Sep 272018
 

The next in my series of PASS Summit Tips may seem a bit strange, but I assure you it comes from experience: Parts of PASS Summit can be loud.

My handy-dandy earplugs

I’m not referring to the official events themselves; if you’re in a session and feel it’s too loud, maybe take a seat farther away from a speaker. What I’m really referring to are the after-events, of which there are plenty. Many of which involve karaoke, some will even have live bands. I can assure you that this will be loud.

Bring Earplugs

I’ve never liked loud noises, but my years spent in high school and college marching bands really turned me on to the importance of hearing protection. In college the band even had the hearing science department take molds of our ears and make us custom earplugs. They are amazing and I still have and use them regularly! I realize not everyone has access to that, but still, pick up a pair of earplugs from a drugstore or online. Some of them even have carrying cases. I just keep a pair in my backpack at all times. If I find myself in an environment I feel is too loud, I can pop them in and nobody else is the wiser. I also have a second pair in my car, so if I find myself heading to a concert or similar loud event, I’m ready to go.

ANC is Awesome

On a similar note, if you want to help your hearing while flying to the conference, you should seriously consider a pair of active noise control headphones. I recently got a pair myself and am just amazed at what a game-changer they are. I never realized how loud it was on an airplane until I started using them. Of course these are much more of an investment than earplugs, but if you do any amount of flying throughout the year, I think they’re worth it. I have the Bose QuietComfort 35 (Series II) wireless headphones, but you can find them from a variety of manufacturers at different price points. If you don’t like over-the-ear headphones, ANC earbuds are also available.

No matter what you decide to do, please remember that your hearing is precious, and even the most basic protection is better than nothing at all.

Sep 202018
 

Last week I wrote about SQL Saturday Portland and the SQLTrain. In this week’s PASS Summit tip I have another piece of advice for attendees: Get the session recordings.

Yes, I know they cost extra. And no, I am not blindly playing PASS marketing cheerleader here. There’s actually some really solid reasons to purchase the session recordings:

  • PASS Summit has many wonderful sessions. Just check out the schedule, there’s a ton of great stuff on there. You will encounter time slots where there are multiple sessions you want to attend and you’ll have to pick one and miss the other(s). With recordings of every session, this is no longer a problem.
  • Have you ever had one of those “aha!” moments midway through a session, and now wish you could re-watch it all over again from the beginning? You can do that with a recording.
  • Fatigue is a very real problem at conferences. After spending multiple hours in sessions, everyone is bound to hit the point where their brain is full. There is zero shame in this – it happens to me too. When you have session recordings, you can watch or re-watch any session at a time when you are fully awake, aware, and caffeinated.
  • There may be a time where you’re better off skipping a session or two. Don’t forget, PASS Summit is about more than just sessions, it’s about networking and making connections with people. That’s why everyone gets together in a convention center instead of this just being an online conference. I’ve blogged about this before, but there are absolutely times where I go network with people and vendors instead of attending sessions. Having recordings to watch later makes the decision to do this very easy.
  • Perhaps your manager wishes they could send more people to PASS Summit, but there’s not enough room in the budget. Explain to them that if they were to purchase a full set of conference recordings just a little bit extra, the entire team would be able to benefit from your attending. (I once was on a team where we ate lunch together while watching conference videos one day per week. It was great for all of us!)

So while I realize that PASS Summit session recordings cost extra, in my opinion they help bring even more value to the conference. I think they’re worth it.

 

Sep 142018
 

It dawned upon me the other day that this will be my seventh year attending PASS Summit, and I’m pretty fortunate to have been able to attend so many times. Over the years, I have also acquired some knowledge about the event and how to prepare for it that may be helpful for others. So this year, I hope to share a few tips which I think may be most helpful.

If you are looking to begin your PASS Summit experience a little early, head a few hours South of Seattle to Portland, Oregon. SQL Saturday Portland is a fantastic event that takes place the weekend before PASS Summit begins.

