Tony Bain

Building products & teams that leverage data, analytics, AI & automation to do amazing things

The Business is the Database

November 25, 2015 | Tony Bain

IT budgets are under more scrutiny than ever before.  While organisations continue to realise benefit in becoming more IT centric, the pressure to demonstrate value and compelling ROI's is increasing.   This increased pressure, while generally positive, can also have a negative impact across other areas of IT, especially those which struggle to articulate the value they provide to the business.  Operational management is one of these areas, where costs are seen as an expense rather than an investment.  Many organisations are driven to reduce these “costs” as much as practical, this often leads to outsourcing resources, reduction or removal of budgets for tools and a lack of drive to be innovative in this space.

One subset of IT operations, database management, falls very much into this category and is often subject to reduced investment and focus as a result.  At RockSolid SQL we engage with organisations who value the contribution operational database management makes to their organisations, but many of these organisations have come out of a period of underinvestment.  All too often the drive to reduce costs has been ineffective. This has led to organisations shooting themselves in the foot, as concurrently they have been becoming increasingly data hungry.  The volume of data generation and consumption has grown at a rapid pace yet the lack of investment in database management can cause a significant flow on impact which overshadows any expected cost savings.  Some of the reasons for this follow.

"The volume of data generation and consumption has grown at a rapid pace yet the lack of investment in database management can cause a flow on impact which overshadows any cost savings."

Businesses are their Databases

It doesn't matter if your organisation is in construction, logistics, financial services, mining, retail or virtually any industry.  You may have buildings, equipment, and employees but a key business assets is the information that is unique to your business, and this is more often than not stored in various databases.   Without your databases you have nothing that ties all your assets, your stock, plant, people and knowledge – all this business stuff – into the actual business.  Without your databases you don’t know who your customers are, what you've sold, and what your profit is.  Without your ERP, CRM, financial, HR, document management or other application databases you don’t have an operable business.

Performance is a factor of Productivity

Productivity is key to maintaining competitive advantage, and a factor in productivity is how much time your employees are working, and how often they are waiting.  Databases with performance issues can cause hospitals to treat less patients, retailers to sell less stock, logistics companies to ship less freight, call centres to hire more staff and government agencies to be less responsive to their constituents.

Poor database performance hurts productivity, but yet it becomes one of the first areas to become neglected when organisations pull back on database management.  For most businesses there are very few data requests that, with today’s modern hardware, should take hours or even minutes to process.  Yet countless businesses have hundreds or sometimes thousands of staff waiting for reports, searches, screens to refresh and data insights to be generated simply because the organisation does not have a sufficient investment in maintaining database performance.

Do you lock the door at night?

We have long ago stopped printing things out and keeping paper records, now data contained within an organisations databases is often the only “copy” of that information.  Keeping that information recoverable, secured and accurate should be of utmost concern to any organisation, but again this is an area that quickly becomes neglected when savings are sought.

Thankfully most organisations maintain a reasonable backup strategy for their databases.  But the same cannot be said in terms of a robust security strategy.  Security of “the business” is often overlooked, becomes unmanaged, unmaintained and processes focus only on granting access rather than managing security.

Examples of locking the door, but leaving the window open are all too frequent.  Security breaches have the potential to cause untold harm to both your business and your customers, and the lack of proper controls and auditing can make knowing who did what virtually impossible.  Businesses assume that somewhere in the IT department alarms will go off, and screens will flash it security breaches occur.  But in reality, this is usually not the case. Without proper monitoring systems inappropriate access can occur without warnings being raised, copies of sensitive data could be made without record being made.  Security breaches could occur frequently without anyone knowing.

Agility is a factor of competitive advantage

Maintaining competitive advantage requires organisations to be dynamic, respond to change and launch new initiatives in response to changing customer demands.  The ability to understand customers and identify changing demands is driven from an organisations data.  This data can be a wonderful thing as it contains what you know and have already learnt, but it also can contain important things that your business doesn't yet know about itself.  It’s called data science, and organisations doing it well have a distinct advantage over those dragging their heels.

