10 reasons why I HAte you!

(or My Top Ten High Availability annoyances)

Danger lurks...

Designing, planning, deploying, administrating and recovering (known from now on as DePlanDeAR – and pronounced in the tone of a Caribbean Grandma :) ) a SQL Server High Availability and Disaster Recovery (HADR) solution is really not an easy thing to implement and maintain. There are many reasons for this and whilst (ultimately) our business is only interested in an almost permanent unbroken connectivity to the Database Engine for its Applications or Middleware Clients, the reality is that our databases/s play just a very small part of the whole availability story when maintaining one of these solutions.

The skills and knowledge required for DePlanDeAR for HADR solutions generally span many different teams, require many different Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and ideally at least one person to communicate and co-ordinate between them with enough insight and direction to achieve and maintain a robust solution. More often than not, I arrive on client sites only to find High Availability strategies that were thought to be fit for purpose when in fact the opposite is usually true.

In this article I am going to list ten of my favorite (if that is the correct term) reasons why I hate YOUR (yes your!) HADR strategy.

1. You have no idea what Quorum Model you are running under.

Quorum is the mechanism used by your Windows Cluster Nodes and determine which can be considered part of the running cluster or which have lost connectivity. In this way Quorum aims to prevent split brain scenarios in which connectivity between nodes is lost. By default each node has one vote which makes up a Quorum maximum and a node will need to see a visible Quorum majority in order to continue running in the Cluster. A loss of a visible Quorum majority by a node would cause it to go offline (important to note in this scenario the Server itself does not shutdown!) and any cluster resources currently owned and running on it would fail over. Therefore as you might guess, Quorum is one of the most important concepts in Windows Clustering and is used by both SQL Server Failover Clustering and AlwaysOn Availability Groups.

Why then, do so few IT professionals from Windows Admins to Database Administrators still fail to make the effort to find out what exactly your Windows Cluster Quorum Model is? Time and time again I have seen the legacy Disk Only Quorum (a throw back from Windows 2003 and earlier and is a single point of failure) configured in Clusters that are not just two nodes but consist of many nodes. There is no excuse, not in any situation to use Disk Only Quorum these days. You should ensure that:

  1. You understand the concept of quorum and the effect it has to your cluster’s availability, regardless whether you are a DBA or Windows administrator.
  2. Ensure it is changed immediately to a more appropriate model!

There have been significant Changes to Cluster Quorum in Windows 2012 and further advancements in Windows 2012R2. These changes will help make Quorum configuration and Cluster availability significantly easier and more efficient. I shall cover these another time but for now you can read a bit more about Quorum in my post “Weight doesn’t ALWAYS have to be AlwaysOn“.

2. Your Windows, Network, Storage and Database teams work in isolation.

There are not many technologies that require the crossover skills in the way that SQL Server High Availability solutions do. Not only do you have to worry about SQL Server functionality itself (and let’s not forget that it does help if you understand some of these HADR subjects quite deeply to avoid their nuances), but you also need to have a good understanding of Windows, Active Directory, Networking and SANs to name a few others. Probably one of the most common scenarios I encounter is teams working in Silos and communication across them being very poor. There is only ever one outcome to silo based designed HADR strategies -they ALWAYS result in bad designs, bad implementations and unconfident and ill-informed support teams.

Having technical cross-over is good. It gives you perspective, an appreciation of another team’s challenges and the ability to communicate in their language. Nobody ever said you couldn’t specialize in your area of choice and be a technical expert did they? You won’t forget your existing skill set just because you have learnt something new. No, it will give you a foundational platform to build your knowledge. The dots start to connect and you smarter!

3. Your Entire Production infrastructure is all LIVE!

So you have implemented a HADR strategy and all seems to work well right? Eventually you will make it live and run with success for a period of time, giving yourself a big pat on the back. Your fantastic design exists purely because you are amazing and no one else could have achieved such a feat of engineering!

Eventually the time comes to patch your Windows or SQL Servers. Then and only then do you realize that your solution requires you to deploy these to the systems that are currently running as LIVE. This mistake is more common than you would believe and your coupling between your “DR” solution and your “HA” solution is so tight that in order to patch anything in your Disaster Recovery site you have to initiate failover in Live! Sometimes it is possible to get around these situations by temporarily workarounds (such as breaking SAN replication and re-establishing later) but most probably your design only accommodates failover.

If it needs saying, ALWAYS try to decouple any strategies you implement as far as possible. There is nothing wrong with using complementing HADR technologies as long as the use of one does not compromise another.

4. You do not run similar HADR infrastructure in your (cross where applicable) UAT/ QAT/ Systest and Dev environments.

In most organisations, Highly Available strategies are only seen as something worthy for production. I have been lucky to work for an organisation that employed nearly 100 developers and yet even there, almost zero thought had been given to the Development environment’s availability. After I spent some time calculating the cumulative cost of man hours that would be lost in the event of any of the development database servers failing, it was a fairly obvious thing to suggest to them that:  in this scenario their Development environment was more important than Production!

