Everything a Junior DBA Should Know – a Book Review

The book is called “Beginning Oracle Database 11g Administration”.

I know what you are thinking. A book called “Beginning Oracle Database 11g Administration” cannot possibly be a good book. It just sounds like one of those books. You know the kind of book I’m talking about –  “DBA in 21 days”, “Oracle 11g handbook”, etc. Big, boring, completely useless.

In this case, looks are so misleading that I feel compelled to correct this first impression. This is not a big, boring, useless book. This is a brilliant and funny book and it is the most perfect book for newbie DBAs. I wish someone had given me this book few years ago. If I ever write a book, I want it to be just like this one. I’m definitely going to make management buy it for every new junior DBA hired in our department (Not that we are hiring new DBAs. But thats a different and very sad story).

I will now proceed to explain (in detail!) why this book is so perfect, and few of the less perfect things about this book.

In my opinion, the thing that makes a technical book fun and brilliant (as opposed to boring and useless) is the author’s voice. My favorite books have a very specific voice to them. The book sounds pretty much like the author sounds in a presentation or conversation or email.

Tom Kyte’s book has that “make a complex subject crystal clear with one good example” voice that I associate with AskTom. Cost-Based Fundamentals sound as obsessively details-oriented as their author, Jonathan Lewis. Laurent Schneider’s Advanced SQL book sounds exactly like Laurent – “The example is self explanatory, words are a waste of time”.

Books that don’t have that personal voice, that sound totally mechanical and robotic, are boring books, and since they probably bored their authors as well, they are usually not very good books.

“Beginning Oracle Database 11g Administration” sound exactly like the author – Iggy Fernandez. And Iggy is one of the funniest people I know. He’s also very no-nonsense type of guy, very realistic about what databases, customers and DBA jobs are like. And he has tons of experience. I’ve known Iggy for about a year, but you’ll be able to figure all this out after reading just few pages – the book is amusing, and slightly cynical and contains lots of real world stories all ending with “This happened to me, don’t let it happen to you!” and there are a bunch of exercises at the end of each chapter to test your knowledge, oh and a nice quote at the beginning of each chapter. Did I mention that this is exactly the type of book I wish I could write?

So, what’s in the book?

The book starts at unusual place – The first chapter is about relational theory. Which is a very welcome change from the usual “SGA, buffer cache, shared pool, 5 processes, data files, redo files, control files” chapter that normally open the newbie books. The chapter introduces important concepts about relations, ACID and data integrity. I liked that – starting with basic concepts before diving into Oracle mechanisms is a great way to start.

Follows is a chapter about SQL and PL/SQL. Its a decent introduction, but one of my least favorite chapters. First of all, the chapter about SQL and PL/SQL contains exactly 2 pages about PL/SQL and one example. I understand the limitations involved in writing an introductory book, but it still didn’t seem right. To make things even more annoying – 4 pages are dedicated to “Criticisms of SQL”. Thats the downside of reading a book with a personal author voice – it is clear that the author fell in love with Chris Date, but objectively, Date’s theories are somewhat of an advanced topic and seem out of place in a beginner level book. Not that I’m complaining – I found the topic fascinating 🙂

One other issue I found is that the first example in the chapter attempts to demonstrate efficient vs. inefficient SQL, by showing a query that due to a function in the where clause will fail to use an index. Its a great example, but indexes were not introduced in the book at this point and may be unfamiliar to the reader. This kind of problem happens several times in the book – examples and explanations use concepts that were not introduced yet. Not a big deal, but it may stump complete beginners.

Chapter 3 gives the expected overview of Oracle architecture and with that the “concept” chapters are finished.

Chapter 4 is called “Planning” and is one of the reasons I wish I had this book five years ago. It covers license costs, the different editions, different architecture choices (like RAC and dataguard) and most important – sizing. This is the only general-purpose DBA book I’ve seen to cover the essential issue of sizing.

