Database Administrators: It’s All in a Day’s Work

How safe is my credit card information online? Can customer service employees access my flight information 24 hours a day? How accurate is the information being presented in the database? How meaningful is it?

These are just a few of the questions that might come across the desks of database administrators (DBAs). For this reason, database administration plays a critical role in an organization, said Craig Thorsted, MBA, CISA, who serves as a course mentor for Western Governors University in Utah.

“In some cases, if a database goes down for a large organization like an airline, they could be losing $100,000 an hour for that information not being available,” said Thorsted, who himself has more than 14 years’ experience as a DBA.

Without a doubt, the life of a DBA is never boring.

Path to DBA

Thorsted first became interested in database work when he was in the U.S. military. He helped with the initial development of a network called MILNET (Military Network), which essentially laid the groundwork for what we now know as the Internet. As exciting as his involvement in this project was, Thorsted saw much room for improvement — a realization that fueled his passion for the work.

For example, when working for Tooele Army Depot, which maintains massive stores of ammunition and parts, Thorsted said he recognized the mainframe computer was highly inefficient.

“There was no real-time processing involved. And there was no ability to relate things,” he said, explaining that all the data was housed in “flat files” — files with no structured relationships, making them harder to interpret.

“[So] we initiated several projects using some of the first Unix systems coming out of Berkley to look at some relational databases that were coming into existence back then,” he said.

Thorsted also spent time at Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil company, where he worked on many projects related to database administration, programming and development, business analysis and project management. In the U.S., he has worked with a number of large companies including Starwood Technologies, Iomega, Agilent Technologies and Browning Arms.

The Life of a DBA

What does a DBA do day in and day out?

“Typically, in [the] day of a database administrator, depending upon the system that he is maintaining and administering, he’s going to make sure that data somehow has been backed up,” Thorsted said.“[He] is going to be looking at logs to see if there were errors that were generated.”

DBAs also monitor access to the system by setting up roles and rules to ensure the data is only being accessed by the appropriate individuals.

Thorsted said DBAs often ask themselves, “Who’s accessing the system? Do they have authority to be accessing the system? And if they do, are there only certain portions of data that’s stored out there that they should have access to? Certainly, you don’t want somebody out on the manufacturing floor to go in and look at payroll data,” he said.

Considering that the integrity of a company’s data must be maintained at all times, the DBA’s role is a 24×7 responsibility. In a small IT shop, one person may bear that responsibility and use a pager around the clock. In larger organizations, the responsibility may be shared by multiple professionals, and in some cases, there may be staff in-house 24 hours a day.

Another important function the DBA performs is tuning, which essentially means going in and tweaking the different language and queries in the database to make sure it’s working correctly and efficiently.

“If you have a poorly written query that’s going out and getting data, and it takes too long, it can end up being a bottleneck on the system,” Thorsted explained. “And so [the DBA will go] back and tune it. Oftentimes, there are changes that need to be made to the data structure.”

One exciting part of a DBA’s job is the logic games that often are played to figure out how to relate certain information within the database. For example, Thorsted said the Mormon church has invested heavily in databases for genealogical research. The tailoring of a database to represent an ancestral relationship can be quite interesting and challenging.

“How do you hook grandfather to great-grandfather and go back 10 generations? That in itself is becoming a very interesting field for some database people because of the logic that has to be applied when you have things such as second marriages, you have deaths, you have remarriages, you have different countries,” Thorsted said.

Essential Skills

As with any IT area, it is imperative that a professional have a number of specialized technical skills. A couple of the most critical are an understanding of the database structure and knowledge of SQL.

Another important technical capability is a firm grasp of the principles of business modeling and entity relationships. In other words, you must know how to set up relationships among your data.

Thorsted noted that the knowledge set required of a DBA today is becoming more and more complex with new trends such as cloud computing and virtualization.

“The cloud is basically this huge part of the Internet out there, and the end user may not really care where he gets the data, but of course the database administrator does,” Thorsted said. “He has to understand where all of that information is coming from.”

All these new complexities are creating pathways for a number of database specialties. These might include data warehousing, data analytics, database security and medical informatics. Database security in particular is a hot area at the moment.

“Just ask Amazon about that,” Thorsted said. “Accessibility to credit card information was a big issue for Amazon that almost brought them down. And who got into it, and how did they get there?” It’s the DBA’s job to find out.

Just as important as these technical skills, Thorsted added, are excellent interpersonal skills. Communicating effectively both in written and oral form is “one of the most critical elements for DBAs,” he said. “It’s just a basic skill that’s absolutely necessary.”

When it comes to academic background, most DBAs will have a degree in computer science or information technology. Their education must include elements such as operating systems, programming — Java is a particularly good one to know at the moment — and, of course, database knowledge.

There are a number of database-related certifications out there, both at the novice and advanced levels. Thorsted recommended one particular elementary course from CIW.

“[The Database Design Specialist] is a very fundamental thing that teaches the student about the basics of database design and implementation,” he said.

Another entry-level cert is the OCA (Oracle Certified Associate), which includes several exams, including one on SQL and one on basic database administration. Oracle also offers eight advanced database administrator tracks: Performance Management, High Availability Grid, Security, Manageability, Data Warehouse Administration, Linux and Storage Server.

MySQL also offers certs at various levels, including Associate, DBA and Cluster DBA. Other offerings include Microsoft SQL Server by Microsoft, which offers Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist, Microsoft Certified IT Professional and Microsoft Certified Master.

Like many in the IT industry, Thorsted said he believes that certifications, while important, mean little without real-life experience to back them up.

“I think in today’s world, [certs are] becoming more critical, but it has to be done hand in hand with experience,” he said.

Where to Go From Here?

If you have an interest in database work, this is the right time to jump on the bandwagon. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), database administration will be among the fastest-growing occupations through 2016.

“Employment of these computer specialists is expected to grow as organizations continue to adopt and integrate increasingly sophisticated technologies,” the BLS Web site states. “Job increases will be driven by very rapid growth in computer systems design and related services.”

Thorsted echoed this optimism. He said the best areas to look at are the medical field — where the challenges for a DBA are novel and endless — and government, or government contractors. Another prime area is Web-based businesses, which have increasing requirements for the safety and security of their data online.

“There are so many commodities being sold on the Internet these days — just look at eBay, or look at Google, and the type of engines they have to maintain,” Thorsted said. “There are a multitude of different careers [in the database space], and it’s not going to go away. It’s only going to expand.”

Meagan Polakowski is a freelance writer based in Traverse City, Mich. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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