The Changing Role of the DBA in the Expanding Cloud World

Cloud computing—and everything that goes with it—is dramatically changing the roles and aspirations of database administrators. No longer do DBAs need to be chained to their databases, wrestling with managing updates, applying security patches, and dealing with capacity issues. Moving to a cloud data environment is steadily shifting DBAs’ roles from hands-on database overseers to value-drivers for their businesses—and enabling a range of career advancement opportunities not seen since the dawn of relational databases.

Overall, DBAs and their enterprises are embracing cloud computing in a big way. A recent survey conducted by Unisphere Research, a division of Information Today, Inc., in partnership with Amazon Web Services, found that, on average, 25% of organizations’ critical enterprise data is now managed in public clouds. In addition, 60% of data managers indicate their use of public cloud-based data resources and platforms has increased over the past year. Close to one-third anticipate growth exceeding 10% over the coming year (“2019 IOUG Databases in the Cloud Survey”).

Leading vendors in the database space are increasingly promoting cloud-based approaches that will transfer many DBA functions from on-premise data centers to cloud providers. This is the goal of Oracle, which sees cloud-based “self-driving databases” doing much of the heavy lifting of enterprises, said Steve Daheb, senior vice president of Oracle’s Cloud Business Group.

At the same time, DBAs will be busier than ever, engaging in designing and delivering data-driven capabilities to their businesses. “The average DBA spends 90% of their time in maintenance, managing 50 databases each,” he said. “They’re shifting now to higher-value tasks, from tuning and provisioning to focusing on business analytics. They see it as an opportunity.” The rise of cloud-based databases is also helping DBAs guide their organizations into new technology realms, such as blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), and AI, he added. “It’s all cloud-based. For example, cloud is an enabler for IoT, because if you think about it, where would you store all that data streaming in?” Oracle also sees greater engagement with non-technical business users as well, he said.

Cloud means a number of changes to DBAs’ jobs, including the following.

More high-value deployments, fewer lost weekends

The growing importance of cloud-based data and databases frees up DBAs from mundane, day-to-day tasks, providing more time to work directly with business leaders, managers, and customers on ways data can be applied to business problems. Data clouds take out much of the grunt work involved in setting up, operating, and scaling enterprise databases, whether for production, development, or testing purposes. Cloud services offer flexible capacity that can be expanded or reduced on demand and provide automated management of lower-level tasks such as security patching, server provisioning, and backups. DBAs can then focus on solutions and innovations to boost the efforts of their IT teams and business users to apply data analytics, AI, and machine learning to problems and opportunities.

More autonomy, less hands-on maintenance

DBAs are seeing their job roles—and perhaps even titles—change. Emerging roles, including that of enterprise data architects, data stewards, and data engineers, provide new career paths for today’s data professionals. In addition, the cloud opens the way to DevOps, in which the work of developers and production teams is in sync, delivering quality software at a pace the business requires. This is being made possible through increasing database automation, with almost completely autonomous databases on the horizon. There will be less of a requirement for DBAs to constantly be on the lookout for events—be they minor glitches or patching requirements. The more autonomous databases become, the more events that can be rectified automatically. “The average enterprise gets 17,000 alerts a week, and only 19% are reliable and only 4% are ever investigated,” Daheb illustrated. “So you just have all of this noise.” A more autonomous database employing AI will catch many of the false positive alerts and enable DBAs to focus on issues that are real and of material importance to the business.

More data enrichment, less database

The always-on, data-driven enterprise doesn’t function on internal databases alone—competing in today’s economy means leveraging a range of data sources beyond the firewall. As a result, DBAs need to focus on the value that the data is bringing to their businesses, versus simply running the relational database environment on a day-to-day basis.

“Data has too long been viewed as something to just be managed by technology or systems—instead we truly need to make data ubiquitous throughout an organization,” said Katie Fabiszak, chief marketing officer of Riversand, a provider of master data management and product information management solutions. “For the past decade we have been talking about data being a strategic asset but we haven’t really arrived there yet. Making data the responsibility of everyone is the way we can finally deliver on the notion that data is a strategic asset. In and of itself, data is not all that important or compelling. It’s when we take great data and make it part of our business processes that allows magic to happen.”

Cloud-based data environments enable DBAs to concentrate on bigger questions, Daheb remarked. “How do I architect the database? How do I take advantage of things like blockchain? How do I think about digital interactions or IoT? It becomes much more about what’s possible now. You have this infrastructure to make it feasible to run everything from engagement to product development to running financials for the business.”

With the increasing reliance on data-driven capabilities such as AI and analytics, “organizations need to truly understand how they need to use data to reach their full potential,” Fabiszak added. “For starters, data needs to be viewed as an organization-wide responsibility. The actual data itself must be shared and leveraged to fulfill a particular business purpose. Data can absolutely live up to its promise of being a strategic asset only when companies—and people—stop thinking of it purely as something to manage and instead think of data as being just as essential to an organization as its people and its revenue.”

