PostAre You (Still) In The Business Of Running Databases?

This blog post is the second in a series that covers designing and implementing hybrid SQL Server high availability and disaster recovery solutions with Microsoft Azure.


As I was reading the news this week, it’s hard to ignore the announcement of General Motors laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of employees in their Michigan-based manufacturing plants. This also has severe impacts in their Ontario-based manufacturing plant in Canada where some of their production work will be moved to Mexico. Some 600+ jobs will be cut. This is due to increase in manufacturing costs and reduction in sales.

In contrast, Tesla has experienced tremendous growth in the previous years with increase in sales and demand. Just out of curiosity, I compared the stock prices of other car companies in relation to Tesla. Note that I don’t have any plans to buy a new car nor invest in any of these companies.

It’s interesting to see how a relatively new company is beating the pioneers and the giants in the automotive industry. Tesla defined a new category in an existing industry – electric cars. While the automotive giants dismissed electric cars as a potential market disruption, Tesla capitalized on it.

The Market Is Constantly Shifting – FAST

We’ve seen this happen in other industries

  • Mobile phones beat land lines
  • NetFlix beats the DVD rentals and cable TV business
  • Amazon beats the bookstore business
  • iPhone beats the BlackBerry

Only those who are smart and wise enough to see the market changes – and act accordingly – will survive. And whether we like it or not, that’s just how things are.

Running Data Centers or Innovating the Business?

You might be wondering, “what does this have to do with designing and implementing hybrid SQL Server HA/DR solutions with Microsoft Azure?” A lot, actually.

When I used to work as a data center engineer, we advised our customers on the appropriate technical solution for their business processes. I have to admit that, in most cases, our recommendations were based on our existing skills and technical expertise. As a Windows/SQL Server engineer, I make recommendations based on what I know about Windows and SQL Server. If the customer asks for a DR solution, guess what I would recommend?

But the one thing I’ve learned from working as a data center engineer is that the customer should not be focused on the technical aspects of a business process. We will make the recommendation, get it approved and take care of the rest. The customers can continue on becoming better at what they do – innovating the business and making their customers happy. In fact, I’ve created a tagline for what we do as a technology service provider: helping customers become better at what they do best. Besides, we were “the cloud.”

As a SQL Server DBA or consultant, a HA/DR solution that you can think of might consist of running a SQL Server failover clustered instance for local high availability and possibly a log shipping configuration (or an Availability Group replica, depending on your budget and RPO/RTO/SLA) for disaster recovery. And, that’s OK. Besides, that’s what we’re comfortable with. It’s our key area of expertise, our bread and butter.

As a CIO or a CTO, you might be thinking about the investments that you’ve already made in hardware and data center space so you might as well make the most out of it. Again, that’s OK. It’s not practical to throw away investments that have already been made.

But the one question that we need to constantly ask ourselves in the IT industry is this: Are we really in the business of running databases?

The Cloud As A Way To Innovate and Improve The Business

Whether we like it or not, the goal of every business is to be profitable. Otherwise, it won’t survive. It’s the reason why General Motors is moving some of its production to Mexico – to lower operations costs. It’s the same reason  why large companies have outsourced some of their operations to China or India. It’s reality. We need to accept the fact and get on with it.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll just wait for our turn to get that dreaded pink slip and be unemployed while our jobs get outsourced to somewhere cheaper. That’s the wrong way to approach it. Take NetFlix as an example.

NetFlix was the foster child of the public cloud, running all of their customer-facing systems on Amazon Web Services. One might think that their move to the public cloud would mean a reduction in their IT operations. On the contrary, they still run a big IT operation. Their IT staff – database administrators, server administrators, network engineers, developers, etc. – have truly embraced the concept of DevOps (a term that a lot of the hard-core IT folks refer to as a marketing hype.) But the IT roles have evolved over the years. Their database administrators have started doing analytics (they still do traditional OLTP-based DBA work.) They’ve created roles that we’re probably not even aware of. Who knows what roles they’ll create within the next five years or so.

NetFlix understood that they are not in the business of running data centers. They are in the business of providing customers with the experience of Internet TV. They are simply leveraging technology to constantly innovate and improve the business, regardless of whether that technology leverages an on-premises solution or the public cloud.

What Is Edwin Up To?

My goal has always been to help IT professionals and organizations grow and develop their full potential. But growth starts in the mind. I want you to start thinking about the business aspect of what you do as a technology professional. I’m sure you enjoy fixing corrupted data pages, reading SQL Server memory dumps and analyzing execution plans. But understand that none of that matters if it does not contribute to innovating and improving the business. Growth may look like shifting focus from purely technical to some business. Calculating the cost of that Azure blob storage for backup archival – that’s important to the business. Because you are thinking of ways to not just meet your database RPO/RTO/SLA but also to lower operations cost. You need to learn how to ask questions that matter to the business: where is the business heading? What are their goals and how can technology help meet those goals? And when you start doing that, you develop a mindset that enables you to properly design and implement a hybrid HA/DR solution – be it for SQL Server or other platforms.

Besides, I’m sure your organization is not in the business of running data centers anyway.

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