The accidental database administrator

abstract head representing big data

Some things in life can be considered happy accidents. Just ask government IT administrators, many of whom find themselves in the unexpected position of becoming accidental database administrators (DBAs).

Data has become the centerpiece of new government initiatives in the areas of health care, social welfare, biometrics and intelligent inspections. But although data has grown, the size of federal IT teams has remained stagnant. A recent survey by my company, SolarWinds, found that most IT organizations have not added any new headcount in the past two years. As a result, many federal IT administrators have, by default, become DBAs.

But maintaining mission-critical databases can be a stressful job, especially for those who are new to the role. Here are five things administrators should understand and embrace if they are to be successful:

1. Grow soft skills. DBAs' responsibilities are often regarded as hard skills -- teachable abilities. But as IT continues to evolve, DBAs will have to hone their soft skills, such as the ability to understand agency objectives and communicate effectively with other teams. They need to soak up what the organization needs as a whole and apply that knowledge to IT goals. It's a tricky thing, especially for those who are used to working in silos, but it's also a necessity, especially for administrators who wish to continue to advance their careers.

2. Become a security expert. DBAs' roles revolve around accessing the data and keeping track of what happens to it. This is especially important in the government space, where security is paramount. Government agencies are continually monitoring for security breaches, particularly in today's bring-your-own-device environments. DBAs must possess the knowledge to recognize potential breaches and react quickly when a breach occurs.

3. Know how to maintain continuity. Agency employees need access to data at all times, making data availability and business continuity key priorities. DBAs must understand which systems absolutely must be available 24/7 and which can afford to have some downtime. That involves knowing recovery point objectives (the age of files that must be recovered from backup storage in case of failure) and recovery time objectives (how long a DBA has to recover and restore processes after a failure). Deep understanding of each can lead to minimal disruption.

4. Understand the cloud. It's not enough for DBAs to understand data; they must also understand architecture, virtualization, infrastructure and cloud technologies. That includes working knowledge of the benefits of infrastructure as a service, software as a service and more. DBAs need to be more than caretakers; they must be on the cutting edge, learning and exploring new cloud technologies, which are the future of agency IT and data management.

5. Improve response time. In government, maybe even more so than in most institutions, time is of the essence. People do not care how something gets done so long as it gets done on time. Therefore, it might be prudent for DBAs to investigate technology that automatically analyzes database performance. Such solutions can identify potential performance problems in real time, allowing DBAs to quickly fix them.

The role of the federal DBA will not shrink; in fact, it is likely to expand as agencies become even more data-dependent and continue to add systems. Having a little working knowledge can go a long way toward helping accidental DBAs avoid serious accidents.

About the Author

Thomas LaRock is senior database administrator and technical evangelist at SolarWinds, a provider of IT management software.

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