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Interview with Paul Randal

Interview with Paul Randal

Who is Paul Randal?

Sorry, I could not resist borrowing a phrase from Atlas Shrugged, but it seemed to fit because if you are working with MS SQL Server and you do not know who Paul is, you should ask that very question. Actually, given his recent willingness to share all sorts of things about himself on Facebook, you should really ask yourself a lot of questions.

If nothing else, Paul Randal serves as a fine example of today’s database professional. His willingness to connect, learn, and share with others is unmatched by very few, if any. To hear him tell stories of how he has buried his face in his hands, or banged his head against the wall whenever someone asks him “how long will CHECKDB take to run” helps make all of our lives a little more manageable as we start to understand that we all share the same frustrations, no matter who or where we are.

SR: How long have you been working with SQL Server?

PR: Since February 1st 1999, the day I joined the SQL Server Storage Engine group at Microsoft.

SR: How did you get started working at Microsoft?

PR: The only company I worked for before Microsoft was DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation for the youngsters out there). I was responsible for the OpenVMS file system (called F11BXQP.EXE, equivalent of NTFS) and I wrote the VMS equivalent of chkdsk for several VMS releases (it was called ANALYZE/DISK). I was also responsible for the disk and tape initialization parts of the OS and the magnetic tape subsystem. VMS was excellent – the OS and crash dump analysis tools were light-years ahead of anything else. And of course that’s where clustering was born – VMS clusters worked *really well*. The file-system was an integral part of that so that’s where I learned about distributed lock management.

Here’s a war story from those days: http://www.sqlskills.com/BLOGS/PAUL/post/Nostalgia-day.aspx

About 18 months before I joined Microsoft, we started developing a kernel-mode filesystem for Windows NT – it was a transactional file-system replacement for NTFS. We had the guts of it working, and I wrote the chkdsk equivalent again – my first exposure to transactional semantics.

Then Compaq bought DEC and decided that they didn’t really want the software parts. Our office was in Livingston in Scotland, although we were part of the VMS group based in Nashua, NH, and so was quite expensive to run (lots of flying back and forth). So Compaq, in it’s infinite wisdom (and I was sooo pleased when they were gobbled up by HP), decided to close down our office, eliminating the file-system group en-masse. Microsoft got wind of this and sent over a bunch of senior folks to see how many of us they could woo into coming to Redmond. In the end 8 out of 30 moved over – pretty good.

Anyway, after coming over to look around Remond for 10 days, I had a choice of working in the COM+, NTFS, or SQL Server groups – and the SQL group really wanted me to be their new consistency-checking guy. And the rest, as they say, is history. I eventually ended up taking over the dev team that David Campbell ran in the Storage Engine and then being responsible for the whole Core Storage Engine for SQL Server 2008 until I decided to leave to work with Kimberly in August 2007.

And I *loved* working at Microsoft, just like I loved working for DEC.

SR: How much are you enjoying Twitter and/or Facebook?

PR: Ha. I thought Facebook was a productivity drain, but it has nothing on Twitter! They’re both pretty addictive, although I’m using Twitter a lot more now than Facebook. It’s great being part of an instant-response community and getting to chat with some of the other MVPs and I’m kind of addicted to helping people out, and I like writing, which I guess is why I blog so much too. I wrote a long blog post about all this a couple of weeks ago – How Twitter and social networking changed my life… – it’s made me more social to be honest.

SR: What is your involvement with the MCM program?

PR: I’ve been involved with it since day 1 – and I mean since it was an internal-to-MS-only program called ‘Ranger’ a few years back. I taught almost a full day on consistency checking and index fragmentation. I think there’s only been one rotation over the years that I wasn’t able to teach at. Now Kimberly and I teach the whole of the first week of each SQL Server MCM rotation, and have also just started teaching a couple of days of each SharePoint MCM rotation as there’s a big need for enterprise MOSS admins to also know what’s happening to the underlying SQL Server. The MCM is a great program, and it’s meant to be the ‘elite’ qualification but not many people have taken it so far. There’s a big time (3 weeks) and monetary ($18.5k) investment involved, although everyone I’ve spoken to thinks their investment has been worthwhile. And I’m not trying to talk it up, just being honest.

SR: What can Microsoft do better for the SQL Community?