More growth, fewer technical restraints

The need for greater capabilities means heavier emphasis on data, regardless of format or origin. “Modern applications, such as social media, investment, and fantasy gaming apps need five or six-nines availability, along with worldwide accessibility,” said Gaurav Yadav, founding engineer and product manager at Hedvig, provider of a distributed storage platform. “They are best suited for entire database systems in the cloud. There are multiple ways to consume databases in the cloud such as virtual machines with databases installed, database schema as a service, or scalable database as a service solutions. These approaches also provide a quick way to bring up database infrastructure instead of building one from the ground-up.”

More platform thinking, less standalone environments

With cloud, today’s databases are less likely to be solely servicing limited groups of internal users and are more likely serving wider audiences beyond corporate firewalls. The rise of IoT, for example, means data coming in from devices and systems anywhere across the globe. This requires the ability to securely acquire, replicate, and assure the availability of data beyond the relational database management systems within the local corporate data center. The DBA’s role is evolving from a sole, specialized database operator to a maestro capable of coordinating a symphony of data environments.

“Many hybrid data challenges come down to SaaS and PaaS platform abstractions; in traditional database management and administration, the DBA held the keys to the kingdom of the data environment,” said Kaus Phaltankar, president and CTO of Caveonix, which provides a risk management platform for the hybrid cloud. “In the cloud, especially with SaaS and PaaS offerings, these super users’ privileges are sometimes not present. The cloud environment requires more coding and command-line knowledge, as the game is much more software-oriented. DBAs can’t be DBAs anymore—they must be data professionals. It’s also important for DBAs to work with DevOps engineers for data environment deployments in the public cloud, and, in many instances, on-premises installations as well. Being able to embrace infrastructure-as-code is becoming more and more important in the ever-changing data center environment.”

More reliance on DBAs as transformation agents, less as legacy database operators

As enterprises seek to compete in this new era, they are leaning heavily on managers and professionals to help make the move into the cloud realm. This requires DBAs to be knowledgeable about existing systems and application requirements. Business and application teams are looking to their DBA partners to identify valuable data and work with the business to guide them on their cloud journeys.

“Legacy applications and monolithic applications based on a single-tier architecture may require significant refactoring before they can be migrated to the cloud,” said Casi Johnson, chief operations officer and innovations leader at M3, a provider of accounting and analytics software for hospitality management. “Any newer applications that can take advantage of the cloud-hosting benefits—scalability, monitoring—or would only require a small amount of modified code can be considered ideal for cloud migrations.”

This extends to managing the costs and resource requirements involved in such migrations, said Anupam Singh, general manager of analytics at Cloudera. “Managing cost for operational expenditure of the cloud will become harder than the savings of capital expenditure on the cloud,” he said. “Data locality and multiple data stores can lead to performance challenges. A lot of big data benefits were from taking compute to the data. But, as S3 [AWS Simple Storage Service] and ADLS [Azure Data Lake Storage] become popular data stores, the data will have to be moved to compute. Database engines have to be re-designed to work with remote data.”

DBAs also will play a greater role in selecting and managing outside cloud service providers. “The main challenge when handling any cloud environment is vendor lock-in,” said Hedvig’s Yadav. “Extreme care needs to be taken when selecting any cloud provider, because each provider has its own framework to consume resources which makes it harder for consumers to move from one provider to another. A cost analysis is also important, as cloud costs can easily get out of control if the hybrid environment is not designed—because simplicity comes at a cost. A careful budget analysis should be done before deciding on what applications/data should be kept in cloud vs on-premises.”

More leadership from DBAs, less organizational chaos

The most prevalent mode of cloud deployments seen these days is “accidental hybrid environments where different groups choose different cloud platforms based on their own criteria and an enterprise ends up supporting a diverse set of clouds,” said Ken Rugg, chief product and strategy officer at EnterpriseDB. “Since many companies are still in the experimental phases of cloud adoption, this can actually work well since it gives them experience in many different environments to help inform future choices. However, this creates a new legacy since applications may take advantage of proprietary features of a particular cloud, making it difficult to move in the future.” DBAs are increasingly being called to step up and provide clarity and guidance to manage cloud chaos.

DBAs will also assume roles as educators, as the greatest barriers to the adoption of cloud-based data environments are knowledge and experience. “Adopters need to learn the capabilities of new technologies as well as how they’ll fit into existing DevOps practices, monitoring, and automation,” said Kyle Clubb, analytics and data science prinicipal at Quisitive, a provider of solutions for digital transformation. “These are behavioral challenges, not technical ones.” DBAs will be called upon to address these issues easily by supplying their teams with adequate training and tools.

DBAs are uniquely positioned to bridge the worlds of data management and business, paving the way to successfully developing data-driven enterprises.

Ultimately, the movement to the cloud provides DBAs with two-fold opportunities: first to help guide the business as it makes the shift to cloud, and, ultimately, allowing them to devote more time to the things that matter such as building the business and meeting the needs of customers.

“Data won’t be managed by a single person or group of people,” said Riversand’s Fabiszak. “It is woven throughout an organization and feeds business processes that span the organization. People must become savvier and understand what data is needed to solve specific business problems. No longer will we have siloed data practices and management, but instead we will have shared data disciplines across the entire organization. Almost like crowdsourced data management—we may change the way a data element is described or used based on new inputs or information we learn from each other. At the end of the day, this will result in much more successful efforts to create, consume, and manage data.”


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