Smashing the Silos: Reconnecting the Database Administrator with the IT team

As expected, the New Year has brought with it a myriad of new technologies, with businesses looking to move in to a more application-centric working environment.

Of course, as businesses begin to implement these technologies, there are bound to be a few teething issues — particularly in the first moments after an application goes down or when Help Desk tickets start flooding in. When technology goes wrong it’s easy to start pointing fingers and blaming others, with the blame often landing at the database administrator’s (DBA) door.

While the database is usually the most complex part of the system, and the cause for performance issues in many cases, the real issue that prevents teams from quickly identifying problems and working on solving them, is a lack of communication and visibility between the different IT teams who are in the habit of focusing on their own infrastructure rather than an increasingly interdependent and complex application system.

IT teams can no longer successfully function in these vacuumed silos and business leaders must take action now, helping the often isolated DBA to work as part of the wider IT team.

From the application to the database, it all matters

Businesses today operate in an application-centric environment, where end users rely on high-performing, always available applications to do their job — from email and collaboration tools to CRM and finance packages. The level of expectation that the average employee has is largely driven by the experiences that they have with consumer-oriented services, such as Google and Facebook, where the sites rarely fail, load quickly and are incredibly responsive and intuitive to use.

A recent survey by SolarWinds found that 94 per cent of business end users said application performance and availability affect their ability to do their job, with 44 per cent saying it is absolutely critical. End user perception of application performance has changed to the point where a “slow” application may as well be considered a “broken” application. This puts more pressure on IT, whose responsibility it is to ensure that all systems are functioning at an optimum level, 24/7, and especially on the DBA as data is the heart of most applications.

Bringing app performance and the DBA together

DBA’s often have their own tools and processes and rarely work in collaboration with the wider IT team, meaning that insights are rarely shared. Often DBAs don’t have access to infrastructure information that would allow them to identify what is causing a database slowdown. It is essential that the CIO realises the importance of DBAs and ensures that steps are taken to integrate the DBA into larger IT organisation.

There are a number of ways that businesses can look to move in to a less-siloed IT department. Here are two proven examples:

DevOps: This software development philosophy, which stresses communication between development and operations, is gaining popularity as a way to streamline the IT and Operations teams. Operations teams, who can lack insight into development, can be quick to blame code. Meanwhile, developers, who don’t have a view into production, blame the database or the infrastructure. DevOps enhances communication between developers and DBAs, and can be established via the following steps:

  1. Provide developers with direct monitoring visibility into test, staging and production servers so they can understand the impact of the code they are producing
  2. Build performance into the development process by making it a functional requirement expressed in end user response times
  3. Establish share metrics and a basis for equal access to metric reports across teams
  4. Understand the performance impact of each element of the application stack to identify bottlenecks and the breakdown of what elements have a bigger role in performance
  5. Adopt an agile mentality that prioritises adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement and rapid/flexible response to change

Performance management: Instead of simply ensuring that systems and networks are up and running, some businesses are looking to view performance management as a core competency.

The bar has been raised from simply getting technology infrastructure to work, to having it work at an optimal level. With the growing sophistication of affordable monitoring and management tools, IT can now access, analyse and share powerful and easy-to-digest IT metrics with the whole business, further driving the ability to emphasise performance. In order to establish a performance management competency, one should take note of the following steps:

  1. Recognise that performance, and not just up-time, is an important metric for IT
  2. Make end user response time a shared goal for the entire organisation
  3. Provide visibility to the entire team and pull in the DBA to effectively prioritise performance
  4. Constantly grow the organisation’s knowledge and toolset for effective performance management, enabling the business to move at the speed of IT

How DBAs can break down the silos

The DBA can also take an active role in breaking down silos themselves by taking the following steps:

  1. Share data and information freely to show other departments how the database side of the house works; metrics and analytics communicate trends and issues in a neutral, impactful way that can drive effective conversation and help uncover solutions
  2. Avoid the blame game when possible. The DBA can aim to set an example and proactively get to the root of a problem — backed up by data collected from monitoring and management tools — to diffuse a tense situation while displaying a spirit of collaboration
  3. Follow-up after an issue’s root cause has been identified and the problem has been resolved to discuss how IT as a group can avoid it happening again
  4. Own up when the issue does arise from the database — it happens, and removing the “air of mystery” will build good faith with colleagues when it’s not actually the database
  5. Consider regular cross-team check-ins, either together or separately, with systems, network, security, development, virtualisation and other teams. Discuss new projects or simply be available to answer questions they may have about the database

With this new level of expectation, and with the right tools that provide them visibility across the application stack, DBAs are finding themselves being viewed as “performance gurus” within the IT department. Given the level of insight the DBA can gain, they arguably have the best information about how systems are performing.

While the DBA does bear his or her share of abuse when something goes awry, IT systems do not work in isolation. Most problems are often caused somewhere between the interaction of elements. By focusing on removing the DBA silo within the organisation, IT can start to move beyond the blame game and focus on driving IT performance — and the needs of the business.

by Gerardo Dada, vice president of product marketing and strategy, SolarWinds