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Are DBAs needed anymore?

With Oracle 10g and other database management systems moving toward greater automation, experts wonder if database administrators are in danger of extinction.

With Oracle 10g and other database management systems moving toward greater and greater automation, are database administrators in danger of extinction?

Companies need analysis and knowledge, not redo logs, tablespaces, DDL, DML, etc.
George Dobbs,
veteran DBA and developer

That was the provocative question discussed at a lively and humorous debate that closed this year's International Oracle Users Group (IOUG) Live conference in Orlando.

Moderated by consultant and expert Ian Abramson, the six-person panel hurled light-hearted barbs at each other but the underlying theme was deadly serious. In the end, a consensus of sorts was reached: DBAs will likely survive, but their responsibilities -- and even their title -- may change.

The debaters were organized into a three-person "no" team, which argued that DBAs are no longer needed, and a three-person "yes" team, which argued that DBAs are still needed.

Representing the "no" team, veteran DBA and developer George Dobbs kicked the debate off by casually opening and sipping a beer, making the point that more automation will lead to more vacation time.

"Information is a good thing; data is a necessary evil," he said. "DBAs are middlemen, not providers. Companies need analysis and knowledge, not redo logs, tablespaces, DDL, DML, etc."

Consultant and author Gaja Krishna Vaidyanatha rebutted on behalf of the "yes" team by making a comparison to the recently launched mega-plane, the Airbus A380.

"Sure, there are automated systems on board, but there will always need to be a pilot," he said, prompting loud cheers from the audience.

Vaidyanatha added that "there will always be the possibility of failure. It is impossible to build an airplane or a database management system that is failure-proof."

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Back on the "no" team, veteran DBA Marcus Collins provided the first hints of how the two viewpoints might merge. He explained that both Oracle and the industry overall is moving toward more automation: 10g has RAC, automated storage management, ADDM, Enterprise Manager, grid control, and much more. The emerging trend is that "DBAs will do less administration and so have more time to work on real business issues," he said.

Vaidyanatha quickly countered that "how many of those 10g features work out of the box? None. DBAs will be needed till the end of time to set up those systems and fix them when they fail."

DBA and OCP Shyam Nath made another point for the "yes" team. "Let's take the example of security. Data security is not a technology -- it's a philosophy. It must be designed into the database and applications. If DBAs aren't there, who will do that?"

Steve Lemme, an author and Infrastructure Architect at Computer Associates, rebutted by arguing that "security should be the work of the security officer, not the DBA. Why should DBAs take on more work?" He continued: "Spacecraft work without humans, so why do we think databases still need humans?"

Fellow "no" team member Dobbs made another intriguing argument. "Back in the days of punch cards," he explained, "there was a profession called 'word processing.' This job is now gone because it became too simple to do; i.e., there was a "skill shift" such that the end-user could now do the word processing. The technology is now transparent. Data management should go the same way: there will soon be no need for expensive specialists and middlemen like DBAs fiddling with tablespaces and redo logs - it will be transparent."

Scattered boos were heard in the audience.

Trying another approach, consultant and Oracle Certified Master Tanel Poder argued for the "yes" team that "DBMSs have more and more features with every new release and DBAs have more and more responsibilities, even with increased automation. For example, what was once just data warehousing is now data marts, ODS, OLAP, data mining, parallel queries, etc. With more and more complex systems, who is going to plan the strategies? Who is going to integrate the data? Who is going to ensure compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley? Who is going to install, configure, test, and fix these systems? The DBA is, that's who! The creativity of human DBAs will always be needed."

"No" team member Marcus Collins countered by saying, "Do you want to always be a 'Mr. Fix-it'? No, you want to add business value and you want to solve business problems. DBAs need a new title: Information Management Specialist. If you don't change to this higher-level role, you'll either be obsolete because of automation or be outsourced." Fellow team member Steve Lemme agreed: "If you are a 'technology looking for a job' then your job is at risk. You need to change your role."

"Yes" team member Vaidyanatha wrapped up the debate, seeming to agree and disagree: "The role is indeed changing. But regardless of a new job title, the person will always be there."

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