Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Database Upgrade Scripts – Why all the effort?

On Wilfred van der Deijl's blog, Chuck (amongst other things) effectively asks:

"How much effort do you dedicate to total automation when you still need someone smart enough to [deal with failures]".

In order to address this I think I first want to address the question, what are we trying to do with automation.
The aim of is to make it easy to re-run the upgrade with as little effort as possible, with as many configruations as possible, thus testing the upgrade as much as possible and hopefully making the upgrade solid and reliable. Of course we can't make sure that the upgrade works every time with every configuration of data, but we can make sure it runs successfully a lot more often than it doesn't.

This gives us confidence in our ability to change the databases, and in doing so makes us more likely to re-work difficult data structures rather than work around them. This means that our database is better to work with, which makes our jobs easier.

Also, whenever we make a problem free roll-out we increase the confidence the rest of the business has in our ability to do our job. It makes them more open to receiving more upgrades more often and makes them easier to roll them out when we do. This means our customers get their bug fies earlier and their enhancements earlier, and can therefore give us feedback on where to make more enhancements earlier in the software's lifespan.

In short, making the upgrades solid helps us write better software by allowing us to focus on the software rather than the software roll-out, and the customer on the possibilities of new software rather than software failure..

How does automation give us this? Well, the ability to automate builds does not, it's the way in which those automated builds are used that does: Why not make it possible for an overnight process to perform the upgrade to as many different production databases as you can gather the resources to do?

In putting together an automated build plan we want builds on test databases that occur every night, using recent (that day's?) backups of production systems. We want to be able to run through the upgrade as it would occur on live as many times as possible, and we want to do that without draining our resources to the point that it's all we are doing.

If we can have unattended backups of our live system, unattended rebuilds of that live system on a test server, unattended upgrading of that database and then unattended testing of the resultant application, then we can eaily test the upgrade of the live system from the moment the project starts to the night before the production upgrade takes place.

If we do this, then the odds are that by the time we decide to upgrade the production system we know about that last minute data problem that will cause the build to fail. We'll have fixed the problem before the upgrade started, and we'll have dealt with in when we're not in a panic, we'll have done all this without teams of users waiting for the production database to come back up.

Our aim is not to have a completely unskilled worker to perform the task of upgrading the production database, but to make sure the upgrade will go smoothly far more often than not. We want that standby DBA to stay on standby.

That seems like worth a bit of effort to me!

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