The future of the database administrator in a cloud computing world

One of the many areas where services are beginning to move towards the cloud is in the database, as cloud providers can remove many of the time consuming tasks around installing, configuring and provisioning the database.

March 26, 2013

By Jaroslav Cerny, CEO at RDB Consulting 

One of the many areas where services are beginning to move towards the cloud is in the database, as cloud providers, either public or private, can remove many of the time consuming tasks around installing, configuring and provisioning the database. These roles are typically assigned to the database administrator (DBA), and one of the questions this raises is around the future of the DBA and their role in a cloud environment.

While cloud providers may take on a large proportion of the mundane tasks associated with the database, this by no means negates the position of the DBA. Instead, it allows the DBA to move from a tactical position to more of a strategic role, focusing on tasks that will add value to the business rather than being exclusively assigned to the day-to-day maintenance and running of infrastructure. For many reasons, the role of the DBA will continue to be an important one in the cloud environment, but DBAs need to be prepared for a shift from a highly technical role, to one that adds greater business value down the line.

The typical role of the DBA generally revolves around planning, designing, configuring and implementing databases and database platforms, as well as high availability and disaster recovery for each database. It also includes maintenance and monitoring of databases and platforms, performance tuning, workload balancing and security. In the cloud environment, all of these duties are transferred to the cloud service provider. However, this does not mean that the role of the DBA will become obsolete in a cloud environment.

Of the many responsibilities of a DBA, the list above is by no means all encompassing, and people in this position often perform many other advisory and functional roles. One of these is providing advice on the sizing of databases and servers. While cloud databases allow for instant scalability, the organisation needs to understand how big or small they will need to scale in order to meet current needs. The DBA, whether in-house or outsourced, will have the technical knowledge and understanding of the business to provide assistance in this regard.

Configuration of the database, while this can be left to the cloud provider, is another task that benefits from the expertise and experience of a DBA. This task involves a wide variety of processes, including determining the optimal balance and size of blocks for reading and writing of data, as well as setting the required parameters for parallel processing. Tuning the configuration with additional memory and processors is also a job that requires knowledge of business needs.  A DBA will have the necessary understanding of the business and its requirements to perform these tasks, and will therefore ensure that the cloud provider delivers the optimal configuration.

Once applications are in place, the cloud provider can then perform the necessary monitoring of performance, a task that was traditionally also within the stable of the DBA’s role. The DBA can then use the monitoring and reporting delivered by the cloud provider to query performance issues and ensure they are resolved.

Another critical role of the DBA is to ensure database security remains at optimal levels. Enterprise databases typically store large volumes of confidential, sensitive or private data about employees, customers, intellectual property and more. Keeping this information secure is critical, and the DBA is essential in ensuring both implementing and maintaining database security policies and practices. In light of the impending Protection of Personal Information (PoPI) Act, this role is even more important.

Finally, the aspect of responsibility and accountability also needs to be considered. If all databases reside within the cloud, who is responsible when these services are down? If the responsibility is shared, often the outcome is that nobody ends up taking responsibility, and a ‘blame game’ ensues that could cause detrimental downtime. There needs to be an accountable person or persons to ensure that downtime can be kept to a minimum, particularly where mission-critical business data is concerned. The DBA is the ideal person to fulfil this role in the cloud environment.

So, in a cloud database environment, is a DBA still necessary? The answer to that question is a definite yes. The DBA’s tasks within the cloud environment may change, but there remains a very prominent role for this resource to play. The role of DBAs will move up the value chain, from tactical infrastructure-oriented tasks towards a more strategic role of advisor, analyst and support provider.