SQL Saturday Portland, Oregon

In many ways, SQL Saturday Portland is a wonderful “preview” of PASS Summit sessions. You will find many PASS Summit speakers love to attend this event before heading up to Seattle. Some of them even deliver the very same talks they’ll be doing at Summit. Not only can you enjoy PASS Summit-quality talks for free in Portland, but you can also do so without the huge crowds. It’s a relaxed and fun environment, and a very well-run SQL Saturday. I’ve been attending for years and I can’t say enough good things about it!  If this sounds awesome and you’d like to attend, you can register here!

“The Reggie Deluxe”

Aside from their SQL Saturday, Portland is an amazing city in general. It has plenty of great dining options, lots of interesting places to explore, and excellent public transit to get you everywhere you want to be. A little internet searching will get you lots of ideas of where to visit, but here’s a few of my favorites that might not appear on those lists.

Portland is very much a breakfast town, and Pine State Biscuits has the best biscuit-based menu I’ve ever seen, or tasted. Their biscuits and gravy is life-altering, as is their fried chicken. Better yet, you can combine the two into a sandwich they call the “Reggie”. This is one place I make sure to visit every time I’m in Portland, period.

You know what goes great after breakfast? Dessert! Once you’ve worked off that amazing breakfast, head to Salt & Straw for some out-of-this-world ice cream. I’ve never been to an ice cream parlor that had a line out the door before, but they did. And once I tried their ice cream, I understood why. Salt & Straw has a rotating menu with some very “interesting” flavors each month, as well as a bunch of classic flavors as well. My personal favorite: Freckled Woodblock Chocolate.

Finally, Portland has no shortage of hotels, but the one I’ve come to love over several years of staying there is the Courtyard Marriott Portland City Center. They have excellent prices, a great location downtown, and Portland’s light rail stops right out front. This hotel has become a favorite among SQL Saturday attendees, so you’ll be sure to run into #sqlfamily members there. It’s also a walkable distance from Portland Union Station, which is the starting point for my next tip…

SQL Train

What’s the best way to get from Portland to Seattle? On a train with all your friends, of course! For several years now, SQLTrain has been doing just that. What started as a few people taking the scenic four hour Amtrak ride from Portland to PASS Summit has turned into a literal party on a train, with an entire car reserved. Enjoy great company and conversation with #sqlfamily, see old friends, make new ones, oh and did I mention there’s doughnuts? SQLTrain prides itself on offering a wide variety of doughnuts from around the Portland area, which is the marketing department-approved way of saying WE BRING TONS OF DOUGHNUTS!!!

In all seriousness though, SQLTrain is a wonderful time and far cheaper (and more fun!) than renting a car or flying to Seattle. SQL Train is open to anyone looking to get to PASS Summit from Portland, there is no requirement to attend SQL Saturday Portland to ride the train with us.

Oh, and one more thing: SQL Train is even bigger this year, as it has expanded to not one but TWO private train cars. If you would like to ride the SQLTrain, some spots are still available. Register here before they’re all gone!

I hope to see you at SQL Saturday Oregon, or on the SQLTrain, or at PASS Summit, and I’ll have more tips in the coming weeks!

Aug 012016
 

I’m extremely fortunate to have been selected to speak at PASS Summit, “the world’s largest gathering of SQL Server and BI professionals.” PASS has once again put together a fantastic lineup, and I’m extremely proud to have made the cut. As many have already done, I’d like to share the abstracts I submitted along with the feedback I received.

I submitted a total of 5 general sessions (the maximum allowed), with one being accepted. I will cover each of them here, along with the notes I received from the reviewers.

Supercharging Backups and Restores For Fun and Profit (Accepted)

Level: 300
Track: Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment
Topic: Backup / Restore, Disaster Recovery

Abstract:
Super-fast queries are an essential part of any business process, but speed will never be more important than during a disaster when you need to restore from backup. Come and see how both backups and restores can be tuned just like a query. In this demo-intensive session, we will discuss the different phases of the backup and restore processes, how to tell how long each of them is taking, and which are the easiest to significantly speed up. You just might be surprised how simple it is to achieve dramatic results – cutting your backup and restore times by 75% or more is absolutely possible using the methods covered here.

Preqrequisites:
Attendees should have a solid understanding of SQL Server backup and restore operations.