What is more, running similar HADR deployments in other environments allows your Developers to design code that is more likely to be suitable for these platforms, allows your Testers to find platform related problems *before* code hits production and empowers you to accurately trial changes before risking doing so in live. I could go on but…

5. Your management think HADR is easy.

Your DBAs understand SQL Server and your Windows Administrators understand Windows? You might almost be as bold to suggest that in each area of specialism, there are some real experts in those teams. Unfortunately HADR implementations span a whole stack of technologies and skillsets ranging from the obvious (Log Shipping) to the not so obvious (and seemingly unconnected) such as SAN replication or Virtualization. Understanding how all of these offerings can be used and knowing how they interoperate and play with each other can be bewildering, even for SMEs. Yes HADR will take you out of your comfort zone, but you will learn a lot from travelling to it and provide more robust solutions and more stable systems.

Remember to explain this necessity to management and make sure you can help them understand the obvious! If you need training, then explain to them why.

6. You think HADR is easy.

You have been using HADR strategies for quite some time now and many of your peers believe you to have almost Jedi like skills. Heck you may have even started to believe your own hype and think you have every base covered.

…If only things were as simple as that.

It is always important to try to eliminate any single point of failure where possible in any HA solution, but there are too many variables to address when considering your designs. It is impossible for you to ever understand the impact of an Operating System (or firmware) patch to various parts of the environment, but ultimately one day your strategy is going to fail. How long the recovery from the system outage is going to take will depend (in part) on how well you actually understood the solution that was implemented. Having administered a working system over a very long period of time with no failures or downtime does not mean you are capable of restoring operations back to normal should they now go belly up.

Do you have confidence that (if you are given point in time sql backups) you would be able to rebuild a system from the ground up in a disaster scenario within the expected service agreements? If not, then you are running at risk.

7. You are not in possession of an SLA, RTO, RPO or system definition.

When failure or disaster strike (and believe me, if they haven’t yet, sooner or later they will), time and again I see people in positions of power, influence or command start flapping and demanding that operations absolutely have to return to a full working service immediately otherwise no Widgets can be sold by ACME Corp, and repercussions will be serious! Yet these highly charge stressed individuals are the very same people that you have approached on numerous occasions to ask for your Sytems Recovery Point Objectives (RPO),  Recovery Time Objectives (RTO) and Service Level Agreements (SLA). With a shrug of the shoulder they calmly tell you that there isn’t yet any defined agreements but they are “working on it”. Or perhaps even worse, they have given you documents which whilst defining what the RPO, RTO and SLA is for a particular system, they fail to DEFINE the system.

I have often seen people responsible for Business Availability go to great lengths to define the agreements for RPOs, RTOs and SLAs for particular Systems, but fail miserably in defining what *exactly* constitutes “The System”. Every Business system is composed of many different moving parts and subsystems, both technical and non technical platforms. All of these things (as we have discussed already) are generally supported by groups of diverse teams that rarely communicate between themselves. At a higher level there are Business processes sitting on top of these platforms that will have their own nuances and quirks and require specialist knowledge.

Therefore is your “System” the entire thing that is being described above OR are you going to break it down into component parts for your availability agreements? Do you even know whether it is possible to meet objectives *if* you were forced to run recovery in a serial nature (which is so often the case in situations like these). You may find there is not enough time…

8. You do not regularly review OR test your HADR strategy.

Your HADR plan is only as good (and no better than) the competency of everybody involved in its design and those who will execute that strategy in the event of failure. Throw into the mix a whole host of ever changing variables, technologies, services and business processes and suddenly you have a moving target to worry about. On too many occasions I have been witness to scenarios in where “The Business” would never allow a regular fail-over policy and believed that any solution currently in place would (if called upon) just work. Your problem is this; the longer it has been since you last tested your HADR plan/s, the more likely your moving targets will have compromised your solution -right? And if you agree with me; it is far better to experience a failed HADR plan when you don’t have to rely on it than when you do.

It only makes sense then, to regularly review your strategies and try to reduce the risk of failures at any time, whether they occur through a managed test or because of an unseen event. I should also widen the scope further and say that if your company has a solid set of change control processes and procedures in place managing (and publicising) changes across your Enterprise, then it is far more likely that your HADR reviews are going to flag potential issues.

Nuff said!

9. You have no documentation (or your documentation is worthless).

By now it really should be self explanatory that if you do not have any documentation for your recovery strategy and these plans only exist in yours or someone elses head then you are destined to run into big trouble on failure. But more commonly documentation will exist, but it is unnecessarily large and difficult to follow. Maybe you wrote it with a baffoon in mind, but honestly, you do not have to describe in gory detail how to do operations that your specialist technical staff should be able to perform. If you are trying to document an operation such as “Restore database AcmeCorpBigDB and all logs including tail backup with norecovery from the most recent taken on Production server AcmeCorpProd1 to AcmeCorpDR1″ then that is all you need to say. You do not have to explain which buttons to press or go into detail about how to do it in TSQL versus a GUI based restore (or even use that funky font you have recently discovered to make it look nice), just get straight to the point. Putting sidenotes that might assist in speeding up the process is just about acceptable, but any detail (for dummies) should be referenced through footnotes to other easy to find documents.

