Start Small, Fail Fast
How to Navigate the New World of Database Technologies
Material changes to database technologies are rare, but when they occur, they can have a seismic impact on the IT industry. Today, we are on the leading edge of just such a disruptive shift in the database world.
The IT world is comfortable with relational database technologies that have been prevalent since the 1970s, but the requirements of modern applications are generating demands that outpace what traditional relational designs can handle. If history is our teacher, then we can expect to feel the effects of these decisions for decades to come. The change will affect your IT staff in one way or another. Awareness and forward thinking will go a long way toward the success of your business-both in the near and long terms.
While disruptors bring change, they also provide incredible opportunity. The way in which you approach that opportunity will determine whether or not your IT team and your data center experience the kind of growth that will ultimately benefit the business as a whole. Even if the CIO is completely attuned to the latest database change, database administrators, developers and the rest of the team may find acceptance more difficult.
Disruptions can trigger a variety of reactions ranging from miscalculated indifference or productivity-hindering nail-biting to idle speculation or complete buy-in (sometimes blindly). Obviously, it's better for IT and the business as a whole if everybody is on the same page. The following are five strategies to consider when approaching this world of change.
Know Your Options
Strategy No. 1: Know your options
It sounds simple but it's not. The temptation is to get so overwhelmed by the hype that you relegate it all to the back burner, telling yourself that you'll get around to it "sometime soon." Take a long view of your world when it comes to database technologies. Look for information that helps you to understand how these new technologies affect that vision.
To stay on top of what's out there can be overwhelming, so find a few trusted sources and stay on top of them. Engage a few industry experts whom you trust and make sure you stay in touch with them on a regular basis. Another trick often forgotten is to use the job boards to search for key terms, both from an employer and employee perspective. Track them over time and compare them to one another. That takes all of five minutes and can help you put some objectivity around media hype.
Understand the Value Propositions
Strategy No. 2: Understand the value propositions
The new database technologies of today were created to solve shortcomings in the relational database model. The three great goals of all systems are: availability (as the name implies, keeping the system available to users), scalability (ensuring that it meets the demands of all users or customers) and consistency (making sure that, when a data is changed, it is changed everywhere so that every user in the system sees the same thing at the same time).
The CAP theorem looks at this problem. To oversimplify, the CAP theorem says you can have any two but not all three. Traditional relational databases solved availability and consistency at the cost of scalability. The new, so-called NoSQL (Not Only SQL) databases primarily address availability and scalability to meet the needs of today's applications-with user and data loads far exceeding anything seen in the past.
Apache Hadoop, Cassandra, Amazon SimpleDB and Microsoft Windows Azure Table Services are some of the new databases designed to make things such as hundreds of thousands of users and petabytes of data problems of the past. There are many others as well. Some are specialized databases that solve very specific use cases such as analytical queries against huge data sets or extremely high-performance transactional systems. Then, you must also decide between cloud, on-premises or service models.
Before you get there, however, you first need to dig behind the technology hype and ask, "What business problem can these systems solve?" Only then you will know where to set your focus.
Diversify Skill Sets
Strategy No. 3: Diversify skill sets
Because of the relative calm of the database world in the past few decades, armies of dedicated specialists have evolved. While there is still (and likely always will be) value in having such specialists, during a disruptive time such as this it is wise to diversify your skill set.
If you are an executive in an IT organization, this means you need to encourage and facilitate learning. Often, your current experts are the ones with the highest aptitude for learning new technologies quickly. They also have enough real-world experience under their belts to help sniff out hype from reality. Today's experts should not stay comfortable in their current realm.
While the focus of this writing is on databases, let me be clear that this means developers as well. Developers drive much of the change that occurs in the IT infrastructure. If you're a development expert in one or two languages, it's time to get multilingual. Obtain a working knowledge of these new languages and platforms and your value to the business rises considerably.
Enable Your IT Team to Succeed
Strategy No. 4: Enable your IT team to succeed
This one is specifically for managers and executives. Grounded in your own enthusiasm for the coming changes, help your teams to learn and grow. Fire them up and give them a chance to succeed. Make time for anyone who expresses a desire to take your organization into the future and reward innovation. This is not always easy when you are facing never-ending demands and deadlines, but the value it returns is incalculable if done successfully.
If you're not sure where to start, then try a few simple, open-forum meetings with your brightest DBAs, architects and developers. Ask a few leading questions and then stay quiet and listen. If you can get information flowing, your folks likely will tell you exactly what steps to take next in exploring these new technologies for the good of the business. However, leave them alone and you run the risk of them leaving you alone as they chase new opportunities elsewhere.
Start Small, Fail Fast
Strategy No. 5: Start small, fail fast
Now that you have done some diligence, educated yourself and your teams, and created an environment of innovation, it's time to get started. Now what? One option is to wait for the perfect project to come along, spend millions of dollars and create a very high-risk situation that is likely to never succeed.
Instead of falling into that trap, create a few projects that are very small in scope, requiring only a few resources. Simply get started. These can be extremely simple activities, but it's critical that you get off the whiteboard and onto the keyboard. If something is not going well, you simply fail fast, study why it failed and start again with another small project.
This is an exciting time, ripe with opportunities to change your career and your business for the better. It is also pushing the relational vendors to invent new solutions as well-which means everybody wins. Technology disruption doesn't have to be painful. If you think about how to embrace it, work the plan and learn from each step, you will steer your business to a better future.
Billy Bosworth is the Vice President and General Manager of the Enterprise Database business unit at Quest Software. Billy has been with Quest since 2005. Prior to Quest, Billy was director of product management at Embarcadero Technologies. Billy has nearly 20 years of experience in the IT industry, including a variety of roles as developer, DBA and owner of an independent consulting company. Billy speaks often at industry events and co-authored the book "PowerBuilder 5 Developer's Resource: Client/Server Programming for the Enterprise" (Prentice Hall). Billy holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from the University of Louisville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.