PR: Don’t even have to think about this one – they need to put out more proscriptive guidance. Books Online is great, but it’s missing some key parts, which the people on the SQL BOL team I know are the first to admit. Things like how NOT to use certain feature combinations, things that will bite you if you don’t understand the implications of what you’re doing (e.g. after taking the first full backup in the FULL recovery model, you need to take log backups), and how to approach some of the wider topics like high-availability. There’s a need for more in-depth analyses of new features and how to incorporate them into designs and strategies – like resource governor, extended events, policy-based management, the list goes on and on. The team’s great at putting out new features, but not good on having all the information about them ready and available when the product is released (and I’ve been guilty of this in the past too). They’re getting better though.

SR: Where do you see the biggest growth potential for SQL Server in the next 3-5 years?

PR: Hard to say. One trend I’m seeing is that SharePoint is becoming more and more popular, and underneath every MOSS installation is a SQL Server doing it’s best with the MOSS configuration. As more and more Microsoft applications (and potentially server products) start to use SQL Server I think that there’s going to be an explosion in the number of ‘hidden’ SQL Servers, rather than what we regular think of as SQL Servers – out there doing data processing.

SR: What are your feelings on the Cloud?

PR: That’s an interesting one. As far as data storage goes, I think hosting companies are going to have a hard time convincing other companies to let them host their critical data in the Cloud. It can be hard enough to be confident in your own DR and HA capabilities when you have complete control over it, what’s to say the hoster’s going to do any better? I also think many DBAs are currently against Cloud storage because they don’t have enough degree of control over how the data is stored and maintained. I haven’t delved too deeply into Cloud yet as I’m not seeing enough interest in it, so to be honest I can’t offer an expert opinion. It’s on my to-do list of things to get my hands dirty with, but while so many people still want help with traditional systems I’m happy being a little ignorant πŸ™‚

SR: What advice would you give to new SQL DBA’s just entering the field?

PR: There’s a huge amount you don’t know – that’s just a fact. SQL Server can appear very easy to setup and get running, but there are lots of ways to shoot yourself in the foot if you’re not careful. I’m not trying to be scary, just engender a healthy amount of trepidation. Get yourself a mentor if possible, get some training, practice, practice, practice, read a bunch of people’s blogs, follow folks on Twitter, and so on. You need to be an information sponge for a couple of years at least, and get as much experience as you can with the varied aspects of SQL Server – perf tuning, disaster recovery, security, design, etc. And the more you tinker, play, and learn – the more you’ll realize there’s lots you still don’t know. Accept that and be willing to take advice, make mistakes, and learn and you’ll go a long way. Don’t be intimidated to ask people questions, most of us are happy to help – we all started with zero SQL Server knowledge, no matter where we are now.

SR: ServerFault.com recently went live and I noticed you are very active there, including a hotly contested debate with the infamous master Rockstar blogger, Brent Ozar. Why have you gravitated towards ServerFault?

PR: I have a weakness for helping people and writing stuff – hence my crazily prolific blog, forum answering and Twittering. ServerFault seems like it would be another good, focused place for people to ask questions. Last night I managed to have my reputation at 666 for a few hours. It’s a sign.

SR: Are you always right?

PR: It depends.

SR: Can you share some additional #PaulRandalFacts?

PR: Okay – question 10, so 10 things you probably didn’t know about me:

  1. My original career choice was Weapons Electronics Officer in the Royal Navy, until I went on a destroyer for a week while a Navy Cadet in high-school in Scotland and found that a) I get horribly sea-sick b) the main computer on board was a Ferranti special-purpose battle-hardened system with virtually no memory or computing power.
  2. I like bird-watching and gardening.
  3. I once (and only once) dressed up as a woman for a fancy-dress party – picture on Kimberly’s FB page. Very liberating.
  4. I’m an avid scuba-diver. Always wanted to do it but never found a partner who wanted to. Kimberly’s been scuba-diving since ’97. She has 301 more dives than me, and I have 71.
  5. I’m married to Kimberly L. Tripp. She insists on the “L.”. And she’s wonderful.
  6. I like to count things. Like the Count from Sesame Street. And I like Muppets. Manamana!
  7. I used to be absolutely terrified of public speaking until 2006.
  8. Favorite drinks: Mac’n’Jacks African Amber, Chardonnay, Vodka
  9. I make killer ribs. I hope you like garlic. Lots of garlic. Garlic. Yum.
  10. I used to be a woman. Oh no, sorry, I got confused after doing #3. Don’t let the long hair fool you.

Honestly? I’m speechless. And I could keep asking him questions all day long.

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