Expensive Enterprise Backup Tools – A survival guide

If you’re working for a big company, chances are that your IT already has a strategy and tools for dealing with backups. Many objects need to backed up (files, emails, virtual machines, databases…) and vendors are happy to provide software solutions for all those needs.

Usually, the first type of object that has to be protected is files: every company, even the smaller ones, have file servers with lots of data that has to be regularly backed up, so the data protection solution found in the majority of companies is typically built around the capabilities and features of backup tools designed and engineered for protecting the file system.

The same tools are probably capable of taking backups of different types of objects, by means of “plug-ins” or “agents” for databases, e-mail servers, virtual machines and so on. Unfortunately, those agents are often delusional and fail to deliver what they promise.

With regard to SQL Server database backups, these are the most common issues:

1. Naming things wrong
It’s not surprising that backup tools built for protecting the file system fail to name things properly when it comes down to database backups. What you often find is that transaction log backups are called “incremental backups” or full backups are instead called “snapshots”, according to whichever the naming convention is in the main file system backup process. It’s also not uncommon to find transaction log backups going under the name of “archive log backups”, because this is what they are called like in Oracle. This naming mismatch is potentially dangerous, because it can trick the DBA into choosing the wrong type of backup. The term “DBA” is not used here by accident, which takes us to the next point.

2. Potentially dangerous separation of duties
Backup tools are often run and controlled by windows admins, who may or may not be the same persons responsible for taking care of databases. Well, surprise: if you’re taking backups you’re responsible for them, and backups are the main task of the DBA, so… congrats: you’re the DBA now, like it or not.
If your windows admins are not ok with being the DBA, but at the same time are ok with taking backups, make sure that you discuss who gets accountable for data loss when thing go south. Don’t get fooled: you must not be responsible for restores (which, ultimately, is the reason why you take backups) if you don’t have control over the backup process. Period.

3. One size fits all

Some backup tools won’t allow you to back up individual databases with special schedules and policies, but will try to protect the whole instance as an atomic object, with a “one size fits all” approach. Be careful not to trade safety for simplicity.

4. Missing backup / restore options
Most (if not all) third-party backup tools do not offer the same flexibility that you have with native backups, so you will probably miss some of the backup/restore options. I’m not talking about overly exotic options such as KEEP_REPLICATION or NEW_BROKER: in some cases you may not be able to restore with NORECOVERY. Whether this is going to be a problem or not, only you can tell: go and check the possibilities of your data protection tool, because you might need a feature that is unavailable and you might need it when it’s too late.

5. Dangerous internal workings
Not all backup tools behind the covers are acting as you would expect. For instance, Microsoft Data Protection Manager (DPM) is unable to take transaction log backups streaming them directly to the backup server, but needs to write the backup set to a file first. I bet you can see what’s wrong with this idea: if your transaction log is growing due to an unexpected spike in activity, the only way to stop if from growing and eventually fill the disk is to take a t-log backup, but the backup itself will have to be written to disk. In the worst case, you won’t have enough disk space to perform the backup, so it will simply fail. In a similarly catastrophic scenario, the transaction log file may try to grow again while the log backup is being taken, resulting in failure to allocate disk space.It is incredibly ironic how you need disk space to perform a backup and you need a backup to release disk space, so I am just going to guess that the developers of DPM were simply trying to be funny when they designed this mechanism.

6. Incoherent schedules
Some backup tools are unable to provide a precise schedule and instead of running the backup operation when due, they add it to a queue that will eventually run everything. This may look like a trivial difference, but it is not: if your RPO is, let’s say, 15 minutes, transaction log backups have to occur every 15 minutes at most, so having transaction log backups executed from a queue would probably mean that some of them will exceed the RPO if at least one of the backups takes longer than usual. Detecting this condition is fairly simple: you just have to look at your backupset table in msdb.

7. Sysadmin privileges
All third-party backup applications rely on an API in SQL Server which is called “Virtual Device Interface” (or VDI in short). This API allows SQL Server to treat backup sessions from your data protection tool as devices, and perform backup/restore operations by using these devices as source/destination.
One of the downsides of VDI is that it requires sysadmin privileges on the SQL Server instance and Administrator privileges on the Windows box. In case you’re wondering, no: it’s not strictly necessary to have sysadmin privileges to back up a database.

8. VSS backups
A number of backup tools rely on taking VSS snapshots of the SQL Server databases. SQL Server supports VSS snapshots and has a provider for that. Unfortunately, it’s not impossible to see VSS backups interfering with other types of backups and/or failures initializing the VSS provider, which require a reboot to fix.