Assuming that you have written (in your opinion) the Worlds Greatest Recovery Plan, make sure that someone else gets to appreciate your good work by actually getting them to put it to the test and ultimately give it a quality assured stamp of approval. Choose your most junior member of the team and if they struggle to achieve recovery without asking questions or are doing something wrong, then either your documentation is not fit for purpose OR they need further training. In any event, you should always look toward the documentation as being imperfect before you assume that your Junior DBA needs a brain transplant. Remember that they wowed you in that job interview, so the likelyhood is that you (or your documentation) is at fault.

A final point worth mentioning on the above is that when your most Junior DBA is given the task to perform recovery, make sure that your most Senior DBA is given the task of shadowing them. Make sure that both parties understand that no help will be allowed and that the Senior DBA is simply there to protect the Junior from themselves OR the poor documentation. Remember to emphasize  that the documentation is being tested here NOT the Junior DBA.

10. You have no 24×7 Support for your 24×7 Operations.

How many of you these days work within an oncall rota? That’s great isn’t it? The main problem with oncall is that every team will have ever so slightly different arrangements and understanding about what *exactly* the oncall rota really means when you are oncall. Furthermore, since there is nobody actively watching and monitoring the systems availability, by the time you get to hear about a problem, several hours will have already passed -so much for your Highly Availability Service Level Agreements!

Usually an even bigger threat to recovery of your systems during your oncall hours is the time it normally takes to mobilize all the necessary teams to fix the problem. That is, if you have even managed to identify what *is* causing the problem. Communications across teams seems so much harder and takes so much longer when you should be getting your beauty sleep….

You may now be thinking that I am suggesting off-shoring your night-time support operation? Personally I would only ever suggest doing this if your offshore support have the knowledge and capability to actually fix problems themselves when they happen. If all they are there for is to escalate problems to you when issues are seen, then all you have achieved is added yet another element of perplexity to your support.

Bonus: You are at the mercy your outsourced service provider.

I could tell you stories about my bonus point that would chill you to the bone. But I shall spare you from the horror and simply say that if you are fortunate (or unfortunate) to outsource any of your IT service or infrastructure to a managed service provider, you had better make damn sure they can deliver on any promises that have been made within your SLAs, RPOs and RTOs. If you ever need a new server or new SAN provisioned instantly for whatever reason, can they deliver it within an acceptable time frame? No, of course they bloody can’t!

Have you even bothered to formulate specific SLAs, RPOs and RTOs with them? No I thought not….

book_nowWell thank you for taking the time to read my list and I hope you have enjoyed them. If you fancy immersing yourself further on SQL Server High Availability, then why not check out my Training Day page and book yourself into an up and coming intensive (but fun) day of HADR?

Posted in availability, business, clustering, database, sql, SQLServerPedia Syndication, storage, virtualization, windows | Leave a comment

Inside SQLSaturday: Niko Neugebauer & SQLSaturday Lisbon

The beautiful Sintra

The beautiful Sintra

Welcome to the second thrilling ;) instalment of Inside SQLSaturday, and today I am joined by Portugal’s very own Niko Neugebauer (web|twitter).

Niko is the event lead to SQLSaturday Lisbon which holds the honour of being the first SQLSaturday *ever* to be held outside of the United States and the launch pad for so many other great events to follow around the world. Along with his team they run a selection of Community events and innovative initiatives.

Q: Hello Niko! Thank you for agreeing to talk to me for my ongoing Inside SQLSaturday Series, I know you are really busy right now! It feels like an eternity since we have spoken properly, so tell me what have you been up to over the last 6 months?

A: After moving from my previous position as PASS Community Evangelist I am now working together with my colleagues Tillmann Eitelberg (web|twitter) & Oliver Engels (web|twitter) at OH22 Information Services and we are working on a range of different and exciting projects.
From the community perspective, we are running new events in the Northern Portugal – Oporto with a lot of success. The last meeting we held had 35 attendees. Of course we are still running regular SQLPort meetings every month in Lisbon.

Q: With the start of SQLSaturday Lisbon just around the corner (pre cons are due this Thursday and Friday, the community day is this Saturday), I think it should not be forgotten that this event is famous for being the first ever SQLSaturday outside of the US. That must make you and your team very proud, tell me how all this came about?

