May 312018
 

I always feel honored when chosen to present at a SQL Saturday event. Being selected is never a guarantee, especially these days when organizers seemingly have more speakers and abstracts to pick from than ever before. But I am just over-the-moon happy to share that I was picked to speak at SQL Saturday in Oslo, Norway coming up on September 1. Norway has been on my list of places to visit for years, and I really can’t wait. Thank you so much to the SQL Saturday Oslo organizing team for putting together an amazing schedule and for allowing me to be a part of it – this is going to be a fantastic event!

My presentation at this event is entitled “Select Stars: A SQL DBA’s Introduction to Azure Cosmos DB”. I’ve been working with Azure Cosmos DB for a while now, and it’s really an incredible product. It’s been generating lots of buzz as of late, but there are still plenty of DBAs out there who have yet to use it. This is an introductory-level session that focuses on explaining what Azure Cosmos DB is, how it works, what its strengths are, and how they can be leveraged. To anyone curious about Azure Cosmos DB, this is the session for you!

Registration for SQL Saturday Oslo is now open – register today before it fills up! If you would like to extend your SQL Saturday experience even further, they are also offering four pre-conference sessions on Friday August 31.

I am incredibly stoked to visit Norway and I hope I’ll see you there in just three short months!

May 182018
 

Chicago SQL Association logoIf you’ve been a SQL Saturday organizer for a few years, you might remember that prior to March of 2014, PASS handled much of the finances. All money collected from sponsors and meal fees went into a trust account managed by PASS which was earmarked for that specific event. Organizers then requested their funds from PASS.

I completely understand why PASS would want to get out of doing this. PASS handles a lot of things, and to be honest, playing the role of banker for events organized and managed by volunteers doesn’t need to be a part of that.

While I believe this was the right thing to do, it did create some additional headaches for organizers, particularly in terms of taxes depending on local laws. PASS is a not-for-profit organization and could collect this money without any tax liability. With PASS removed from the equation, event organizers now had to establish a PayPal account in their own name to collect funds for SQL Saturday, and they were also personally liable for any taxes on it.

The user group leadership in Chicago didn’t really like that idea, so we decided to incorporate as a not-for-profit ourselves, creating the Chicago SQL Association. Over the years, I’ve been contacted by several other user groups asking how we did this. I’m happy to help, and thought I would share here as well.

Choose A Mission and Scope

Any good project needs a mission and a scope, and the same goes for an organization. We decided our scope would be to support SQL Saturday Chicago, as well as the Chicago SQL Server User Group and the Chicago Suburban SQL Server User Group. Our mission, simply put, is education. We offer free knowledge about the Microsoft data platform to the public through user group meetings and our SQL Saturday event.

Seek Professional Assistance

Creating a corporation isn’t all that difficult. I have no doubt that we could have fumbled our way through it and ended up with a not-for-profit corporation on our own. What I was not so sure of was our ability to get this right the first time without making mistakes that might penalize us in the future. We looked into hiring an attorney to help us navigate this process, but it was going to end up costing thousands of dollars that the organization didn’t have.

One day it dawned on me to look into legal clinics at local law schools. These clinics, often free or available at little cost, offer law students the ability to gain practical experience while helping those who otherwise could not afford legal services. I reached out to the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, and they got back to me very quickly. We were assigned three law students and a professor (also a lawyer) who helped us through the process from beginning to end.

After meeting with our legal team and discussing our goals, mission, and scope, they came to the conclusion that we should seek 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status. They drew up all the paperwork, and all we had to do was sign on the dotted lines and pay the required government filing fees. Within a matter of weeks we had a legitimate not-for-profit corporation, with zero sleep lost worrying that we made any mistakes.

After Incorporation

Now for the real work. As I said, creating a corporation is pretty easy. Maintaining it and keeping things legal is another matter entirely. It goes without saying, but, depending on your locale, you’ll probably have multiple required filings to keep your not-for-profit in compliance. Speaking for ourselves, each year we must file simplified taxes with the US Internal Revenue Service, register with the Illinois Secretary of State, and report our finances to the Illinois Attorney General.

We had done a pretty good job of bookkeeping before we incorporated, but now that we were official, it was required by law. We originally kept track of all our finances via shared spreadsheets. This worked decently well and cost us nothing, but come tax time reporting was a nightmare. Of course, there was plenty of commercial software out there for managing business finances, but none of it was cheap. This is where finding organizations that help not-for-profits is invaluable.

