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Be Nice to a DataBase Administrator Today

The annual Computer History Museum Fellow Awards program publicly recognizes individuals of outstanding merit who have significantly contributed to advances in computing technology or applications, and to the evolution of the information age. Fellows may have worked in such diverse fields as hardware, software, networking, computer science, business, education, public service, or journalism, but they have one thing in common: their contributions have had a direct influence on computer history, and ultimately, they have changed our lives.

Each year around this time, a “who’s who” of the technology world assembles at the museum in Mountain View CA for a banquet and ceremony to induct a new group of Fellows. This evening, among the six new Fellows chosen in 2009, Don Chamberlin will be honored. Don was a co-inventor of SQL, the world’s most widely-used database language, and one of the managers of IBM’s System R project, which produced the first SQL implementation and seeded the development of much of IBM’s relational database technology.

Relational database technology lets programmers manipulate data without having to know anything about its internal storage structure. This seems natural today, but when Ted Codd first invented the relational model for data management, it was a revolutionary concept. The System R project, and the SQL language in particular, made that concept a reality. Even so, just having the ability to write applications that manipulate databases using a logical language like SQL does not make those applications run fast enough to meet the needs of their users. It’s still true that the performance of a database application depends on:

  • How the application uses the data
  • How the database management software is configured
  • The database structures (tables, indexes, and other options)
  • The amount and nature of the data itself
  • The hardware environment

Even though SQL has largely insulated application programmers from these messy details, somebody still has to worry about them if applications are ever going to meet business performance goals and satisfy customers’ needs for responsive interactions. Today that responsibility falls primarily on the shoulders of someone whose job did not even exist back in the days when Don Chamberlin was inventing SQL — the Database Administrator, or DBA.

Once considered a cushy job, it’s now a chaotic mix of resource managers, bitmap indexes, heterogeneous locking protocols, optimizer anomalies, and irate users that can’t access their own personnel information and get angry every time they hear the word ‘User’.  And to let application programmers think logically, DBA’s still have to worry about buffer sizes, index fragmentation, disk striping, database backup and recovery, and a million other things besides.

So, thank Don Chamberlin today for making our lives more logical. And be nice to a DBA today, for making it all work in practice.

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