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Are remote DBAs a good idea?

By Sean McCown

I got an email from a marketing rep a while back telling me about this company that does remote DBA work and wanted to know if I was interested in doing a story on them. Well, normally I turn stuff like that down flat because I’ve seen those companies before and they’re typically nothing more than a glorified NOC (Network Ops Center). OK, they’re probably not even that glorified, just expensive. But there was something about the way she worded it that got me curious. So I emailed her back and before long we were on the phone.

Enough prelims though, here’s what I have to tell you.
The company is Datavail and they do DBA outsourcing. Only it’s much more than that. See, I had a load of questions going into my briefing like: What about companies who need a fulltime DBA? What about other functions DBAs perform like providing end user and developer support? What about security? What about understanding a company’s apps and processes well enough to be effective and guide them properly? So all that I brought to my briefing with Mike Jones, the president of DatAvail, and Sloane Stricker, vice president and CTO. 

I’ve had experience with companies like Perot Systems before, and needless to say I was not only less than impressed with their poor performance, I was astounded with some of the moves I’ve seen them pull to keep clients. So I was expecting DatAvail to be more like this. But these guys not only knew what they were doing, they had an excellent presentation that I could tell wasn’t BS. They answered all my questions honestly and even gave me some technical details to prove what they were saying. What can I say, these guys really know their stuff.

And from what I can tell, they can actually fulfill every aspect of your normal in-house DBA. When you get an account with them, they assign a primary DBA to your site. He then goes out to meet you and spend a couple days getting to know the people and the layout of the place. He probably also spends some of that time getting setup as well. Then when he goes back home, he’s available to you as any DBA would be. Your users are free to call or email. Your devs are free to ask advice. And he is involved in business meetings for projects, upgrades, new dev initiatives, etc. It’s just like he’s your dedicated DBA. They told me that they have one client who deals with policemen and they often get calls directly from the police themselves in their squad cars needing support for their on-board systems. And that’s the level of services these guys can provide. 

One advantage I can see is that DatAvail covers all flavors of database, so if you take on a 3rd party app that needs Oracle, or another vendor you don’t currently have in-house, you don’t have to worry. They can handle it just fine and you don’t have to run out and get another DBA or send your DBA to classes just to support a single app. Another advantage is with this huge company of DBAs, you’ve got an entire team working for you. Your primary DBA doesn’t work in a vacuum and if he runs up against something he doesn’t know how to handle, he can go to the others as a resource. It’s really an excellent arrangement.

I’m not being paid by these guys so I can say whatever I like. And I’ve seen a lot of these outsourcing companies come and go, and I’ve seen quite a few of them in action in my travels. And DatAvail seems to have something the others don’t. Whether that something is expertise, a true service model, pride in their work, what… it doesn’t matter. The point is they impressed me and they’re the only services company I would not only consider working for, I would be honored to work for them.

I really hope they’re as good as they say they are because they sound like they really not only know their stuff, but that they actually care about giving you REAL DBAs.

Of course, this kind of service isn’t cheap. And while it depends on the level of service you need from them, you can probably expect to pay what you would pay a good DBA, so you’re not really out any money there. What you are out is the hassle of placing adds, paying insurance, and having your DBA bail on you in the middle of a project as I’m assured they have a very low turnover rate.

I actually plan to milk this topic a little bit so in the near future I’ll be discussing some of these ideas and hopefully we’ll be able to hash out whether or not a remote DBA is good for you and what you should look for in a managed service. 

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