I highly recommend applying to TechSoup. TechSoup offers a variety of discounted (and free) technology products to not-for-profits. One of the many things they offer is a significant discount on QuickBooks small business accounting software. It makes the financial part of running a business incredibly simple, and it honestly saved us about 20 hours of work when it came time to do taxes and financial reporting this year.

You’ll also want to register with PayPal as a not-for-profit to get a discounted rate. This means that more of the money collected from sponsorships and meal fees will go into your bank account. Every little bit helps!

A Web Presence

You may want to look into setting up a domain, website, and/or email for your organization. For us, this was probably the most difficult part of the process. I was unable to find any way of obtaining a discounted or free web domain, but that wasn’t a huge problem as domains are rather inexpensive. Hosting a website and email, however, is another story.

We applied to Microsoft’s nonprofit program with the thought that we would meet their criteria in that we are offering free educational opportunities to the public, and furthermore, those opportunities center around Microsoft products. Sounds like a shoo-in, right? Yeah, not so much. Microsoft did not agree and hence we were rejected.

We then tried Google’s nonprofit program, which accepted us. We’re grateful they did, as we can now host association-related email at our own domain, and are working on a website. The irony is not lost on me that Google is helping us educate people about the Microsoft data platform while Microsoft had no interest in doing so.

Other Tips

Your organization will need some sort of bank account. Be sure to shop around at multiple banks to see what they offer not-for-profits, and what their fees are. If you have a local credit union, don’t forget to check them out as well. We ended up going with a credit union and pay no fees at all for our banking.

Get liability insurance. If your organization is running a SQL Saturday, chances are your venue may already require insurance, but even if they don’t, a policy is never a bad idea to have. We found a company that specializes in insuring activities like user groups, and it costs much less than we thought it would.

Looking Back

I’m very grateful we were able to incorporate the Chicago SQL Association as a not-for-profit. Not only have we seen financial benefits, but we have also become more organized as a result of having a corporation to maintain. PASS no longer handling the financial end of SQL Saturday events may have been a short-term annoyance, but it was just the push we needed to get this ball rolling and I’m very glad we did!

Apr 232018
 

I’ve found myself working with PowerShell more frequently as of late, in no small part due to the amazing dbatools module. This has led to me trying to figure out how else I can utilize it for some of my personal internal processes.

I like to use public datasets for experimentation and presentation demos, especially data that people can easily understand and relate to. For some, keeping them up-to-date was a manual process of downloading files, loading tables, and merging. There are of course many better ways to do this, some of which are more automated than others. I could have simply used PowerShell to call bcp, or even just implemented an insert statement and some loops. Then I found dbatools, which has commands which enable me to do an even better job with far less work – just the way I like it!. Here’s how I now keep my datasets current:

Getting The Data

I’ll be using data from the City of Chicago’s Data Portal. They have a tremendous online resource with lots of public datasets available. One that I really like is their listing of towed vehicles. Any time the city tows or impounds a vehicle, a record gets added here and remains for 90 days. It’s very manageable, with only 10 columns and a few thousand rows. (As an added bonus, you can search for license plates you know and then ask your friends about their experience at the impound lot!)

Chicago’s data portal uses Socrata, which is a very well-documented and easy-to-use tool for exposing data. It has a wonderful API for querying and accessing data, but to keep things simple for this post we’re just going to download a CSV file.

If you’re on the page for a dataset, you can download it by clicking on “Export” on the top right and then selecting “CSV”. To avoid all that, the direct link to download a CSV of this dataset is here. Download it and take a look at what we’ve got using your spreadsheet or text editor of choice (mine is Notepad++).

Loading The Data

We’ve got our data, now let’s load it. I like to load the entire downloaded dataset into a stage table, and then copy new rows I haven’t previously seen into my production table that I query from. Here’s the script to create these tables:

-- CREATE STAGE TABLE
CREATE TABLE [dbo].[TowedVehiclesSTG](
	[TowDate] [date] NOT NULL,
	[Make] [nchar](4) NULL,
	[Style] [nchar](2) NULL,
	[Model] [nchar](4) NULL,
	[Color] [nchar](3) NULL,
	[Plate] [nchar](8) NULL,
	[State] [nchar](2) NULL,
	[TowedToFacility] [nvarchar](75) NULL,
	[FacilityPhone] [nchar](14) NULL,
	[ID] [int] NOT NULL
);


