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Does the Role of the DBA Need to Evolve?

By Brad McGehee,

The November 2011 edition of Popular Science magazine really caught my eye. It was devoted to data and how we can use it to "transform the world". Apparently, in 2010, there was about 1.2 zetabytes of data (a zetabyte is a trillion gigabytes), and that by the end of 2011 there will be about 1.8 zetabytes. While these are impressive numbers (note to self: invest in some hard drive company stock, right away), raw data is, by itself, worthless. For data to be useful, it must be analyzed and interpreted. While storing data is easy, putting it to good use can be very difficult, but this is not stopping organizations from around the world from trying.

For example, Google is in the process of collecting every word published since the year 1500, about 500 billion words so far. It has already created an entirely new field of study called culturomics, which is the study of human behavior and cultural trends though the analysis of digitized texts, which can then be used to predict future trends. It reminds me a lot of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book series, where a science he calls psychohistory, which combines the knowledge of history, sociology and mathematical statistics to make predictions about the future. It is an interesting parallel between science fiction and science fact.

While the magazine article in Popular Science waxed lyrical about the power of data, it was mute on the subject of the role of the traditional guardian of that data, the DBA. Why was that, I wonder? Is this a sign that DBAs are already becoming less important, or is it because the current role of the DBA is not fully understood or appreciated? Today, as DBAs, we are mostly tasked with the management of data, but I don’t think most DBAs really fully understand the true power of data. In fact, most DBAs focus on their daily data management tasks and are increasingly willing to leave the meaningful interpretation of the data to other specialists.

There are dangers in this sort of compartmentalization within IT roles: As data evolves and technology advances, so the role of the DBA must adapt and evolve in kind, or risk becoming obsolete. We must get more involved in the interpretation of data; of extracting its significance.

Will the DBA role evolve naturally from being a "caretaker of data", to "interpreter of data", for the good of society? In other words, will DBAs evolve to become more like the scientists who study culturomics (or psychohistory)? Perhaps we need to use some culturomics to find out!

What do you think?

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Steve Jones