A: I honestly do not feel proud, I feel more like I was truly lucky.
The experience was simply amazing and it was somewhere around April 2010 when I decided to bring a good SQL event to my favourite place in the Universe – Lisbon.
With this goal I went to the PASS Summit and after all the conversations that I have held with SQLSaturday creator Andy Warren (web|twitter), in just 3 days he promised to give me an opportunity to organize one.
I told him that I will do everything possible (and overcome the impossible) to make it work and as remarkable as possible -apparently I was convincing enough. :)
The rest is just history – we got support from our local Microsoft office and the next April (2011) we held our first event. PASS also sent us an internationally recognised speaker (Scott Stauffer), and with support of Microsoft Portugal we managed to get Ramesh Meyappan as well. We had an amazing event (from a newbie point of view) and on the Friday (yes we were asked to do it during the week in order to lower the risk!) we had around 109 people.

Q: Did you feel any resistance to holding the event and if so from where and how did you overcome those challenges?

A: Absolutely. First of all – people are afraid of changes, any changes.
I was aware that this idea was coming from some crazy guy whom nobody knew and it must have appeared as a maniac idea.
I just ignored those who expected failure, I explained to those who had doubts and recruited support of those who believed in what we were doing.

The most important thing when organizing a community event is to have a community PASSION. Passion will help you – it will lead, it will guide, it will open doors, it will find a way. The first key to any success is having the faith – you gotta believe in what you are doing. You gotta do it for the much higher purposes that you as an individual can strive for.

The second most important thing is the plan. And not just 1 plan, but multiple layers of plans.
Plan A -> Plan A.A -> Plan A.B -> …
Plan B -> Plan B.A -> …
Plan for success, prepare for the failure. Plan for everyone to support you. Plan for a lack of support. Prepare for everything. Be ready to face problems, your faith in your mission will give you the necessary courage.
Do not be afraid of being abstracted and rejected. Once you get on the wave of success, everyone will want to join because of opportunities of being associated with that success.
Use this desire of success and plan for it. Plant seeds that will grow if not this year, than maybe the next one.

Q: I think out of any event I have been to, your team has to be the closest, most single minded entity of them all. Can you tell me about your team, the individuals within it, and why they are so special?

A: I can’t say anything about other events because I have never been a part of any other team, but my team is what makes things work. Having people such as Paulo Matos & Paulo Borges who are core members is what makes it what it is.
I can trust and entrust tasks knowing that some things will be done much better, compared to any of my personal efforts.
Paulo (Borges) is one heck of a creative guy who helps to invent stuff. He can take a hit from any side and keep on carrying on like no other person.

Paulo Matos is the like no one else in this galaxy when it comes to financial or governmental or bureaucracy task. He just gets things done. He runs workshops and I just check on the progress with him from time to time to see if I can be of any help. Apart from that, it is just him running the show. Both Paulos are helping to execute the Saturday event and we naturally split the tasks according to the capabilities of everyone.

In other different areas we have Pedro Simões running our partnerships and sponsorship relations and he is doing one amazing job. He just thinks from another perspective – and it is no surprise that one of the biggest IT firms in Portugal is totally dependent on him. If we had to replace him we would need a whole team of people with deep knowledge of multiple disciplines for that. :p

Vitor Pombeiro is our arrival & departure master managing the schedule to decide who is collecting and dropping off speakers and this year we also have have Murilo Miranda running the speaker dinner. So far, I praise his efforts. He is on time and delivers updates regularly – I am happy as anyone in my position can be.

Finally we have one more important addition to the team in André Batisita – his availability and desire to help motivate each one of us and get some of the “smaller” tasks done, have already made a very BIG difference in our organisation.

Thanks to him and his resources we have every piece of content printed and prepared on Sunday – 6 days before the event!

Yeah, I wish everyone had such a great team and if you ever see our event as successful, it is because of them.

Q: Leading up to your events you appear to get quite stressed and concerned -or perhaps more accurately described as very attentive to detail! Normally you are outwardly the most relaxed person I know, so explain to me exactly how you and your team are feeling in those final few hours before your event is due to start?

A: It is because we are trying to achieve perfection, but knowing that it is impossible, but we still try. I am a strong believer in improvement and I don’t want to fail. I do fail a lot and I am trying to improve. I want to see things running the way we envision them and I do get disappointed when it is not happening, but it is a process and I am keep on learning & improving.
This year we are trying to lower stress by preparing everything in advance, like any printed materials are already done and packed.
We have well defined plans and we shall try to get them right. :)

Those final hours, oh those final hours …
Its all about anxiety, we are working around 9 months on our event, so you know – when you arrive to the final moments of those thoughts, conversations and dreams …
I feel happy arriving there, I feel exhausted, I feel like I am on the top of the mountain and like riding with speed of the wind. I am anxious waiting to see it happen and I am willing to see the results of our sleepless days and nights.

stainglassQ: SQLSaturday Lisbon holds a very special place in my heart because it was the first ever SQLSaturday I spoke at despite having spoken at numerous events around the world. I believe this was the second event that you had ran. For those of us who did not manage to go to the very first event, could you describe that event for us and how it all went?