-- CREATE FINAL TABLE
CREATE TABLE [dbo].[TowedVehicles](
	[ID] [int] NOT NULL,
	[TowDate] [date] NOT NULL,
	[Make] [nchar](4) NULL,
	[Style] [nchar](2) NULL,
	[Model] [nchar](4) NULL,
	[Color] [nchar](3) NULL,
	[Plate] [nchar](8) NULL,
	[State] [nchar](2) NULL,
	[TowedToFacility] [nvarchar](75) NULL,
	[FacilityPhone] [nchar](14) NULL,
	CONSTRAINT PK_TowedVehicles PRIMARY KEY CLUSTERED (ID)
); 

Now for the magic – let’s load some data! The dbatools command that does all the heavy lifting here is called Import-DbaCsvToSql. It loads CSV files into a SQL Server table quickly and easily. As an added bonus, the entire import is within a transaction, so if an error occurs everything gets rolled back. I like to specify my tables and datatypes ahead of time, but if you want to load into a table that doesn’t exist yet, this script will create a table and do its best to guess the appropriate datatype. To use, simply point it at a CSV file and a SQL Server instance, database, and (optionally) a table. It will take care of the rest.

# Load from CSV into staging table
Import-DbaCsvToSql -Csv $downloadFile -SqlInstance InstanceName -Database TowedVehicles -Table TowedVehiclesSTG `
-Truncate -FirstRowColumns

The two parameters on the second line tell the command to truncate the table before loading, and that the first line of the CSV file contains column names.

Now the data has been staged, but since this dataset contains all cars towed over the past 90 days, chances are very good that I already have some of these tows in my production table from a previous download. A simple query to insert all rows from staging into production that aren’t already there will do the trick. This query is run using another dbatools command, Invoke-Sqlcmd2.

# Move new rows from staging into production table
Invoke-Sqlcmd2 -ServerInstance InstanceName -Database TowedVehicles `
-Query "INSERT INTO [dbo].[TowedVehicles]
SELECT
  [ID],
  [TowDate],
  [Make],
  [Style],
  [Model],
  [Color],
  [Plate],
  [State],
  [TowedToFacility],
  [FacilityPhone]
FROM (
  SELECT
    s.*,
    ROW_NUMBER() OVER (PARTITION BY s.ID ORDER BY s.ID) AS n
  FROM [dbo].[TowedVehiclesSTG] s
  LEFT JOIN [dbo].[TowedVehicles] v ON s.ID = v.ID
  WHERE v.ID IS NULL
) a
WHERE a.n = 1"

The ID column uniquely identifies each tow event, and the production table uses it as a primary key, however I have found that occasionally the dataset will contain duplicated rows. The ROW_NUMBER() window function addresses this issue and ensures each ID is attempted to be inserted only once.

Putting it all together

I’ve showed you how simple dbatools makes it to load a CSV file into a table and then run a query to load from staging into production, but the beauty of PowerShell is that it’s easy to do way more than that. I actually scripted this entire process, including downloading the data! You can download the full PowerShell script, along with a T-SQL Script for creating the tables, from my GitHub here.

Happy Data Loading!

Apr 122018
 

Next week I am happy to be presenting for the Chicago Suburban SQL Server User Group, which meets in Downers Grove, IL.

I will be delivering my session Locks, Blocks, and Snapshots: Maximizing Database Concurrency. This takes a look at SQL Server’s available isolation levels, what they are, how they differ, and why the default setting of “read committed” may not be appropriate for your workload. It should not only be helpful, but lots of fun as well.

I hope you can join us! The meeting is on Tuesday, April 17, and you can register and find further details here!

Mar 262018
 

I’m very pleased to be returning to Wisconsin in April to speak at SQL Saturday Madison 2018! This has always been one of my favorite events. Not only is it close to home, but it’s in a wonderful location and full of great friends. Thank you so much to the organizing committee for all of the hard work you do!

This year I will be presenting Locks, Blocks, and Snapshots: Maximizing Database Concurrency. This light-hearted and informative session will take a look at SQL Server’s available isolation levels, what they are, how they differ, and why the default setting of “read committed” may not be appropriate for your workload. It should not only be helpful, but lots of fun as well. I hope you will join me!

As of the time of posting, SQL Saturday Madison registration is still open. If you’d like to see some awesome presentations on Microsoft data technologies, register today!