Enterprises these days rely on a database management system (DBMS) to store, retrieve, and run queries of their data, and database administrators (DBAs) fulfill a multitude of functions, including making sure system applications run smoothly and can easily access data. In this first in a series on mainframe-related IT roles, we'll take a look at what a DBA does, why they are important to organizational functions, what education/skills are necessary to become a DBA, and how the DBA role has evolved over time.
Who are DBAs and What Do They Do?
DBAs could be considered a jack of all trades. Not only is the DBA required to maintain production and test environments, but they also monitor active application development projects, attend strategy and design meetings, help to select and evaluate new products, and connect legacy systems to the web. More broadly, DBAs are charged with ensuring all systems and programs that have access or need access to enterprise data can access that data and use it in an optimal way.
According to a recent TechTarget article, many DBA roles are defined by the focus of their work.
- General-purpose DBAs perform all types of administrative and database work.
- System DBAs keep the physical database up and running and ensure its software is performing optimally.
- Database architects create and implement new structures for databases.
- Database analysts review and implement new databases.
- Application DBAs support applications or sets of applications and their access to data.
- Task-oriented DBAs handle a specific administrative database task.
- Performance analysts monitor and modify the performance of applications accessing the database.
- Data warehouse administrators monitor and support the data warehouse environment.
- Cloud DBAs perform administrative and data-related work in the cloud.
It is quite common for a single DBA to take on responsibilities from several, or all, of the above categories. DBAs need to understand the overall database environment and be able to manage it, and that includes administering cloud database infrastructure.
DBAs can provide expertise for database design, implementation, and configuration; perform data extraction, transformation, and loading (ETL); use SQL coding; test data management; ensure data and database security and integrity; improve performance management; and engage with database backup and recovery as needed. DBAs have many responsibilities. Without DBAs, enterprises would face application and system outages, downtime, and slowdowns throughout their programs, which could lead to a loss of business reputation, negatively impact the customer experience, and ultimately damage the enterprise's foundation.
DBA Skill Requirements
Many DBAs hold a bachelor's degree in computer science or information science, but some may not have a four-year degree. What they do have instead is extensive information technology work experience that sets them apart and makes them a right fit for an organization.
DBAs also tend to have specific database product on-the-job training expertise, which can include IBM's Db2, IBM's IMS, Microsoft SQL Server, MongoDB, Oracle, and others. Additionally, many DBAs will be required to have expertise in more than one of these database products. Most DBAs will not have the option to select their database product(s), as many enterprises have already implemented one (or more), but they will have to familiarize themselves with the requirements of the product(s) in order to successfully upgrade it every 18 to 24 months. Additionally, these database systems also require bug fixes and updates between major releases, which will need to be integrated while maintaining the enterprise's core functions and meeting its future needs.
DBAs are often expected to be able to competently write and debug SQL, which can be embedded in COBOL, Java, C, and many other popular programming languages. Other in-depth technical skills DBAs have include background knowledge of Docker, Kubernetes, and Git, and ERP packages like SAP, Linux, and z/OS operating systems, as well as storage software.
The DBA role is never stagnant and is ever-evolving as database management systems add functionality and support more forms of development.
DBAs Must Adapt to a Changing Environment
DBA roles must adapt to new types of computing and data requirements. Through proactive database monitoring, DBAs ensure efficient database access. However, they also can use the monitoring environment and its statistics to data structures, application logic, and more, in an effort to further improve system performance, particularly as data-use patterns change and application usage increases. The integrity of the enterprise-wide system is another area impacted by DBAs, particularly as the database interacts with other IT infrastructure components.
As more enterprises migrate to the cloud and adopt a continuous delivery approach for applications, DBA roles will shift as well, especially as changes in code require database modifications. By ensuring a collaborative environment, enterprises can ensure that DBA expertise is available to developers. For example, DBAs can be part of the application design process to provide input on interfacing SQL with traditional programming languages and the type of SQL to use and to ensure data integrity.
As government regulations change, so too do the compliance needs of an organization, and DBAs can help meet those needs so long as database backups are part of the organization's overall business recovery strategy. DBAs can aid data recovery and security by establishing recovery time objectives (RTOs) and ensuring that the right image copies are taken to meet those objectives. Additionally, it is their job to test the usefulness of those backups, which will be used for recovery, before recovery is necessary.
The bottom line is that DBAs are the eyes and ears of the enterprise with regard to data, allowing systems to evolve and grow alongside business needs without compromising data.
"DBA Success Requires More Than Tech Ability" by Craig Mullins, The Data Administration Newsletter, Dec. 1, 2021
"The Ever Changing Role of the DBA" by Craig Mullins, The Data Administration Newsletter, July 1, 2013
"The Management Discipline of Database Administration" by Craig Mullins, IDUG North American Conference 2011, May 4, 2011