Chapter 5 is installation and 6 is database creation. They contain all the usual screenshots of the usual installation and DBCA graphical interfaces. In the end of chapter 6 is a nice surprise – a listing that shows how to create a database without DBCA, using the almost forgotten “create database” command.

Chapter 7 covers physical design – partitions, indexes, clusters, etc. Chapter 8 covers user creation, some of the basics of privilege management (although options like “with grant” are left out) and also tools like export, datapump and sqlloader. I loved the explanation about datapump – because the listing contained many of the errors DBAs run into when using it. Much better than the examples in which everything works!

This ends the section about implementation. The next section is about support.

Chapter 9 covers some of the administration tools – SQL Developer and EM. I would have dropped this chapter in favor of PL/SQL chapter, but thats me.

Chapter 10 is about monitoring. Like planning, monitoring is a huge and critical part of the DBA job, and most books don’t give it the attention it deserves. This chapter is another reason this book is a must-have for new DBAs. Iggy avoids the trap of saying “EM takes care of monitoring. Here’s how you configure EM”. The chapter is completely tool-independent and covers the most important things a DBA should monitor. (I know it took me few years to figure out that backups should be monitored and very carefully too!). The chapter is also full of the queries that you’ll want to use for monitoring – which makes it a very valuable and useful reference.

Chapter 11 is about troubleshooting. It starts with a systematic overview of the troubleshooting process (because troubleshooting is a process and not something that is done once) and the process Iggy gives is identical to the one I give in my “Troubleshooting Streams” presentation. We did not steal from each other – its the very well known scientific process and everyone should follow it. Its a very promising start, but it gets much better. Iggy gives troubleshooting best practices and an hillarious dialog between a DBA and a user demonstrating the troubleshooting process. The chapter finishes with a list of resources that can be used for troubleshooting, and some advice about troubleshooting common error codes (although ORA-01555 is not that common anymore). The explanation on troubleshooting ORA-600 also demonstrates some metalink basics (The only Oracle book I know that explains Metalink. This is amazing, considering that many DBAs use metalink as often as they use SQL*PLUS)

Chapters 12 and 13 are a decent overview of backup and recovery topics.

Chapter 14 covers the things DBAs normally do on a regular basis – backups, statistics collection, data archiving, cleanup of trace files, reviewing audit records, password changes, capacitiy management and patching. Putting all this in a single chapter is unusual, and I’m not 100% sure it works. Statistics make more sense in the context of tuning, backups were already discussed, etc. I would have reduced this chapter to a single page checklist and a strong recommendation to automate as many of these tasks as possible.

Chapter 15 is another great one. This is the only chapter in the book that is as useful to senior DBAs as it is to beginners. The chapter covers the correct way to run a DBA team and make management happy. It covers ITIL basics and the recommended IT management processes. It explains what the business usually expects from the DBA team. And it gives very good ideas on how to build a documentation library and more important – why.

The last section is about database tuning. Books can be written about this topic, and Iggy only gives a basic beginner-level intro to the subject. Thankfully he avoids saying anything that will require unlearning later on (no ratio-based tuning!).

Chapter 16 covers instance tuning. Starting with the systematic process one should follow (instead of just messing with random hidden parameters) and discusses the main techniques used – DB Time analysis, Oracle wait interface and statspack.

Chapter 17 is about SQL statement tuning – it discusses the use of session traces to find these queries and some tuning techniques such as indexes, hints and collecting better statistics. The example that ends this chapter is very in-depth and very useful.

I hope that by now everyone who actually bothered reading my slightly longish review understands why I love this book so much. I can’t overemphasize how fun and readable the book is, and how useful it will be for DBAs with 1-2 years of experience.

In the interest of transparency, I’d like to mention that Iggy is a friend of mine and he gave me a copy of his book for free. He did not ask me to review it, its just that if a friend of mine happens to write the best beginner DBA book in existance, I think everyone should know.

One Comment on “Everything a Junior DBA Should Know – a Book Review”

  1. Corey says:

    Thank you very much for this excellent review. I have added it to my Amazon “wish list.”

    Thanks again!

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