The Role of the DBA: Ensuring Business Continuity from a Remote Setting

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Click to learn more about author John Pocknell.

With global organizations shifting to a work from home (WFH) environment due to the current global crisis, many have found themselves putting IT processes in place to ensure business continuity. With thousands of remote employees working across different networks, database administrators (DBAs) particularly have been put on the front lines to help ensure employees have secure access to the information they need, when they need it, in order to remain productive.

With states across the country taking a phased approach to reopening, the in-office environment will look much different for several months to come. Google and Facebook, for example, are allowing employees to WFH through the end of the year, while Twitter announced it would be enabling employees to work remotely on a permanent basis.

Although we haven’t seen a crisis of this proportion before, DBAs have typically played a pivotal role in ensuring business continuity in the event of disasters, from data breaches to power outages, etc. The current situation we are in, however, is the first that’s making companies rethink their business structure and IT processes and focus on how to ensure optimal business productivity with a remote workforce. Here’s what companies can do now to ensure DBAs can successfully support a remote workforce in crisis situations, the challenges to look out for to keep the business running, and what the role of the DBA will look like in the future.

How Remote DBAs Can Be Successful in a Crisis

The big question here is, how do you support a remote DBA who is responsible for ensuring the corporate database infrastructures are high-performing and secure?

Typically, when DBA teams work together within an office, each team member has a specific role and set of responsibilities. When working separately in a remote setting, it becomes a bigger challenge to ensure that the team continues to work as one cohesive unit. Platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams can help DBA teams collaborate with ease and give that face-to-face interaction that’s similar to what they have in the office. This should be supplemental to a “daily standup” meeting where DBAs have to discuss each other’s different situations, address any issues, and use it as an opportunity to act proactively rather than reactively.

Organizations should also assess where their applications are hosted and evaluate whether a shift to the cloud is necessary or beneficial. While many organizations these days work across multiple platforms hosted on the cloud, there are still those that rely on desktop applications, which do not provide the freedom and flexibility needed for working remotely in a crisis. Software as a Service (SaaS) applications, for example, provide that flexibility, and their consumption model results in lower costs. However, it is important that whatever DBAs are using remotely gives them the same command and control of all their databases as they had in the office. Be sure your DBAs have what they need to fully do their jobs, no matter where they are.

How to Cope with Crisis Demands in a Remote Setting

Figuring out how to work best in a remote setting is not particularly easy for anyone, especially DBAs. For one, not only are DBAs handling the everyday tasks of their job and trying to manage whatever crisis is at hand, but they also have to ensure that the entire business continues to run and that employees are able to access what they need to do their jobs, whether remote or not.       

One of the roles of the DBA is to advise developers with queries, indexes, and overall application updates to help minimize issues in production. In a remote setting during a crisis, it’s critical that this communication continues to happen. Chat tools like Slack can help keep DBAs connected with others across the company that they support. These tools can also be used for notifications. For example, having Slack integrated with a monitoring tool can enable DBAs to receive notifications when a database has an issue that needs to be looked at.

It is really important to enable DBAs to operate in such a way that provides better strategic support for the business rather than fire-fighting issues, which leaves DBAs acting like a support desk, fielding calls. And, in a crisis, companies need their DBAs to be on the front lines of ensuring business moves forward instead of being bogged down with issues. It’s important that DBAs remain engaged with business users, are able to recognize surges in demand, and know the capacity needs, performance requirements, and SLAs. Doing this remotely, while possible, is a bit of a maze to navigate. Being proactive is key to ensuring that DBA teams can stay prepared for disasters, without getting swamped with requests during outages or data breaches.

DBAs must also be equipped with the necessary tools to stay ahead of unforeseen issues, particularly as these issues pertain to personal data. In a remote, crisis setting, a secure structure must be in place to allow DBAs to securely access and share data requested by a specific team, similar to procedures as if it were an “in-office” request, and securely share the data that different teams need as they would in the office.

The Future DBA

With digital transformation efforts accelerating at a rapid pace, it will be interesting to see how this plays out for the role of the DBA. Many companies are going to have to think more critically now about their disaster plans for future scenarios. We were already seeing changes happen, such as more organizations moving different databases to the cloud and leveraging NoSQL databases for data storage flexibility, but something we’re going to see more of is modern databases becoming more autonomous. Leveraging AI will eliminate the mundane, routine tasks that DBAs have historically been responsible for and open up opportunities to play more of an advisory role to the business. DBAs are critical as they manage company data, and they’re technologically astute, so it only makes sense that they should be the trusted advisors on how to best leverage data to benefit the business. If data is king, then DBAs are a critical part of the king’s court.

We’ll see DBAs become more business savvy, engaging with leadership, and getting involved earlier on in projects, right at the conception phase instead of at the end. DBAs are invaluable partners to business leaders — when considering initiatives like the cloud, Data Management, and DevOps, DBAs should be the go-to source of knowledge and expertise within an organization.

The role of the DBA has become more critical — and more challenging — when it comes to crisis situations in the age of remote work. Organizations must do all that they can to ensure that DBAs are equipped with the tools and team structure required to mitigate any disasters that may arise with remote teams. This will ensure DBAs can be more proactive and offer strategic guidance to the business instead of putting out fires.

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