Goals:

  • Learn tips and tricks for speeding up backup and restore processes and methods for tuning them that can have dramatic results.
  • Understand what happens during backups and restores, and which phases of their execution can have the most time shaved off of them.
  • Learn trace flags that expose extra information about the backup process and how to leverage this knowledge for maximum benefit.

Feedback I Received:

  • Abstract: well written, engaging
    Topic: draws attention
    Subjective: personally never been in a position where an emergency restore could be considered fun, but interested to here when it was
  • I would like to attend this session. The title is eye catching, The experience level is good but those DBA with less experience could attend and learn easily based on the information listed.
  • The outline seems well developed. The goals appear to be interesting for attendees. There appears to be a reasonable amount of live demonstrations in relation to the topic being presented.
  • high level, 75% of demo and minimum slides. And important topic. Very interesting session

My Comments:
I’m very happy this topic was accepted; I’ve presented it at several SQL Saturdays and have been wanting to to it at PASS Summit for several years now. Tuning queries is always seen as a common task and I’ve always thought that tuning backups and restores is a logical progression of that. In response to the first reviewer’s question, I think an emergency restore can be fun when you’re prepared for it. When you’ve practiced your disaster scenarios, have all your scripts ready, and know how long the restore will take, there’s not a whole lot left to be stressed about. As for the “high level” of demos, this is a demo-heavy session. You can only talk about backups for so long before it becomes worth it to actually start doing them. Not to mention it’s very helpful to show the audience how dramatic the results can be with some demos.

 

Good Migrations: Moving Maximum Data with Minimum Impact (Not Accepted)

Level: 300
Track:
Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment
Topic:
Database Maintenance

Abstract:
A database at rest tends to stay at rest, until it needs to move. This session will cover various methods available to migrate a SQL Server database from one location to another. Whether moving to a new storage system, a new server, or even to the cloud, there are a multitude of options available, many of which involve little to no user impact. Lack of SQL Server Enterprise Edition isn’t always a problem – many of these methods work for Standard Edition servers as well. We will discuss how to determine the most appropriate migration option based on your environment’s constraints, the pros and cons of each method, and planning and testing your migration. Come see how moving a multi-terabyte database with only a few minutes of downtime is completely possible.

Preqrequisites:
A good understanding of SQL Server files, filegroups, and index rebuild processes would be helpful.

Goals:

  • Be able to determine which migration method is most appropriate for given uptime requirements and organizational/environmental constraints.
  • Learn how to plan and test a database migration to maximize chances of success long before any queries are run.
  • Understand the many different techniques for moving databases, filegroups, and objects between different servers and/or storage, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Feedback I Received:

  • Abstract: Clearly written abstract with well aligned goals.
    Topic:Interesting topic that will attract DBA’s on the operations side of the fence.
    Subjective: I’d attend this session, as it sounds like a great topic.
  • Abstract – Outline is well developed. Level seems a bit high. Goals are well developed
    Topic – Title is good but would like to see if this is for which version of SQL 2012/2014/2016?
    Subjective – Would like to see presentation not only with moving data but imports as well aside from SQL Partitioning. Would like to see more demos but didn’t downgrade for that.
  • Abstract: detailed, compelling
    Topic: relevant, useful
    Subjective rating: interesting
  • Demo % seems to be low for 300 level session

My Comments:
Having worked on a system for many years that has grown more quickly than its storage budget, I’ve had to do a lot of creative things to move data around on-the-fly. This session covers a bunch of those tricks, which as you can imagine, end up being a little more interesting than a simple online index rebuild. I don’t include partitioning because that’s an entirely different topic and could easily take up an entire presentation on its own. As for the low amount of demos (25%), a lot of these operations are rather time-consuming and really wouldn’t fit well into a 75-minute session. I’d love to present this topic at the summit someday; I think attendees would get a lot out of it. Also I’ve yet to see something similar to this on the schedule, so it could definitely be something different.

 

Manage & Visualize Your Application Logs with Logstash & Kibana (Not Accepted)

Level: 200
Track:
Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment
Topic:
Management Tools

Abstract:
The logs kept by Windows, SQL Server, and other applications contain a treasure trove of information about the health and activities of a system. However, as an environment grows in size and complexity, the number of logs quickly starts to become unmanageable. Fortunately there is a group of free open-source tools: Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana, known collectively as the “ELK” stack.