9. VM backups
Some backup vendors are more focused on backing up the whole virtual machine rather than the single database / instance that you want to protect. Taking a whole machine backup is different and you have to make sure that you understand what that means, especially compared to taking full, diff or log backups. For instance, did you know that taking VM backups is based on the snapshot feature of the hypervisor, which in turn runs VSS backups of snapshot-aware software, like SQL Server?

10. Interfere with other features
Oftentimes, these enterprise-grade super-expensive backup tools live on the assumption that they’re the only one tool you will ever use, and refuse to play nicely with other SQL Server features. For instance, they will happily try to back up transaction log for databases that are part of log shipping (see point #3), ending up with broken log chains.

11. Agents
All backup tools that take advantage of the VDI API require that you install an agent application locally on the SQL Server machine. While having an agent running on the windows machine is not overly concerning per se, on the other hand this means that the agent itself will have to be patched and upgraded from time to time, often requiring that you restart the machine to apply changes.
This also means that you might run into bugs in the agent that could prevent taking backups until you patch/upgrade the agent itself.

12. Illogical choices
Some data protection tools will force illogical policies and schedules on you for no reason whatsoever. For instance, EMC Networker cannot take transaction log backups of master and model (which must/should be in simple recovery anyway), so when you schedule transaction log backups for all databases on the instance, it won’t skip them, but take a full backup instead. Both databases are usually quite small, but still, taking a full backup every 15 or 5 minutes is less than ideal.

13. Not designed with availability in mind
Backing up the file system is very different from backing up SQL Server databases, as one might expect. One of the key differences is that with SQL Server databases you don’t have to deal with RPO and RTO only, but the way that you back up your databases can have a serious impact on the availability of the databases itself. To put that simply: if you don’t take transaction log backups, nothing truncates your logs, so it keeps growing and growing until space runs out either on the log file (and the database stops working) or on the disk (and the whole instance stops working). Backup operations are critical for RDBMSs: if something or somebody commits to performing backups every x minutes, that commitment MUST be fulfilled. For the record, many backup tools that offer the “one size fits all” approach will try to take full and transaction logs on the same schedule, so they will simply skip transaction log backups while taking full backups. This means that you might be exceeding your RPO, with no clear indication of that happening.

14. No support for SQL Server compression or encryption
A number of backup tools offer their own compression and encryption features (again, because the file system does not offer those), so they will try in each and every possible way to push their shiny-enterprise-expensive features instead of what you already have.
Compression helps keeping the backup and restore times under control, by keeping the size of the backup sets small: this means that the number of bytes that travels across the network will be smaller. Nowadays, the majority of backup solutions supports Data Domain or equivalent solutions: smart storage appliances that offer powerful compression and deduplication features to avoid storing the same information multiple times. These dedupe features can be incredibly effective and reduce immensely the amount of disk space needed for storing backups. Some data domains offer deduplication inside the appliance itself: data has to travel the network and reach the data domain, which takes care of breaking the file in blocks, calculate a hash on the blocks and store only the blocks whose hash was not found inside the data domain. This behavior is already clever enough, but some data domains improved it even further, with host deduplication (DDBoost, to name the most prominent product). Basically, what happens with host deduplication is that the hash of the blocks is calculated on the host and not on the data domain: in this way, all the duplicate blocks do not need to travel across the network, hence reducing the amount of time needed for backup operations.

These dedupe technologies are incredibly useful and also allow backup admins to show to their boss all those shiny charts that depict how cleverly the data domain is reducing disk usage across the board. This is going to be so amazing that the backup admin will not allow you to deteriorate his exceptional dedupe stats by using any backup option that prevents deduplication from happening. The two main enemies of Data Domain efficiency are compression and encryption in the source data. Compression of similar uncompressed files does not produce similar compressed files, so chances of deduplication are much slimmer. Encryption of backups is non-deterministic, which means that two backup sets of the same exact database will be completely different, bringing down deduplication rates close to zero.
While the need for encryption is probably something that your backup admins could live with, they will try in every possible way to make you get rid of backup compression. Letting the data domain take care of compression and deduplication can be acceptable in many cases, but it must not be a hard rule, because of its possible impact on RTO.
The real issue with deduplication can be dramatically evident at restore time: the advantage of deduplication will be lost, because all the blocks that make up your backups will have to travel across the network.
Long story short: at backup time, deduplication can be extremely effective, but, at restore time, backup compression can be much more desirable and can make the difference between meeting and not meeting your RTO.

