reports to the development organization, which again creates an even wider divide between support and development. These two groups of DBAs should have a tight bond and constantly be sending each other feedback on what each other has in the pike and what the production DBA is seeing in the server room.

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