A: The first event was a simple 1-track event where everyone were on the verge of having heart attack. Unknown and inexperienced guys running one of the biggest community events – insane!!!
In my books, through all the nerves, ups & downs – it was still amazing. I remember so many little insignificant details, such as the place where I was sitting, words I was saying, etc…

I remember all of our speakers giving the best they could and the crowd were a little unsure of how to interpret what we were doing (what? a community event? what the heck is that?).

We came to the final part of the event feeling happy & exhausted. Feeling complete. Feeling like we did something that we have planed and desired. Looking for more. It was like an entry (into the history books), but we felt that we could do so much more, so much better.

Q: Having a mix of English language and Portuguese language speakers on the agenda, it must be very difficult to decide the balance of sessions. I have heard of other European events having these discussions and wonder how much consideration goes into choosing a session based on the language of delivery? What are the challenges you face?

A: This year our event will be 100% done in English, especially since we have attendees signed up from 12 different countries. We aim to do our best to complete our vision of what we are trying to achieve, we select sessions which are running into the direction that we are moving in.
Some choices are tough and sometimes we get a lot of critics, but that is a part of life.

I think that the biggest challenge is to stay true to your mission and to your values. Those things come into question regularly by others, and by ourselves as well.
Staying the course can be tough and taking unpopular decisions is also difficult, but necessary.

Q: As a speaker I find it really interesting delivering sessions to a different cultural audience. It is harder to judge what is funny and exactly what they expect from you. For the benefit of English Speaking presenters at this year’s event, what tips would you give them for a successful session?

A: Be yourself. If you are true to who you are, people will feel it and will trust you, even if they don’t completely get it. Don’t try to be funny, just try to be objective and friendly. Make people learn together with you. Learn from them.

Q: I think more than any other event, the hospitality and welcome you guys show to travelling speakers is second to none and a benchmark for all SQLSaturdays and IT events around the world. Tell me, is this an intentional thing or just a cultural Portuguese trait?

A: You are doing amazing job yourself as well, mate!
I have just 1 measure of success – Treat others like you wish to be treated yourself.
Our speakers are crossing thousands of miles to get to our event, and the least we can do is to warmly greet them and to take the best care possible.
I see every speaker as a personal friend, so I feel like I should try to take care of each one of them.

Q: I suppose I really should mention the pre-conference sessions you are running this year. You have managed to land a fantastic selection of big name speakers including my good friend Edwin Sarmiento. Can you tell me about these guys, their sessions and why people really should attend them?

A: We have 5 amazing pre-conference sessions this year:
Edwin is doing High Availability, Tim Mitchell is talking about SSIS, Milos Radivojevic is doing a great stuff for developers (note that he is a developer for Bwin.Party, one of the most-talked companies in SQL Server space at the moment), Paul Turley is doing great precon for BI on Friday and Brent Ozar will take it on the next level with Virtualization Storage and Hardware for SQL Server. All DBA’s are very much invited. For just 120€. :)

We have the following sessions:

Thursday 10th April

Tim Mitchell – Real World SSIS: Survival Guide (web|twitter).

Milos Radivojevic – SQL Server for Application Developers (web|twitter).

Edwin Sarmiento – High Availability & Disaster Recovery Deep Dive (web|twitter).

Friday 11th April

Paul Turley – Complete BI Solution with Office & SQL Server (web|twitter).

Brent Ozar – Virtualization, Storage, and Hardware for SQL Server (web|twitter).

For more detail, please visit here.

Q: You can refuse to answer this question if you like (bearing in mind I might steal your idea ;)), but if you could pick anyone at all to give a pre-conference session at SQLPort, who would you choose and why?

A: Well for a start I’d pick all those guys who are doing them this year!
We hand-picked them from a good number of submissions.

Q: Before I visited your event for the first time, I had never been to Portugal before. Whilst I know that many British tourists (sadly) bypass mainland destinations and head to The Algarve, this had never really appealed to me. I think it is fair to describe Lisbon as a very beautiful and historic City, could you explain for those fortunate enough to visit, what exactly it has to offer them and why they should visit?

A: I guess it all depends on one’s priorities. Lisbon has it all – from historic Roman ruins to beaches for swimming and surfing, but the Algarve attracts those who are looking for a different type of entertainment. I am not a big fan of that type of culture. Catching a tram on the streets of Lisbon, getting a nice food with red wine, listening to Fado (traditional Portuguese music) are some of the things that help me to find my true self.
Some great Britons came to Portugal and found a peace of mind and heart. For example, Lord Byron described Sintra (a place near Lisbon) as a “glorious Eden”.

Q: Last year on the Sunday after the event you took the speakers on a rather fabulous trip to a Castle (Sintra) on a very high hillside. Have you anything similar surprises planned this year?