"data can be a wonderful thing as it contains what you know and have already learnt, but it also can contain important things that your business doesn't yet know about itself"

A reduction of investment in database management often results in a loss of agility and instead sentences the organisations to a life with a stagnant mix of systems unable to interrelate.  A lack of focus on upgrades and migration limits available functionality to outdated mechanisms. A lack of investment restricts a business hungry for data and “insight” to an environment where this may be exceptionally difficult to glean, and potentially time consuming to try.

So what’s the Alternative?

So all well and good arguing that reducing investment in database management may have a significant impact on a business.  But other organisations may also argue that they have relatively high investment but still struggle to realise the value.  Well this is really the key, it is not about a high or low investment.  It is about efficient use of an effective level of investment.  It is about using appropriate resources, well for lack of a better time, appropriately.  It is about using tools which demonstrate a compelling ROI.  It is about valuing the organisations data assets, and assigning them suitable, yet cost effective, care.

Driving Efficiency

RockSolid SQL has been helping organisations do this for the last 12 years.  To aid organisations in achieving this we have developed the RockSolid Database Management Efficiency Framework (RDBEF).

Key aspects of the RDBEF approach are as follows:

  • Define operational standards, turn them into policies. Use software to audit and identify exceptions.  Manage and resolve these exceptions.  Rinse and repeat.  Stabilising an environment through standardisation is in my experience, the single most effective thing you can do to reduce operational database management costs.  But yet concurrently improving quality of service and reliability.  It is a true win-wine.
  • Define provisioning, patching, operational management and resolution processes. Use software to automate these at Level 1 response and some Level 2.  In fact, automate everything you can.  The cheapest employee you can find, is still orders of magnitude more expensive than a few CPU cycles.  Plus automation does it the same way every time, it doesn't have bad days.
  • Monitor everything. You will never be able to predict what you will need to know, when you will need to know it and how retrospective you will need to be.  You will not believe how much time is saved by knowing, on demand, everything that has happened, when it happened and who made it happen.  It is like night and day.
  • Use appropriate resources for the tasks at hand. Don’t have your expensive top guns doing junior level work.  Don’t have your juniors working outside their skillsets creating as many issues as they resolve.  Outsource if required, or mix-source.  Use vendors who share your vision.  Use software to assign and escalate issues appropriately.
  • Become nimble. Make the things that are currently the hardest the easiest.  Patching, provisioning, upgrades and migrations should be routine.  Nothing to do with operational database management should be scary or time consuming.  It is all just routine.
  • Refocus and re-architect towards agility. Know that your organisations desire for data is likely going to increase.  And both the rate at which they demand access, and the methods of consumption will both likely grow exponentially.

"Automate everything you can.  The cheapest employee you can find, is still orders of magnitude more expensive than a few CPU cycles"

Wrapping it up

IT as an industry has a checked history of ineffectiveness and sometimes extravagance and I suppose the response to this has been for organisations to drive cost cutting initiatives, especially where the perceived value is low. But few organisations I know want to eliminate investments that generate a real and measurable positive return.

Database management has been undervalued by many organisations and we have seen the sobering impact of that.  Many organisations have poorly managed, secured and maintained systems.  Databases suffering performance issues, issues which may have productivity impacts to the business which far outweighs any initial cost savings.  

We are advocates of efficiency and effectiveness.  Use software to monitor, automate, audit and escalate.  Automate where at all possible, use skilled people for difficult exceptions, and use lower cost resources for easier exceptions.  Become nimble and agile, bring your data assets forward to modern standards and provide an environment where your organisation can stand on a level playing field with both current and future competitors.

About RockSolid SQL – RockSolid SQL is an innovative software and services company. We set out in 2004 to create a solution that allows customers to cost effectively manage their databases, regardless of the scale of their environment.  For more information visit www.rocksolidsql.com