This session will demonstrate how to use Logstash to manage all application and error logs in your environment, regardless of format or operating system. You will learn how to configure Logstash to capture logs from SQL Server or any other system, organize and archive them in real-time with Elasticsearch, and create helpful web-based dashboards in Kibana. Don’t miss this opportunity to unlock the hidden power of all your application logs with the ELK stack!

Preqrequisites:
Attendees would benefit from a general understanding of the SQL Server error log and how it behaves.

Goals:

  • Learn about the components of the ELK stack, what they do, and how they interact with each other.
  • Understand how Logstash works and how to configure it to collect log information from any file format or logging method, using SQL Server error log files as an example.
  • See how to build dashboards in Kibana to quickly visualize errors and warnings across your environment.

Feedback I Received:

  • Abstract: Abstract is clear and well written.
    Topic: Topic is interesting and useful. Not sure if there would be enough demand for this topic.
    Subjective: I would like to attend this session. Seems like a good way to leverage other stacks for ease of admin.
  • Abstract: The outline and details of this abstract are well written!
    Topic: This is very interesting topic
    Subjective: I will attend this session
  • Well developed. I would like to attend this session.

My Comments:

This is absolutely a niche topic so I can understand why it wouldn’t get accepted. Sure sounds like the reviewers thought it was intriguing though. I run my ELK stack in Linux and use it to ingest system and application logs from a wide variety of machines. While this session would be more tailored to monitoring your SQL Server logs, it would also address monitoring virtually any log on any platform. This isn’t really database-centric, and certainly isn’t exclusive to SQL Server. While I think it would be very useful, I absolutely understand why this one didn’t make the cut.

 

Automating Your DBA Checklist with Policy-Based Management (Not Accepted)

Level: 200
Track:
Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment
Topic:
Policy Based Management

Abstract:
Manually reviewing database compliance checklists is an excellent way to ensure that processes are followed consistently, but it is also extremely time-consuming. Let’s automate the process! SQL Server’s Policy-Based Management is a powerful and simple-to-configure feature that can ensure that all of your best practices and data policies are consistently enforced throughout your environment.

Come see how easy it is to make sure all your SQL Servers comply with Microsoft’s recommendations or any other constraints your deployment requires. This session is loaded with demos to show you how to write policies, evaluate them across groups of instances, and even set up automated reporting so you can have a list of non-compliant servers delivered to you. Years after its introduction, Policy-Based Management is still one of SQL Server’s best-kept secrets. Attend this session and learn how to work smarter, not harder, by leveraging Policy-Based Management to simplify your day-to-day tasks!

Preqrequisites:
Attendees should have a basic understanding of SQL Server administration, maintenance processes, and why they are necessary.

Goals:

  • Understand the capabilities of Policy-Based Management and how it can be used to uniformly enforce settings and other aspects of SQL Server.
  • Learn how to author policies, evaluate them both manually and automatically across multiple servers, and configure automated reporting of them using the Enterprise Policy Management Framework.
  • Leave with a checklist of best practices to automate on your servers, as well as knowledge of Microsoft’s included scripts that can help get you started.

Feedback I Received:

  • The outline seems to clearly describe the contents of the presentation. The title appears to reflect the content described in the abstract. The topic and goals should be compelling to attendees. The topic and goals appear to deliver an appropriate amount of material for the time allotted.
  • Abstract: clearly stated, interesting
    Topic: good title
    Subjective: interesting subject, and something I use often
  • good content. It would draw people to attend this session.
  • Very interesting topic, From one perspective is a basic of basics but from another we still need teach how to use PBM.

My Comments:
Policy-Based Management is incredibly useful in that it allows you to easily author “sanity checks” to make sure your databases are in compliance with whatever standards the business decides are necessary. However PBM isn’t really sexy and it’s certainly not that new – it’s had very few changes since it was released along with SQL Server 2008. As one reviewer said “it’s a basic of basics”. It is, but so many systems I see still don’t use it, typically because the DBA isn’t aware of it. From what I can tell, no sessions covering PBM were chosen this year. That’s a shame, because it could help a lot of people. But in an industry where new things always get the most attention, and at a conference with a finite number of presentation slots, it’s understandable why you won’t see any sessions on it.

