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The Lie of Self-Service

by uma

By Manjot Singh, Global Director of Customer Engineering, MariaDB

In the last decade, the message coming from large web service providers has been for companies to drop their Database Administrators (DBAs) in favor of a move to automated cloud platforms. With the rate of migration rising exponentially during this time, and particularly in the few years since the onset of the pandemic, those same companies are increasingly finding themselves in troubled waters when it comes to solving production and business problems. But a database in the cloud is still a database, so why are businesses falling for the lie of self-service?

CTOs are increasingly falling victim to one-size-fits-all ‘managed’ cloud database offerings that promise to automate manual tasks and make DBAs redundant. This offering can be very attractive, with vendors vowing to bring down costs whilst powering-up efficiency. However, in reality, there is still a lot of work that is best carried out by administrators with the expertise, accessibility and flexibility to solve problems in real-time. The role of the DBA is a strategic one, and after making the decision to let their in-house staff go, companies are much more susceptible to losing time and incurring high costs by being forced to bring in consultants when they run into unexpected issues. 

This isn’t a problem in itself—every good company will identify areas for improvement, whether it’s addressing practical roadblocks like knowing how to plan and scale, or human error, such as developers misunderstanding best practices for database implementations. The catch-22 here is that by believing the lie of self-service, database administrators are neither around to advise on strategy before problems occur, or to fix problems after they occur. This leaves companies that are running mission-critical applications in the cloud waiting up to 48 hours for in-house support, or paying out the nose for external consultancy.

DBaaS vs DBA

The traditional DBA role (which was on-premises) was a leap forward in enabling businesses to hit their targets. Database Administrators were seen as an efficient investment, being experts in deriving the maximum value from data and databases which, in turn, drove down costs, increased revenue, and contributed to an all-around better understanding of the business. The DBA could offer support on monitoring, applications, and access to name a few – freeing up time for strategizing and business development.

While it is true that many of the overheads carried out by an on-prem DBA, such as database creation, configuration, backups, patching, and upgrades, were automated with the introduction of DBaaS, its entrance into the market also came with a significant drawback. 

The assumption that DBaaS’ eradicated the need for companies to hire a DBA opened the door to a number of problems for customers, who found themselves (and continue to do so) believing that by taking automation to the extreme, they could still achieve the flexibility, business continuity and security that was previously provided by their administrator. This was not the case, and it also left an expertise vacuum that customers later sought to fill with expensive third party consultancy.

Evolution of the DBA Role

What has become clear by the current challenges being faced by organizations in the cloud is that there is still a need for the DBA role, but the growing sophistication of automated platforms is shifting the goalposts on what is needed to deliver.

Set up is much easier with a managed DBaaS–customers can do much more at the click of a button, this is indisputable. What automation cannot do is offer strategic insight; this, first and foremost, must be thought out by those managing database operations. Automation will only help deliver on this strategy once programmed to do so. 

The role of current DBAs (sometimes DBops or Data Architects), be they remote or on-prem, is to focus on ensuring the long-term health and performance of the database overall, making decisions in a proactive way to avoid hitting roadblocks. This advisory role in planning full-scale migration, architecture development, and supporting database health is instrumental in helping developers order their operations and follow best practice and ultimately comes down to adding value. 

The cloud is moving database operations towards a more standardized model, and while this offers substantial benefits in terms of consistency, no single model can serve the individual needs of every organization. The industry is remiss to push this rhetoric, as it introduces limitations on what insights companies can possibly achieve from their data. With the right database and the right support, the sky should be the limit for organizations of any scale.

The changing role of the DBA ultimately comes down to changing circumstances. Not only can tech do more, but customer expectations and behaviors are also changing–not least because of the pandemic, which has made dynamic scaling a top priority.

The DBA role will continue its evolutionary journey, and we can expect to see them getting to grips with new technologies to support developers, such as containerization, while customers will find new ways to use their DBAs to drive their businesses forward.

About Manjot Singh

At MariaDB, Manjot Singh leads the global Professional Services and Enterprise Architect teams. He has been working with MySQL and MariaDB for 2 decades. Prior to joining MariaDB, Manjot was a Systems Administrator, Database Administrator and Architect for Fortune 50 companies, government and well-known consultancies. 

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