DBAs and toolmakers still have plenty to do

It's easy to criticize Microsoft for trying to build a Swiss-army-knife database system—one that can do just about everything, but doesn't do anything particularly well. Elitists, Microsoft competitors, and some database administrators (DBAs) are carping that Microsoft has dumbed-down SQL Server 7.0 by building in many wizards and other ease-of-use features. Microsoft has pandered to the lowest common denominator of user and trivialized the role of DBAs, the critics say.

I say Microsoft has taken the original vision of a general-purpose database management system (DBMS) to the next level and automated more of the DBA's chores. Most DBAs find the dumbing-down charges laughable. Yes, many of the legions of new SQL Server users will lack database savvy. And yes, many cases of suboptimal server configuration, poor database application performance, and ugly database design will occur. Some people will even lose data. But don't blame Microsoft—or its wizards.

Mike Yocca, head of the SQL Server user group in Pittsburgh (http://www.acedb.com/pghssug), sees wizards as a positive step, but points out they're not perfect. He'd like wizards that are better at managing by exception (e.g., wizards that let you back up everything except a certain criterion), and wizards whose answers you can store as scripts for subsequent editing and reuse.

CAST Software (http://www.castsoftware.com), a tool vendor that offers a suite of database tools called CAST Workbench (including versions for Sybase, Oracle, and SQL Server), believes that keeping mission-critical applications up and running 24 x 7 will always be the domain of well-trained database professionals (as opposed to casual users who rely on wizards). A CAST spokesperson, Gregg Holz-Richter, says that no relational database management system (RDBMS) vendor or tool vendor is likely to offer a panacea for the complex tasks of the DBA. Holz-Richter said, "DBAs not only play a crucial role in database administration, but also are critical in the project-level tasks of design, testing, optimization, change management, and impact analysis." CAST Software and other tool vendors are keenly aware that they must continue adding value to SQL Server to compete with the ever-increasing built-in functionality, such as wizards, that Microsoft and other RDBMS vendors are adding. "The database project space is a huge pie, and there will be plenty to go around for those who can innovate and add value," said Holz-Richter.

Craig Mullins, vice president of marketing and operations for Platinum Technology's (http://www .platinum.com) database management division, concurred: "For true enterprise-level databases, in which high performance and scalability are required, organizations need to have options for administration, performance tuning, and system configuration." He added, "For high performance and scalability, Microsoft needs to work with partners that have enterprise expertise."

Microsoft and Platinum are partnering for the Microsoft Repository 2.0 (http://msdn. microsoft.com/repository), which ships with Visual Studio Enterprise Edition tools and is included in SQL Server 7.0. The Microsoft Repository is an object store of metadata (i.e., data about data). (Platinum is responsible for porting it to non-Windows platforms such as UNIX and mainframes and to non-SQL Server databases such as Oracle on NT.) Platinum also offers several cross-database DBA utilities.

Mullins says that tool vendors can offer DBAs control they might lose when RDBMS vendors move previously configurable options into wizards and self-configuration tools. Vendors, including Microsoft, are tempted to remove configurable options to simplify SQL Server administration and to prevent novice DBAs from making hit-and-miss changes that often lead to tech support calls. (Oracle reportedly has more than 200 such options.) Microsoft listened to feedback from its beta sites and reversed course: After declaring that SQL Server 7.0 beta 2 didn't include configuration options that had previously been available to DBAs, Microsoft decided to reinstate many of these options.

Microsoft has worked with enterprise resource planning (ERP) market leader SAP AG (http://www .sap.com and http://www.microsoft.com/industry/ erp/sap) so that SAP developers can export the complex SAP metadata in the Microsoft Repository. The major packaged applications and ERP vendors, such as Baan, PeopleSoft, and J.D. Edwards, support SQL Server 7.0, as they supported previous versions of SQL Server. And ERP customers are raving about the improved performance SQL Server 7.0 offers.

With SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft has created the best general-purpose RDBMS available today. SQL Server offers both the ease of use required by entry-level applications and reliable high-end functionality that enterprise-scale applications such as ERP packages require.

Is Microsoft dumbing down SQL Server 7.0? Not according to Paul Munkenbeck, a UK-based DBA. He, like many veteran DBAs, thinks wizards will liberate him for more advanced work. Munkenbeck said, "Initially I thought the plethora of wizards would reduce the DBA role, but as I thought about it, I realized that the DBA's role would shift away from doing boring production administration." Munkenbeck sees DBAs spending more time on architecture and design issues as they deal with increasingly large databases and the new demands of data warehouses. He also sees the DBA's troubleshooting role expanding. "Wizards will hide so much that it will be harder to resolve a performance problem than it is now."

Has Microsoft made SQL Server so smart that it has squeezed out DBA tool vendors? Platinum Technology and CAST Software don't think so. Embarcadero Technologies and Sylvain Faust (SFI) also believe their products remain strong. Mark Smallwood, vice-president of business development for Embarcadero Technologies (http://www.embarcadero.com), explains that one of its products, DBArtisan, offers advanced features such as smart (i.e., correctly sequenced) migration and synchronization of data between two servers and bulk loading of table data by the fastest method available. DBArtisan also supports other RDBMSs and includes automated build and change management. Sylvain Faust, president of SFI (http://www.sfi-software .com), whose company also sells tools for SQL Server and Oracle DBAs and developers, says vendors always find ways to make things better and easier for end users.

Aaron Zornes, executive vice president and director of META Group's Application Delivery Strategies Service (http://www.metagroup.com), describes the value of wizards: "Our customers are using wizards, and getting better code that is automatically generated by the tool. They then have a base that is pretested, predesigned, and doesn't start with logical errors in how the software is designed. This base lets users get right to work, writing what is unique about their particular application. To think that using a tool to help you write your software somehow makes you less cool is a spurious, incorrect observation. There's a time when you need to be writing the code to get the control and power you want. And there are other times when you need productivity. The wizards will get you past trivial productivity roadblocks that might exist in getting your framework in place."

I congratulate Microsoft for making tremendous strides in ease of use. I can't complain about any vendor who simplifies what used to be an error-prone, tedious process of defining and sizing devices. Also, I can't find fault with a company that offers a splendid alternative (the new Data Transformation Services—DTS—for details, see Don Awalt and Brian Lawton, "Introducing Data Transformation Services," page 34) to the mind-numbing task of defining bulk copy program (bcp) format files for importing or exporting data.

And consider the new SQL Server OLAP Services (formerly, code-named Plato), which lets you create online analytical processing (OLAP) cubes and data marts in minutes instead of months. Microsoft has not dumbed down OLAP, which used to be limited to firms willing to invest at least six figures to implement it. On the contrary, the innovations in OLAP in the new SQL Server mean you can refer to hybrid online analytical processing (HOLAP). OLAP guru Nigel Pendse (http://www.olapreport.com) observed, "HOLAP's a good architecture in principle, and Microsoft's solution is possibly the most elegant yet."

I don't think SQL Server's wizards will put DBAs out of work. Instead, they'll give you more time to consider strategic issues and your organizations' information value chains.