 

SHA, Right! SQL Server Encryption Basics (Not Accepted)

Level: 200
Track:
Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment
Topic:
Security: Access / Encryption / Auditing / Compliance

Abstract:
High-profile attacks by hackers have made the news more and more the past few years, and your database is a prized target! Fortunately SQL Server offers many possible layers of protection, one of which is encryption. This session will cover SQL Server’s various encryption capabilities, how they work, and their advantages and limitations.

You will learn what certificates are and why they matter, which encryption algorithms are available and which should be used, and how Transparent Database Encryption works and when to enable it. More recent features such as backup encryption and SQL Server 2016 Always Encrypted will also be explained. Restoring servers and recovering data can be thought of as difficult, but they are nothing compared to rebuilding your customers’ trust and repairing your reputation. Attend this session and learn how SQL Server can help you protect your data from prying eyes both inside and outside of your organization.

Preqrequisites:
Attendees should have basic knowledge of SQL Server and a desire to learn about encryption.

Goals:

  • Learn about all the different ways SQL Server can protect your data through encryption.
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each encryption technology, and the scenarios where each would be an appropriate solution.
  • Learn tips for designing databases where security through encryption is a prerequisite, not an afterthought.

Feedback I Received:

  • Encryption. Important and lovely topics. Worth to see it!
  • Abstract: detailed
    Topic: relevant, sql server 2016 is covered
    Subjective rating: interesting
  • OK, I’m in the dark — what is SHA?
  • Abstract – Good detail in abstract. Great opener and strong conclusion.
    Topic – Good goals. Attendees will be interested and seems compelling for attendees even if they don’t know in-depth security or encryption.
    Subjective – This is a great abstract. Session Prerequisites and Level match and since its previously presented the topic should be able to fit within the time frame allowed.
  • Abstract: it’s punny! good topic
    Topic: well written and informative of what will be covered and why
    Subjective: definitely interested in this session
  • Abstract: Great abstract supported by clearly defined goals. Abstract goes into an appropriate level of detail on deliverables.
    Topic:Great topic. Encryption is an ongoing concern and likely to be a solid draw.
    Subjective: I would attend this session Sounds like a great introductory conversation.

My Comments:
All the other sessions I submitted had 3 or 4 pieces of feedback (I’m assuming from 3 or 4 people). This one has 6! Encryption is a hot topic as of late, I wonder if that has something to do with the reviewer interest in this session. This is a rather basic presentation, and while it’s done rather well at several SQL Saturdays, I’m not sure it would be as popular at the summit anyway. Not being chosen kind of solidified my thoughts. Having a few sessions with deeper dives on a more narrow scope would probably be more popular, though I doubt any of those sessions would cover the basics in the depth that I do here.

 

Thanks so much to the members of the Program Committee who volunteered their time to review abstracts. I know they do not have an easy time reviewing or selecting sessions for the schedule. (As a member of the Program Committee for several years now, I can speak from experience.) I value all feedback, and look forward to incorporating it into any future submissions.

Nov 042015
 

I had a beyond amazing week at SQL Saturday Portland and PASS Summit, but now it’s back to reality. Time to catch up on sleep, return to the daily grind of work, and enjoy the comforts of home. Gotta sort through all those photos, start counting down the 51 weeks until the next Summit (PASS has a countdown clock up on their site!) and start thinking about which sessions to submit when the call for speakers opens in a few short months.

In past years I’ve given a play-by-play of things I did, but there’s so much that goes on that week that writing it up properly would be way too long of a post. I’ll keep it simpler this time around and stick to just a few thoughts.

An annual milestone

PASS Summit is one of my milestones of the year. It automatically triggers thinking back to the previous one and then realizing that another year has gone by and wow, I’m older. As I think about it, it’s a lot like Christmas: something I look forward to all year where I get to have a wonderful time with family. Yes, it’s #sqlfamily instead of blood relatives, but there’s also the bonus of not having to take that family photo where Grandma makes everyone stand in the exact same spot every year. (I’m not kidding, we have these going back to 1990.)

