For those of us who have been in the information technology realm for too long, the title "database administrator" conjures up very specific images. We picture someone pulling hair out over issues with backups or snapshots not happening, schemas growing out of control, capacity plans blown up by new application demands, sluggish queries, and eternal performance tuning.
That old-school role of the DBA still exists in some places, particularly large enterprises where giant database clusters still rule the data center. But virtualization, cloud data storage, micro-services, the "DevOps" approach to building and running applications, and a number of other factors have significantly changed how organizations store and manage their data. Many of the traditional roles of the DBA seem to be moot in the shiny, happy world promised by the new generation of databases.
"NoSQL" databases don't require a pre-defined schema, and many have replication built in by default. Provisioning new servers can be reduced to clicking a few radio buttons and check boxes on a webpage. Development teams just point at a cloud data store such as Amazon Web Services' Simple Storage Service (S3) and roll. And even relational database vendors such as Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM are pushing customers toward data-as-a-service (DaaS) models that drastically simplify considerations about hardware and availability.
You might expect this to mean that DBAs' jobs are getting easier. If so, your expectations would be wrong.
"I think [DBAs'] roles have become much more complex," said Chris Lalonde, vice president and GM of Data at Rackspace. "While there is definitely more automation and tooling, the counter to that is that many of the newer technologies are less mature and require more care and feeding. I would say that many of the traditional tasks of DBAs still exist today or need to exist."
In fact, all these great new database technologies highlight the data professional, whether that person is called a DBA, data architect, data engineer, or, in some cases, data scientist. "Data is even more important today," said Kenny Gorman, a database veteran and co-founder of the real-time data service company Eventador. "Businesses used to rely on databases to be sound, run smoothly, and give good reporting. But now, data actually makes you more competitive, and there are more job titles working with data and more technologies that use it. And the database professional is at the core of that."
Non-relational platforms offered a promise to reduce the workload of DBAs, and in some ways they do. Ravi Mayuram, senior vice president of products and engineering at CouchBase, compared the shift in what DBAs have to do to how driving a car has changed over the years: once upon a time, "to drive one you had to essentially be an engineer, and when something went wrong you needed to pull to the side of the road and get under the hood." Now most things take care of themselves, he said, "but I can't do anything myself to fix it.