SQL Server 2008 : Policy-based management - Server management challenges

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Enterprise DBAs—those who manage complex environments with a mix of database products and versions—face a number of challenges. In addition to keeping many systems up and running, they need to provide a smooth path for the implementation of changes to production databases. Before looking at policy-based management in depth, let's spend some time covering the typical enterprise environment and the tasks faced by an enterprise DBA.

1. Enterprise environments

In a typical enterprise environment (see figure 1 for a simple example), one of the first things that comes to mind is the number of production server instances requiring support. A large number of servers are usually accompanied by a mix of product versions, and possibly even other DBMS products such as Oracle or MySQL. In such environments, some degree of specialization usually exists, and DBAs are often grouped into areas of product expertise.

In addition to the production server instances, test and development servers, some or all of which may be provided using virtualization products, exist for the purposes of developing and testing new databases or making changes to existing production systems. Accompanying such systems are various development tools and change management processes to ensure changes are version controlled and implemented in accordance with an appropriate deployment process.

In environments with critical systems, dedicated operations staff are usually on hand 24/7, with DBAs typically on call on a rotation basis. Products such as Systems Center Operations Manager (SCOM) are typically used for monitoring disk space and event logs in an attempt to identify and solve problems before they manifest themselves as production outages.

In complex environments such as these, successful database administration must overcome a range of challenges, some of which are presented next.

Figure 1. A typical enterprise environment consists of development, test, and production servers

2. Enterprise DBA challenges

Let's take a look at some of the tasks facing DBAs in administering an enterprise environment:

  • Production systems should be secured with the least privilege principle. This is often in contrast with development environments in which changes originate. When developed code reaches test and production systems, certain functions often fail as a result of the security differences between environments. DBAs must therefore coordinate environment configuration across the enterprise, particularly settings that may cause certain functions to fail.

  • Databases in production environments (should) use the full recovery model along with regular transaction log backups. In development and test environments that don't perform transaction log backups, the full recovery model may cause the transaction log to consume all available disk space. DBAs must match environments with backup profiles and recovery model settings.

  • In sites where different DBAs manage different environments—for example, development, test, and production—systems must be in place to ensure that both common and environment-specific settings are applied where appropriate. Where many DBAs are involved, each of whom has his or her own preferences and skills, this becomes a difficult and time-consuming process.

  • In sites with a range of DBMS products that require support, it's often the case that the requirement for a broad range of skills prevents expertise in any one area, making correct and consistent configuration even more difficult.

  • In poorly configured environments, the time taken to troubleshoot highly visible production problems often prevents important proactive maintenance required for ongoing environment performance, security, and stability.

Without strong proactive maintenance routines, mismanagement is a real danger, presenting a number of organizational risks.

3. The risks of mismanagement

Even with the best intentions and a good grasp of best practices, the sheer size of some deployments creates a challenging environment for even the most experienced DBA. Poorly configured servers pose a number of risks:

  • Security weak points

  • Unexpected performance problems due to different configuration settings between environments

  • Scripts working in one environment but failing in another, again due to configuration differences

Without the use of third-party or custom-developed tools, ensuring consistent server configuration across the enterprise is a difficult and time-consuming process. This process often requires manual inspection or development of PowerShell and/or SMO scripts, a skill possessed by only a small percentage of DBAs.

Discovering incorrect configurations is more often than not a result of investigating script failures, poor performance, or worse, a security breach. Such a process is commonly known as exception-based management. What's needed is a way of defining and applying standard configurations to groups of server instances, and either preventing or alerting on deviations from the standard. This is typically called intent-based management, and as you've probably guessed, that's exactly what we can now achieve using the new policy-based management feature in SQL Server 2008.

Figure 2. Policy-based management is found in SQL Server Management Studio under the Management node.

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