A: Yes. :) ;) ;)

Q: At SQLSaturday Cambridge and many other events around the world, Portuguese speakers are becoming an integral part of those events. Once, when I asked you to remind me who a particular Portuguese speaker was, I remember you telling me that “(he) was only the best SQL trainer in the whole of Portugal!”. Could you explain why your country has so much technical talent?

A: Like any other nation we have some great people, but there are a couple of things that might be helping develop talent. We are a small country (just over 10 Million) and are accepting of change. In the tech world we are very open to new technologies and a lot of pioneer programs are actually being run in Portugal without a big fanfare. We (SQLPort) try to help people to transform and to achieve their dreams.
But there is one big flaw that my nation has – a lack of marketing knowledge & exposure.
I don’t think that some of the most capable people I know are publicising themselves in any way. So it stays a kind of a hidden secret, waiting to be discovered.

What's for dinner!

What’s for dinner!

Q: I’ve had discussions with you and your team before regarding the location of Portugal with respect to the rest of Europe (Portugal runs along the Western most tip of the European continent, bordering Spain). Do you think that this location makes it harder sometimes to “sell” Portugal as an international IT powerhouse and could this ever be achievable in this slowly changing world without borders?

A: Absolutely. Not many people are travelling through Lisbon and this “hurts” any potential new ideas and business developments. We are getting some of the best professionals in the world, such as yourself, willing to come over and to share knowledge, so I guess it is a question of time before the results will appear.

Q: From discussions I’ve had with a few sponsors I think some of them mistakenly overlook your event for the reasons just mentioned in my previous question and yet they forget the reach of the Portuguese IT Community in and around Europe and the UK. Would you agree with this statement, and could you say why a company really should consider sponsoring SQLSaturday Lisbon?

A: I believe so. I have argued much with international sponsors before, but I understand that everything has their own priorities.
I can guarantee 1 thing – we try harder, we bust ourselves further than we have ever thought we could. I see SQLSaturday Portugal as truly international event – speakers from 17 different countries, attendees from 12 different countries, countless MVP’s & MCM’s.
It is a perfect opportunity to get to know the local community (which is very strong), but also get great talks & insights from some of the most forward thinking specialists on this planet.

Q: Niko you have the ability to speak at least 4 to 5 languages fluently (which by the way makes me incredibly jealous). I remember you telling me in the past that the way you learn these languages is not by using the traditional approach, could you explain your special technique again for the benefit of people like me?

A: I try to learn any language in the same way I believe any child would learn it – hearing and repeating. Making mistakes and not fearing sounding profoundly funny. Always improving.
I connect objects that I see with the sound of the words that I hear, I don’t map it to any other language (which is the normal way a language is taught).
I don’t think this method makes you good at translation but once you switch the language – it will flow, because you will feel it.

Q: I have often observed that multi-lingual individuals are usually very intelligent people, and I wonder if their ability to speak multiple languages is simply a result of their intelligence or something more. What I really mean by this is that I wonder if you can solve problems thinking in one language that you would struggle to do so in say you native tongue?

A: I honestly don’t know how true it is, mate.
It sounds very beautiful, but I never thought about it.
Listening, trying and repeating are the keys for any success.

Q: And if you had to recommend that a person learns only two languages fluently, which would you choose and why?

A: English – is the most important language right now.
Chinese – this is the most important language for the future.

Q: For his year’s event do you have any surprises in store that you can tell me about?

A: Be social my friend, be social! :)

Q: Now before I go, I really have to ask you, which Football team is the best in Lisbon? Sporting or Benfica?

A: My personal preferences are unimportant but for what matters I love the color blue… 

In my extended family we also enjoy green colours, but that is as far as I am ready to go in the Portuguese championship, but for international games – I can proudly wear any color of any Portuguese teams.

As always Niko, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. I am sure your event is going to be another great success and showcase for the SQLSaturday Community. I’m really looking forward to it and seeing what you and your team have in store for us all!


lisbonexpSQLSaturday Lisbon is due to commence this week, starting with the Pre-conference sessions this Thursday 10th and Friday 11th April and you can book one of these fabulous sessions by visiting here.

The Community day is being held on the Saturday 12th April and if you are lucky you can grab a registration by visiting here.

And if you see me, make sure you say hello!

Posted in Community, InsideSQLSaturday, learning, personaldevelopment, publicspeaking, sqlsaturday, SQLServerPedia Syndication | 1 Comment

Inside SQLSaturday: Jonathan Allen & SQLSaturday Exeter

In the first of a new and ongoing series of Inside SQLSaturday posts, which I hope will give you an insight into the phenomena known as SQLSaturday, I would first like to introduce you to Jonathan Allen (blog|twitter) who currently runs the SQL South West User Group, which is a PASS Chapter and also the parent organisation behind SQLSaturday Exeter. Last year Jonathan led his first successful SQLSaturday Exeter and is currently preparing for the second on Saturday 22nd March (the pre-conference is on Friday 21st March). At the end of this year he also completed his two year term as a UK PASS Regional Mentor (working alongside myself), but many of you will probably know him better under his alias of @FatherJack on Twitter. He also is a frequent blogger on Redgate’s Simple Talk platform.

father-jack-awardQ: Hi Jonathan, thank you very much for agreeing to the interview and answer my questions. I’ve been wanting to interview you for a while now and I’m very much looking forward to your replies. Before we get started though, I have to ask about your Twitter handle and the inspiration behind it?