15. No separation of duties
What often happens with general-purpose backup tools is that management of a single object type is not possible. A number of tools will allow you to be a backup admin on the whole infrastructure or nothing, without the ability to manage database backups only. This may or may not be a problem, depending on how dangerous your windows admins consider your ability to manage the backup schedules of Exchange servers and file servers.
Some tools offer the possibility to create separate tenants and assign resources and schedules to particular tenants, each with its own set of administrators. This feature often comes with limitations, such as the inability to share resources throughout multiple tenants: if tape drives can be assigned to a single tenant and the company only owns a single tape drive, this option obviously goes out of the table.

16. No management tools
Often, the management tools offered by these backup vendors are simply ridiculous. Some use web applications with java applets or similar outdated/insecure technologies. Some offer command line tools but no GUI tools, some the other way around. The main takeaway is: make sure that your backup vendor gives you the tools that you need, which must include a command line or anything that can be automated.

17. Ridiculous RPO/RTO
The developers of some backup tools (DPM, I’m looking at you) decided that forcing a minimum schedule frequency of 15 minutes was a great idea. Well, in case you’re wondering, it’s not.
Other tools manage the internal metadata so dreadfully that loading the list of available backup sets can take forever, hence making restores excruciating exercises, that often fall outside of the requested RTO.
Make sure that tool you are using is able to deliver the RPO and RTO you agreed upon with the owners of the data.

Bottom line is: don’t let your backup vendor impose the policies for backups and restores. Your stakeholders are the owners of the data and everyone else is not entitled to dictate RPOs and RTOs. Make sure that your backup admins understand that your primary task is to perform restores (not backups!) and that the tool they are using with Exchange might not be the best choice for you. Talk to your backup admins, find the best solution together and test it across the board, with or without the use of third party tools, because, yes, native SQL Server backups can be the best choice for you.


Using Virtual Desktops for Presentations

Today I was reading William Durkin‘s fine post on Presentation Mode in SSMS vNext when inspiration struck.

One of the things that really annoys me when presenting is the transition between slides and demos. Usually, I try to improve the process as much as possible by having the least minimum amount of windows open while presenting, so that I don’t land on the wrong window. Unfortunately, that is not always easy.

Another thing that I would like to be smoother is the transition itself. The ideal process should be:

  1. Leave the powerpoint slides open at full screen
  2. Switch immediately to the virtual machine with the demos
  3. Go back to the slides, to the exact point where I left

What I usually do is show the desktop with the WIN+D hotkey, then activate the Virtualbox window with my demos, but this shows my desktop for a moment and I don’t really like this extra transition.

I could also use ALT+Tab to switch to the Virtualbox window, but this would briefly show the list of running applications, which is not exactly what I want.

Turns out that Windows 10 has the perfect solution built-in: Virtual Desktops.

Here is the setup described:

  1. If you press WIN+Tab, you will see a “New desktop” button on the bottom right corner. Use it to create three desktops:
    1. desktop 3 for the slides
    2. desktop 2 for the demos
    3. desktop 1 for the rest
  2. Press WIN+Tab, find your virtual machine and move it to desktop 2. It is really easy: you just have right click the window you want to send to a different desktop and select which desktop to use.MoveToDesktop.png
  3. Open your presentation and start it by pressing F5. Again, hit WIN+Tab, find the fullscreen window of your PowerPoint presentation and move it to desktop 3.
  4. In order to transition from one desktop to another, you can use the hotkey CTRL+WIN+Arrow, as shown in this GIF:giphy

Here it is! Perfectly smooth, a nice transition animation and nothing but your slides and your demos shown to the attendees.

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

In the next few months I will be speaking at some awesome events around Europe.


SQLBits – April 5-8 


SQLBits is THE SQL Server event in Europe, with a very long tradition and a fantastic audience. I totally love SQLBits!
This time I will speak about “Benchmarking like a PRO“. In this session I will demonstrate how to capture a baseline with RML Utilities and how to replay it against a target machine to compare baseline and benchmarks. I will use a PowerShell script of my creation and I will walk you through the code and outcomes.


SQLNexus – May 1-3


SQLNexus is quickly gaining a reputation as a fantastic event, which is nothing but the truth.
My session is going to be again “Benchmarking like a PRO”, this time on a IMAX screen 🙂


SQLGrillen – June 2


“SQLGrillen: Databases, Bratwurst & Beer”. Not much to add 🙂
This time I will pose as Virgil and guide you through the SQL Server Hell in my “SQL Server Infernals” session.


SQLSaturday Dublin – June 17


Dublin is a special place. I’ve been in Dublin as an attendee in 2014 and it’s a wonderful city, with one of the best SQL Saturdays I’ve ever been to.
I am honored to say that I will deliver my session “Responding to Extended Events in near real-time“.


