Time to pension off your DBA?

Why pay for a database administrator (DBA), when it can prove more cost-effective to outsource database management to a...

Why pay for a database administrator (DBA), when it can prove more cost-effective to outsource database management to a specialist?

Paying between £60,000 and £80,000 a year for a housekeeper to keep your residence ticking over may seem like an extravagant way of spending the household budget. But in essence this is what IT managers have had to become accustomed to paying their database administrators to carry out similarly routine tasks. However more companies are deciding to outsource this component of the IT function in order to secure value for money and better risk management of, what is, after all, a business critical asset.

Pare down staffing bills
One company that recently took this step is Echo Research, a communications public relations consultancy that has a number of blue chip clients including British Airways, Unicef and PricewaterhouseCoopers. According to managing director, Giselle Bodie, once the firm had decided to offer its clients a 24x7 service, outsourcing the database administration became a "no-brainer": an around-the-clock service would have meant staffing up to three DBAs, an investment of around £21,000.

Echo has elected to keep its servers and Oracle database on site because retaining control of its intellectual property was felt to be a core activity for the company. However, the Oracle database is maintained and fine-tuned remotely by DBA specialists, Hanston, for an annual service fee. John Gaughan, sales director for Hanston, claims this works out roughly half the price of an end user company's DBA salary bill. The price saving comes because a specialist can operate an economy of scale, plus there is the added advantage of having access to specialists with up-to-the minute knowledge of product updates.

The impetus for Echo to outsource was the necessity to remain competitive by offering its customers around the world online access to data and analysis at any time of the day. For other companies it becomes an inevitable step because business workloads are so hard to reconcile with available hours of a single person. A quiet trading patch may see the DBA twiddling his or her thumbs while Christmas trading may require back-up - and such skills are not available on tap.

Can you match the TLC of the DBA?
Similarly hard to reconcile is the workload of the DBA, which ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. DBAs have to lavish tender loving care on mundane tasks such as back-ups, creating archive logs, managing disc corruption and organising data tables and schema. But equally, to extract maximum performance out of a database or engineer applications around a particular database configuration calls for well-honed DBA skills that verge on artistry. Unfortunately, the database connoisseur and manager seldom exist in the one person, with the result that the good DBAs often move on once a period of business change or growth is over.

Sara Gemmell, business development manager with Nextra cites a skills shortage and the desire for continuity as the twin reasons that push companies towards outsourcing. Gemmell observes that a lot of end users rely on contractors who are a risk to the business because of their free-wheeling nature. She also notes that a majority of in-house DBAs are newly qualified and therefore less likely to be so skilled. "Hanging on to a good DBA for the day-to-day stuff is difficult," she says.

According to Neil Downing, product marketing manager for managed services provider Worldport, other reasons for companies to outsource the DBA function include a merger and acquisition, which prompts companies to seek specialist help in rationalising into one platform. Contingency planning is also a growing demand as companies want to have data correlated and stored on a third party site, says Downing.

Call in the outsourcing experts
While the selective outsourcing of DBA is seeing the emergence of specialists such as Hanston to meet this need, database management and administration has long been bundled with managed services. Suppliers such as Worldport and Nextra tend to offer DBA along with management of the physical environment including servers, operating systems and connectivity. For this reason, they are reluctant to put a price tag on the DBA component, although guesstimates vary from "20% sings on the in-house bill" to "from £500 per month for basic database monitoring and administration, through to £4,00 a month for a full-time DBA allocated to the individual customer".

Brian McCabe, head of database services for Nextra believes that administering the whole regime brings the advantage of better service level agreements (SLA) for the customer. "We're the only ones with the database privileges and so the buck stops with us," he says. "Customers can view it as negative or restrictive - or in the light that we can offer guaranteed SLAs."

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