Database Administrators (DBAs) used to be the masters of their domain. They were the intermediary that stood between the databases necessary to conduct daily business and rest of the company. Not only were they the gatekeepers responsible for protecting the data but also the schemas that held that data. They were responsible for running the whole system, top to bottom, performing any task required to keep the database servers functional.
Then database-as-a-service (DBaaS) came along. This service provided an option for companies to outsource their database services, leaving the hardware maintenance, software updating, and employment of database experts to someone else. This simplifies much of the process of handling databases, allowing companies to spend more time, energy, and focus on the applications that drive the growth of their business. Because of this, the DBaaS industry is growing rapidly.
With the database (and its management) moving off-site, some industry experts—including DBAs themselves—have begun to question the relevance, job security, and value of the traditional DBA role.
How does a DBA maintain relevance and job security? How do they justify their value to the company? The same way evolution has worked for millions of years: adapt to a changing environment.
The DBAs’ Traditional Role
Traditionally, DBAs had a wide range of responsibilities. Many of them were time-consuming and tedious. Here’s a brief list of the things they might have done in a given day:
- Software management—including the installation, configuration, upgrading, patching, and/or migrating of software to any number of servers
- Backup and recovery of database information
- Maintaining database security, both physically and digitally, by restricting access and limiting permissions
- Planning and preparing for storage and capacity issues
- Maintaining, improving, and monitoring server and database performance
- And of course, troubleshooting issues to ensure optimum uptime and access
These activities were the primary focus and made up the majority of work hours for a DBA. Any problems with (or even associated with) the database were their responsibility. The shift towards DBaaS has changed much of that, causing a non-trivial number of DBAs concern that there won’t be any work left for them once their company chooses to use managed database services.
How a DBaaS Disrupts the Status Quo
The goal of any solid DBaaS is to take normal database management functions off the shoulders of the client company. The best database management companies take care of the infrastructure, set up the cloud servers, and allocate the necessary hardware for the data. They can also respond to sudden growth in storage and processing needs faster than traditional hardware setups, adding resources as needed to maintain uptime and improve performance.
Managed DBaaS offerings also implement and run the software that makes accessing and manipulating the data possible. They handle installations, updates, configurations, backups, recovery, and troubleshooting.
You may be noticing a pattern; the responsibilities that DBAs normally handle are precisely the ones that DBaaS wants to streamline and simplify for their clients. But if they’re running all those tasks, where does that leave DBAs?
Adapting to Their New Environment
Here’s where we offer some good news. What DBaaS companies do is remove the need for DBAs to be “hands-on” in the maintenance of the database servers. This is similar to what happens when subcontractors remove the need for a general contractor to plumb the house and run the wires by himself/herself. What that means is it frees the general contractor up to tackle higher-level problems.
The same scenario applies to DBAs. The best DBAs prefer to tackle the challenging and often sticky problems, like performance issues. This means that some DBAs would be required to pick up some new skills and knowledge sets. Also, the overall role of the DBA might require some rebranding to reflect the increased complexity of the problems that they would now be freed up to face.
But many of database administrators would prefer to no longer be just the database software patchers, only keeping up with the infinite cycle of patching and upgrading to address bug fixes and added features. The freedom to address real problems, and become a true value-add for the business is often exactly what DBAs want.
The New Roles of the DBA
Companies have always wanted things to be better, faster, and more efficient—especially in technology. Well, now with DBaaS, your DBAs won’t be spending all their time updating servers and troubleshooting PEBCAK errors. They can give more focus to optimizing how the database runs. Activities like query performance tuning, data modeling, and improving indexing strategy can dramatically improve the efficiency and performance of the database and the applications that run on it. Meanwhile, they can hand off the implementation of modifications to someone else.
This is doubly important, since your business is paying another company’s overhead to run the database. That means if you can get the database to do more, faster, with fewer resources, you can reduce the cost to your company to use the service. So prepare yourself to spend more time thinking about ways to reduce resource consumption and streamlining your database.
Risk Management and Emergency Response
Even the most carefully structured system with the most robust redundancies is capable of failing. Now that the DBA isn’t keeping the system running, they can can spend more time focusing on and preparing for potential disasters. It may not even come down to comprehensive downtime of the database servers; sometimes less severe failures can pop up along the data pipeline, creating problems for those who need to access the database.
Becoming familiar with the DBaaS systems and how they interact with internal systems can help prepare internal DBAs to deal with challenges as they come up. This allows the business to continue operating even when there’s a problem—whether that's with the data, the database, or the communication from the DBaaS servers to the clients.
Security is a hot topic for any database. The managed service will have its own physical and digital security protecting the database from incursion directly. However, that’s not the only avenue of access. If your business and the managed service has access to the database, both are vulnerable if the client’s security isn’t sealed up tight.
This is a chance for the DBA to flex his or her security biceps and make sure that threats to the data (both internal and external to the company) are denied access. Limiting permissions as much as possible is step one. Making sure that everyone follows good password practices and habits is step two. Beyond that, a lot of it is closing software vulnerabilities and teaching anti-malware and anti-phishing tactics to the organization.
It’s not exactly building a PKI setup, but spending some time on security will help keep both businesses safe.
Architecture Planning and Budget Management
Along with optimizing performance, a DBA who’s working with a DBaaS or managed service has the opportunity to plan how much architecture is hosted in-house, and how much is outsourced. A DBA can add a lot of value by helping determine which functions are still better handled by the in-house teams and which features it makes sense to hand off to external vendors.
Why should a DBA care about this? Because most DBaaS companies follow a tiered price structure according to which features you want. A savvy DBA can save their company a pretty penny by determining that features X, Y, and Z can be handled by the in-house IT team, thus lowering the tier the company needs to pay for.
The more refined and organized the physical and digital architecture is, the more you can save. So fine-tuning the system should be an ongoing process.
With a DBAs focus off the system, they can put more of their focus on the data and the applications that use it. Getting familiar with all the data sources, their value to the organization, life cycle, etc., can better prepare a DBA to manage the database and keep it in the best shape performance-wise. Additionally, this frees up time for DBAs to pursue additional database technologies or focus on other areas such as retention, reporting, BI, analytics, and even newer data science and machine learning areas.
Analytics is an especially valuable knowledge set, considering how many companies are offering BI solutions to help them make sense of all the data in their databases. By focusing on the data itself, DBAs can capitalize on the knowledge gap between those who use the data and those who understand how it’s collected and organized. Doing a little digging into machine learning and data mining wouldn’t hurt either.
DBA Job Security
For the motivated and dedicated among DBAs, there’s no risk to job security at all. DBaaS actually opens up more opportunities; it just takes a little effort on the DBA’s part to evolve along with the changes, and keep their positions (and their skill sets) up-to-date and relevant.
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