A: Fatherjack? that comes from way back. When I’m writing code it’s generally easy to tell how it’s going based on the language emanating from my desk so I got the nick name of Fatherjack in the office during a time when it wasnt going so well. My colleagues felt I was very very similar to Father Jack Hackett from the Channel 4 Father Ted comedy series. I had to create an user name on a website and it was the first thing that came to mind, gradually it got used on more and more sites and now it has reached the point that people often think I am actually called Jack or that I am in some way ordained!

Q: If I am not mistaken, your Twitter Avatar is probably one of the longest running unchanged pictures; where does the Mug come from and have you ever flirted with the idea of using a photo of yourself?

A: The mug was bought in the Brighton Lanes while I was attending SQLBits there. The photo was taken when I was testing the camera on a new phone at my desk and then needing to put an avatar on Twitter soon after. Again, its been around so long people know me by it. Would I change it? No probably not now I’m happy being a mug!

Q: Tell me about your SQL User Group and how it all got started?

A: SQL South West had its first meeting in May 2011 but it all started at SQLBits in York in 2010. I was speaking to Tony Rogerson (twitter|blog) in the community area and asked where my nearest User Group was. Turns out it was too far away to attend regularly and Tony simply said ‘start your own then’. It took all the time from Oct 10 to May 11 to get things organised (location, attendees, speaker etc). We’ve met pretty much every month since then.

Q: I spent an enjoyable 10 years growing up in the South West. For those who are not too familar with the region, can you say why it is so special and why they should pay it a visit?

A: The South West (specifically Cornwall, Devon and Somerset) are a wonderful place to be, there is plenty of space to get away from it all – we have Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor close by as well as all the beaches and coastline. The pace of life is relaxed and it all makes for a pretty great experience whether you live here or just come and visit us.

Q: Building upon the success of your User Group, last year you hosted your first SQLSaturday in Exeter. How do you think it all went and what lessons did you learn that are proving useful this time around?

A: I think we did OK, certainly based on the feedback from the delegates that came along. We had a short time from launch to the event day and had Christmas and New Year in the middle so it was pretty frantic. The bulk of the preparation work was done by me and Annette (my wife/ @mrs_fatherjack) but with lots of help on the day from a lot of very generous people. This year we launched a lot sooner and we have recruited a team who are doing a spectacular job to take a lot of pressure off us. we have a few deadlines and ‘pressure points’ but we look in pretty good shape at the moment.

Q: One thing I admired about your event last year was the involvement of your User Group members. What tips can you give to SQLSaturday events trying to foster local involvement and contribution to the running of a SQLSaturday?

A: I guess I am benefiting from the excellent people that come along to SQL South West meetings, they are very generous and willing to help us with the event and their eager assistance is invaluable to the smooth running of the day. From the outset of thinking about last years SQLSaturday we wanted to make sure that as much as possible the event would showcase the South West – hence our pasty and pint refreshments and using local suppliers for as much as possible. This ethic flowed into asking the group for their assistance on the day and they were superb in the work they gave us, we cant thank them enough.

Dartmoor-Tor-smallQ: SQLSaturday Exeter is probably hosting the largest number of pre-conference sessions I think I have ever seen at a SQLSaturday. Could you share with us the motivations behind this and also explain to the audience why they should attend one?

A: 9 training day sessions, yes its probably the biggest change people will see between this year and last. It is certainly the biggest single cause of ‘should we , shouldnt we’ conversations while we are preparing. Essentially we had some outstanding submissions for training day sessions and when we found a second location that could support our event we thought we would try something new: a SQLSaturday training day with 9 sessions, spread over two locations. We have chartered a bus to make sure everyone gets where they need to be in comfort and on time. It should be quite a sight going through Exeter with FusionIO logos all over it! Another strong motivation is to keep trying something new, we have a 2 hour session on the Saturday, to provide a chance to get a more in-depth session on a topic and we are also mixing the event party with the speaker meal to see if we can bring everyone together and start socialising as early as possible.

Q: You have some great pre-conference Speakers, but could you pick any personal favourites and tell us why?

A: That, sir, is a nasty question! It’s like asking someone which is their favourite child! However, a special thanks needs to go to all the speakers that are travelling thousands of miles between them to be with us like Stacia from the USA, Mladen from Slovenia and Hugo and Andre who are both from Holland. Having said that, some of the UK based speakers are travelling a long way too and we are just as thankful to them.

