DBA Corner: What is a DBA?

Every organization that manages data using a DBMS requires a database administration group to ensure the effective use and deployment of the company’s databases. And since most modern organizations rely on database systems, they also need DBAs. That said, the discipline of database administration is not well-understood, nor is it universally practiced in a coherent and easily replicated manner.

Just walk around your organization and ask the question, “What does a DBA do?” You’ll probably hear many different answers, such as, “Design databases,” “Install the database system,” “Monitor the system,” “Fix problems,” “Help with queries,” “Optimize the database,” “Keep things backed up,” or even, “I don’t know what they do all day!”

This is a sad—but too often true—commentary on the state of DBA in many organizations. Frequently, the DBA is viewed as a guru who uses tricks to make databases and systems operate efficiently. Database systems and applications are increasingly complex and very few people understand more than just the basics, such as SQL ... and even then probably not in any reasonable detail. DBAs understand the intricacies of the DBMS at all levels—or at least they should.

A frequent criticism of DBAs is that they can be difficult to deal with. Sometimes viewed as prima donnas, DBAs can be curmudgeons who have vast technical knowledge but limited people skills. Just about every programmer has their favorite DBA story. You know, those famous anecdotes that begin with, “I had a problem ...” and end with “and then he told me to shut up and read the manual.” DBAs do not have a “warm and fuzzy” image. This probably has more to do with the nature and scope of the job than anything else. The DBMS spans the enterprise, effectively placing the DBA on call for the applications of the entire organization.

DBAs are frequently required to sit down and work things through on their own. Many database problems require periods of quiet reflection and analysis to resolve, so DBAs do not generally like to be disturbed. But even though many problems will require solitude, there are many other problems that require a whole team to resolve. And due to the vast knowledge most DBAs possess, their quiet time is usually less than quiet; constant interruptions to answer questions and solve problems is a daily fact of life. Adding to all of these issues is the fact that most organizations deploy multiple database systems, for example Oracle for some applications and Db2 for others—and frequently one DBA must become an expert on more than one DBMS.

Increasingly, organizations are running analytics and models on large sets of data, often stored in non-relational systems. The DBA is usually tasked with supporting the systems used by the data scientists (whether Hadoop or NoSQL) in addition to the operational database systems, further adding to the expertise required to be a good DBA circa 2019.

The DBA is at the center of all things related to data—development, analysis, protection, backup/recovery, and so on. The DBA is tasked with ensuring efficient, accurate access to the corporation’s data. This means that DBAs frequently interface with many different types of people: technicians, programmers, auditors, end users, statisticians, customers, and executives. DBAs must ensure that they do not get so caught up in the minutiae of the inner-workings of the DBMS that they never develop the required people skills to interact with all their constituents. Good interpersonal skills are also required to be a good DBA.

But we have not yet answered the question that is the title of this month’s column: What is a DBA? The short answer to that question is this: a DBA is the information technician responsible for ensuring the ongoing operational functionality and efficiency of an organization’s databases and the applications that access those databases. But the long answer to that question requires a book to answer. I have written such a book, titled Database Administration: The Complete Guide to DBA Practices and Procedures, 2nd edition, published by Addison Wesley (ISBN: 978-0321822949).

It can be an arduous task for a DBA to keep up-to-date and educated on all things data, but it is a requirement for doing the job well—so don’t forget to keep reading this column and all of Database Trends and Applications for more details on data management and the discipline of database administration.