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Thoughts on the PASS Summit


Thoughts From SQL PASS 2006

It's now been a month since SQL PASS 2006 and I am finally getting around to putting my thoughts together... You see, I started a new job with Store Financial the day before I left for the SQL PASS Community Summit. That Store Financial was more than willing to have me start and be gone for nearly a week (and pick up the travel and lodging expenses to boot) told me quite a bit about the company.

However, if there's one thing I've learned over the years it's that there's always a price to be paid. As a third-party processor for Master Card that specializes in gift cards, November is the beginning of our "show time" and it just builds through the end of the year. Store Financial is a small company that has been growing rapidly since it's inception about four years ago. Up until now they have not had a "DBA" on staff although they have employed Bill Graziano (for those who don't know, Bill is our local SQL MVP, runs SQLTeam.com, and he was also the Program Director or something like that for the PASS Summit, and one heck of a nice guy to boot!) as a consultant to help them out. In addition, they (we) had planned on a major upgrade to our production SQL Server systems to handle the anticipated growth for this season as the current systems were barely able to handle last year's peak season and growth for this year was anticipated to come in somewhere north of 150%. These upgrades had been put on hold until they could find a DBA to help out full-time. The upgrades included adding a SAN and a new clustered instance of SQL Server with a combination of transactional replication to reporting servers and log shipping to a warm-standby server. Now you have a bit better idea of the situation I faced as my time at PASS ended.

To finish my story, after working some pretty insane hours we managed to get the new system up and running smoothly in production in time for our peak time. While the old system strained to handle 12 transactions per second, the new system (after much tweaking and tuning and endless testing) easily handles 80 per second.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, this article is supposed to be about the PASS Summit. I don't think we could have accomplished the aforementioned tasks nearly so well if it hadn't been for some tips or bits of understanding I picked up at the PASS Summit. This was my third time attending the conference and so far I've always returned with some useful information that I've been able to apply immediately.

So, what was my favorite session? That's a hard one to answer but I think it would be "Interviewing SQLOS Developers About NUMA Design Considerations." This discussion helped several key concepts slip into place in my mind. I won't claim to be an expert on NUMA, but at least I have a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals now. In this session and several others, the presenters showed some pretty cool uses of the Dynamic Management Views (DMV's). I don't know about you, but DMV's are one of those things that I knew were out there, but I hadn't made extensive use of them. After seeing some of the information that is made available through DMV's that is changing...

One of my biggest gripes with SQL Server 2005 is the lack of supplemental documentation. Books Online is great and all, but it just doesn't present large subjects in an easy to digest manner. Things like replication, Analysis Services, Service Broker etc... just aren't covered there in a way that facilitates learning (or re-learning) them from the ground up. Good books are starting come out on these subjects, but it's now been over a year and there still isn't a good book out that covers replication in 2005. SQL PASS is the perfect opportunity to find a session or two on a specialized subject to fill in the gaps. In some cases you can actually talk to the folks who conceived, designed and built it, now that's worth the price of admission and travel all by itself!

Despite the generally high quality of the sessions, I have found the most valuable aspect of PASS to be networking. Being able to discuss your technical challenges with others--especially members of the Product Team--is easily worth the admission price alone. It is also great to be able to put faces with names that I have seen on books, articles and forum posts.

For those who have not ever attended PASS I have two pieces of advice:

  1. GO! Talk to your boss early about next year and take advantage of the steep discounts offered for early registration. Offer to take copious notes and share the knowledge you gain with your co-workers. Convince the powers that be that you are not going to just go off to Denver on an all expense paid vacation full of expensive meals and booze. My personal experience is that employers are reluctant to pay for conferences because too many attendees do just that. In reality, a very small minority of attendees act irresponsibly, but that's all it takes. The annual PASS Community Summit offers an unparalleled opportunity to develop you knowledge and skills as a database professional. If you haven't been, make it a priority and start working on your boss early-before all the training money is gone. If you attended PASS, I hope to see you again next year.
  2. Never stay in a bad (or inapplicable) session. The presenters are generally very good, and the session descriptions are usually enough to tell you if a particular session is for you or not. However, there always seems to be one or two that are either real duds, or just don't happen to be what you need. Thankfully, it's most often the latter. In one session I attended, my notes consist of "This guy is an idiot." I stuck around for about 10 minutes just to make sure that my initial impression wasn't wrong (it wasn't IMAO). I left and found another session that turned out to be better than I expected. There were several other sessions that I left not because the presenter wasn't good, but because I was either already familiar with the material. Either way, don't waste your time, there was always something else to do.

What's the single most useful bit of information I picked up? Again, that's a hard one to answer, but I'd have to say learning about the launch of the product team's "Best Practices" site has been the most beneficial to me. There is some great information there. Check it out here: http://www.microsoft.com/technet/prodtechnol/sql/bestpractice/default.mspx. Although I hate to leave out Ken Henderson's presentation and announcement of SQL Nexus... which can be found here: http://www.khen.com/sqlnexus.htm. Another product that came to my attention (courtesy of being able to work with the author, Bill Graziano) is ClearTrace. ClearTrace is somewhat similar to SQL Nexus in that they both function as trace file aggregators, but ClearTrace is a bit less ambitious, which is not a bad thing. ClearTrace's simplicity is fantastic when you just need to sort through some trace files, looking for likely candidates for optimization etc... ClearTrace can be found here: http://www.cleardata.biz/cleartrace/download.aspx.

© Don Peterson, 2007


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