I guess you will press me for a firm answer though so, if was able to attend any of the sessions then I think I would probably choose André Kamman’s session on SQL Server 2014. It looks like there will be masses of content that I can take back to work and implement or use as points to argue for an upgrade project to move our servers off the older versions that we run. Take a look here.

Q: Have you any advise for someone attending the pre-conference or your event on Saturday?

A: Come along with the aim of having a good time, we are a small event so you will meet some great people in a friendly atmosphere. you will no doubt see some excellent sessions on both days and there is a strong chance that you will meet some people that will more than likely become a good friend and part of your ongoing career. I know that I have made many strong friendships with people that I have met at community events that I am sure will last longer than my career. Catching up with these people at events becomes a key part of attending SQLBits or SQLSaturday or even the PASS Summit.

Q: Your event is just weeks away now, how are your finding the traditional mayhem to the run up of it?

A: Yeah, it’s pretty frantic currently. We have a lot to do but we seem to have it all in hand at the moment! It’s been a lot less frantic this year as we have a bigger team and more time in project.

Q: You are returning to last years venue and I am guessing that this has made many of the arrangements much easier this time around. Do you want to say anything about Jury’s Inn?

A: Yes, this was something we decided almost before last years event was over was that we would return to the same location. We think it suited our needs very well, was well placed for transport connections and we worked well with the conference team. The Jurys Inn staff were incredibly flexible dealing with our requests and very responsive to things happening on the day. Not only were the conference facilities very good but the accommodation was very comfortable and I am sure that the bar area will be as popular in the evenings this year as it was last.

surfsupQ: One really nice touch at the end of your event last year was the serving of Cornish Pasties to the attendees. Rumour has it that you have surprises in store this year too, are you able to share any with us?

A: The Pasty and Pint will be with us again but rather than on the Saturday when everyone is heading home it is going to be on the Friday night. Anyone attending the Friday or Saturday training is welcome to come along from 19:30 on the Friday and join in our party. We are having a beach/surf themed event so anyone in the right sort of clothing is in line for a prize. We have hired a surfing simulator and there will be prizes for best surfer of the night as well as the best (or worst!) ‘exit’ from the surfboard. Not only will delegates be there but the evening will have speakers from both days and sponsor representatives too so you can all talk and get to know each other.

Q: I also love the fact that you have managed to engage with local sponsors and contributors. How hard (or easy) was it convince them that they should get involved?

A: The ‘local’ part of the event was each to say but not so simple to put in place. People are not so close together in Devon and Cornwall as they are in other big cities so finding SQL Server users is always hard work, whether it is for our User Group or for the conference. We had great support from Nexus OS last year and we are hoping to have some other local companies involved this year. One key tenet of last years conference was that not only were we putting on a SQL Server conference but we were also showcasing how good things are in the South West. We have excellent services and resources down here and they perhaps dont get the publicity that they could or should. Hopefully SQLSaturday Exeter helps address this a little.

Q: There is a great selection of speakers on the Saturday event. How hard was it to select your sessions and could you give an insight into how your team did this?

A: Selecting session for SQLSaturday is one of the hardest tasks in the whole project. Another aim for SQLSaturday Exeter is to give new speakers a chance to have a session in front of a big audience and show what they can do. We tried to balance the session content across 4 major topic areas – Performance, DBA, Dev and BI but also to bring in new speakers as well as having some of the regulars in place too. If I was giving advice to speakers on getting submissions accepted it would be to focus a lot on the abstract that you send to the event organisers. Sometimes ambiguity or poor content here means that sessions get dismissed.

Q: You have a few first time speakers at the event. What advise what you give to them?

A: Come along and have a good time. There is noone here that is hoping you will fail or have problems. If something goes wrong then the room is full of people ready for you to recover, continue and succeed. I had a nightmare session last year: someone in the front row poured a hot cup of tea in their lap, my PowerPoint crashed and the internet connection dipped out right at the time that I needed it but we all came out of the session alive and hopefully a few people picked up a tip or two along the way. Take a look at one of last years first timers experience here : “Community Interview – What’s it like to speak at a SQLSaturday?

Q: If you manage to break away from behind the scenes and make it to any sessions, which ones do you think you will try to attend?

A: I’m hoping to get to see some of the 2014 content for the reasons I mentioned before and then I’d like to try something different and maybe get to a BI session. its something I have only ever seen from afar and I see it as a gap in my SQL Server knowledge.

Thanks Jonathan for taking the time to answer my questions, especially during this busy period. I look forward to attending again soon and enjoying the fun and SQL learning!

Great, it was a pleasure, looking forward to seeing you and a whole lot of new friends in a week and a bit!

You can find more information about SQLSaturday #269 Exeter Pre-conference sessions by visiting here and the Community day by visiting here. And don’t forget to bring your Hawaiian shirt!

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