Great advice: sleep when you get home

As attendees in one session were told: “If you’re going back to your hotel at 6pm, you’re doing it wrong. Hotels are for basic hygiene and *some* sleep. Other than that, get out, do things, and meet people.” I didn’t hear that advice my first year, but I’m so glad I had already met so many people on Twitter before I arrived 4 years ago. By the time I got to Seattle, I already had plenty of contacts that knew better than to let me get a good night’s sleep!

Wifi connections

In the past, wifi at the summit hasn’t been all that dependable. With 5000+ people, most of whom are carrying multiple devices, it’s not hard to understand why. This year, however, it was rock solid. I got kicked off the network exactly once, and I’m pretty sure it was my own fault. Whatever PASS did to make things so reliable this time, thank you very much!

Non-wifi connections

Connect. Share. Learn. This has been PASS’ motto for quite a while. We do it all year long in chapter meetings, SQL Saturdays, virtual chapters, and on social media. What makes the summit special to me is that it’s so much bigger than any of those things, and no computer is necessary. You can meet people in person. Shake their hand. Give them a hug. Give them a really big hug if you haven’t seen them in a while. There’s amazing learning to be had in the sessions, but for me the real learning has always taken place outside of presentations. Getting to know people. Finding out what they enjoy doing when they’re not working. Making new friendships and strengthening existing ones. It always amazes me how much we all have in common, regardless of what we do or where we come from. I took my own advice more this year than ever before. Yes, that means I spent less time attending sessions and more time connecting with people. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

Try something new

As many ways as PASS Summit is the same every year, I try to make it different each time as well. Last year was my first time taking the #sqltrain from Portland to Seattle, an add-on that was so much fun I didn’t have to think twice about doing it again. This time around I did a few new things, including attending different types of sessions. Hardcore SQL Server internals porn is great, and while I still got my fix in that department, I also attended some professional development and business intelligence sessions. I got to see how handsome and witty Mark Vaillancourt is when presenting, and as an added bonus his movie-themed session used my favorite clip from The Wizard of Oz. (Click that link – it’s really neat!)

I also got outside of my comfort zone this year and was more of an active participant in SQL Karaoke instead of just being a member of the audience. This took some careful prodding, but I’m glad I was persuaded. (I’ll be even more glad if no evidence of this ever surfaces…)

No regrets

Of course there’s no regrets. In all honesty, the only regret I’ve ever had in terms of PASS Summit is not attending sooner. I wish this could be my 6th or 7th year instead of my 4th. But I know there’s plenty of people who haven’t been to one, let alone four. I’m extremely fortunate in that sense.

The perfect photo

I’m always searching for the single perfect photo to sum up an event or era of my life. My 2013 PASS Summit Wrap-Up used what I consider to be the perfect picture representing my high school years: a huge group of my friends getting together in my parents’ basement. I’ve always loved getting people together to have a good time. PASS Summit is way more people, and a lot of times you’ll find us in a much larger basement, but the essence is the same.

More often than not, the perfect photo isn’t a group shot. Group photos contain lots of stories, but don’t really tell a story. My favorite photo from all 5 years of college marching band is a seemingly random picture taken by my father 11 years ago this weekend. It’s of my best friend from college and I playing in the stands. It’s a cold November day, but you’d never know that by looking at the bandos. The sun perfectly captures the reddish Illini orange of our capes, as well as a few of the flaws of our uniform. My gloves are on my shoulder because pockets were difficult to get to. Her cape is reinforced with a safety pin because they were too heavy for buttons alone to support. Campus buildings can be seen off in the distance, and the football game is nowhere to be found. (The Fighting Illini weren’t all that great that year…or any year after my first, for that matter.)

A perfect photo for this or any year’s PASS Summit? I’m not sure I have one. There’s so many things going on with so many wonderful people. Also, perfect photos tend to become more apparent after-the-fact. This is a chapter of my life that’s still ongoing, with plenty more people to meet, experiences to share, and memories to make. In that sense, I hope this perfect photo hasn’t been taken yet.