Monday, September 10, 2012

SQL Saturday #162 - Cambridge, UK

SQL Saturday #162 - Cambridge, UK

After a perilous drive across the foggy moors of the Pennines, and a nice, straight run down the Great North Road, I arrived in Cambridge at 07:45 on Saturday morning and - wow, what a crowd!

Being my first SQL Saturday, I was a bit ignorant of the drill, so waded right in with my SpeedPASS admission and raffle tickets, and went and found some familiar faces.

The sponsors were about doing their bit - Fusion IO had the most notable stall, with a $16,000 PCI-e Flash memory card available to take a look at, and a live demonstration of the speed increase of Fusion IO kit (log flushes measured in GB/sec!).  I'm definitely sold, although at the current high price of Fusion IO kit, my manager might not yet be.  Still, I can see it replacing the SAN, with long-term durability and the capability to fit many more GB/cm3 than currently possible with rotational drives.

Red Gate were out in force too, with an army of red-clad salespeople with leaflets and live demos of their SQL Monitor and SQL Storage Compress technologies.  I'm not the biggest fan of Red Gate products, finding that some are excellent (SQL Prompt, Data Generator, Search in particular) and some are just not right for me - SQL Backup (2 licenses required to restore to a secondary server - nice to find that out at 2am) and SQL Monitor (too simple, not enough depth or breadth).

SQL Sentry provided the best demo for me - the sheer amount of complex information available from one screen that will enable me to make the correct decisions in a disaster scenario (or simply check the health of my databases in a glance) was astounding.  Their software has features that would take me weeks to code up individually.  Note to Red Gate.  I like complexity!  Give me complexity!  The K.I.S.S. principle is NOT for me!

The sessions were great, too.  I started with Neil Hambly's session on Extended Events, which I've read a little about before but had trouble getting to grips with some of the concepts.  Neil explained it well, unfortunately my core environment is 2005 Standard (temporarily) but I look forward to applying some of his tips.  Buck Woody followed Neil's session with a well-delivered and uplifting keynote speech, with a brief history of SQL Server (tip: did you know that the silhouette icon in Outlook is modelled on the mugshot of Bill Gates as a teenager?).

Next up for me was Tobiasz Koprowski, an engaging Polish DBA with a great session on disaster recovery.  He spoke from experience, detailing the steps you need to take in an emergency (be prepared, basically), and including tips on the things you would perhaps never normally think about.  How to open a server rack when you don't have the keys.  Who to get out of bed when your server falls over at 2am.  Why hand warmers are important in a server room. 

I followed this with Niko Neugeberger's talk on inheriting a database for developers.  I was particularly interested in this, since I have also inherited a large number of databases from developers with a limited amount of DBA participation before I joined.  He spoke about improving performance, about checking how tables have been built and maintained, and although geared at developers the talk was very relevant to my work as a DBA, detailing for example the importance of keeping statistics updated on tables and about index fragmentation.

Straight afterwards was Martin Cairns session on Partitioning Design for Performance and Maintainability.  Martin gave an overview of partitioning and explained at length about how to design partition functions and schemas, and how to improve performance by using techniques such as partition elimination (similar to Denali's COLUMNSTORE index using segment elimination) and the different types (horizontal, vertical and filegroup) of partitioning (and when to use them).  What Martin lacked in engagement he made up for with content, as I scribbled down 3 or 4 pages of useful notes during his talk.

Straight after, I delved into the Fusion IO sponsor session, where I found out the difference between Fusion IO cards and SSDs (there IS a difference!) and just how quickly this new technology works.  

After the sponsor session, I had to stop for lunch - information overload.  The Crowne Plaza had provided some bagged lunch, so I took it outside and got chatting to a few people.  

After lunch, another marathon session.  I went for Hugo Kornelis' session on Making Your Queries Fly with COLUMNSTORE Indexes - this was my first introduction to the 2012 index type and I was extremely impressed.  Hugo had set up working demos, with performance gains demonstrated of 75x the speed of ordinary clustered indexes.  This was a very popular session, with the room hitting maximum occupancy.

Back in to Tobiasz Koprowski's licensing session (of relevance to me, since I recently had to navigate the murky waters of re-licensing under the 2012 per-core model) then onto Phil Quinn's session on XML.  Having had a bad experience with the XQuery features of 2005/08 recently (XML queries blackboxing as 'Remote Query' in the execution plan, leading to unacceptable delays during shredding) I was keen to get his views.  Phil went through 4 or 5 methods of using XML effectively in SQL Server, and referenced the very performance problem I had noticed.  Very helpful session with lots of reference material to take away and a big thank you to him for his time afterwards, patiently answering my XML questions.

After Phil, straight into Mark Broadbent's session (he is the SQL Cambs PASS chapter leader / user group organiser) on READPAST and the true atomicity (as per ACID) of SQL Server.  He went through several demos of where SQL Server does NOT treat transactions atomically (i.e. 'all or nothing') and despite some good-natured heckling from the back (Hugo!) he stepped through an innovative method of processing bucketised data using READPAST, as an alternative to READ COMMITTED / SERIALIZABLE-based locks, to ensure clean data without waits.

After this last session was the prize draw, where some lucky soul won both the OCZ card from Fusion IO AND an Amazon Kindle (fix!) and we heard again from Buck Woody and the organisers.  I left with three new books, a ton of other swag (laptop stickers, stress balls, cups, you name it) and the firm resolve to go again - an excellent experience that I'd recommend to anyone.

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