That’s it for the moment. Enough to keep me busy for some time to come 🙂


Installing SQL Server 2016 Language Reference Help from disk

A couple of years ago I blogged about Installing the SQL Server 2014 Language Reference Help from disk.

With SQL Server 2016 things changed significantly: we have the new Help Viewer 2.2, which is shipped with the Management Studio setup kit.

However, despite all the changes in the way help works and is shipped, I am still unable to download and install help content from the web, so I resorted to using the same trick that I used for SQL Server 2014.

This time the URLs and the files to download are different:

    1. Point your browser to http://services.mtps.microsoft.com/ServiceAPI/catalogs/sql2016/en-us
    2. Download the Language Reference Files:

      If you’re a PowerShell person, these three lines will do:

Invoke-WebRequest -Uri "http://packages.mtps.microsoft.com/sql_2016_branding_en-us(1bd6e667-f159-ac3b-f0a5-964c04ca5a13).cab" `
	-OutFile "sql_2016_branding_en-us(1bd6e667-f159-ac3b-f0a5-964c04ca5a13).cab"
Invoke-WebRequest -Uri "http://packages.mtps.microsoft.com/v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_1(83748a56-8810-751f-d453-00c5accc862d).cab" `
	-OutFile "v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_1(83748a56-8810-751f-d453-00c5accc862d).cab"
Invoke-WebRequest -Uri "http://packages.mtps.microsoft.com/v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_2(ccc38276-b744-93bd-9008-fe79b294ff41).cab" `
	-OutFile "v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_2(ccc38276-b744-93bd-9008-fe79b294ff41).cab"
      1. Create a text file name HelpContentSetup.msha in the same folder as the .cab files and paste the following html:
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
<head />
<body class="vendor-book">
    <div class="details">
        <span class="vendor">Microsoft</span>
        <span class="locale">en-us</span>
        <span class="product">SQL Server 2016</span>
        <span class="name">Microsoft SQL Server Language Reference</span>
    <div class="package-list">
        <div class="package">
            <span class="name">SQL_2016_Branding_en-US</span>
            <span class="deployed">False</span>
            <a class="current-link" href="sql_2016_branding_en-us(1bd6e667-f159-ac3b-f0a5-964c04ca5a13).cab">sql_2016_branding_en-us(1bd6e667-f159-ac3b-f0a5-964c04ca5a13).cab</a>
        <div class="package">
            <span class="name">v2SQL_Shared_Language_Reference_B4621_SQL_130_en-us_1</span>
            <span class="deployed">False</span>
            <a class="current-link" href="v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_1(83748a56-8810-751f-d453-00c5accc862d).cab">v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_1(83748a56-8810-751f-d453-00c5accc862d).cab</a>
        <div class="package">
            <span class="name">v2SQL_Shared_Language_Reference_B4621_SQL_130_en-us_2</span>
            <span class="deployed">False</span>
            <a class="current-link" href="v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_2(ccc38276-b744-93bd-9008-fe79b294ff41).cab">v2sql_shared_language_reference_b4621_sql_130_en-us_2(ccc38276-b744-93bd-9008-fe79b294ff41).cab</a>
      1. First, set the Help Viewer to open help from the local sources:
      2. Then select the “Add and Remove Help Content” command:
      3. This command opens the Help Viewer and asks for the content to add.
        Browse to the file you created in step 3.
        Click “Add” on all the items you wish to add to the library. In this case you will have only 1 item.
        When done, click the “Update” button.
      4. Unfortunately, during the installation phase of the library item, something crashes and the installation won’t proceed until you tell it to ignore or report the error.
      5. Despite the crash, everything works as expected and you will find the topic installed in your help library:

Here it is, nice and easy. Hope it works for you too.

ForumSurfer – a RSS reader for the SQL Server online community

Today I published the first release of ForumSurfer, a RSS reader designed explicitly to be a tool for the SQL Server online community.

Here is a screenshot:


ForumSurfer has some unique features that will help you help others online:

  • it is designed to help you keep an eye on multiple communities through their RSS feeds
  • it opens questions in the integrated web browser
  • it can update from the feeds much more often than online RSS readers do
  • it has built-in support for boilerplate answers
  • it supports high-DPI displays, letting you choose the appropriate zoom level for individual sites
  • it can import/export OPML files (you can start by importing the OPML file containing all the online SQL Server communities I’m keeping on the radar)

What are you waiting for? Download now the latest release of ForumSurfer and start being helpful!

Did you find any issues? Report them or ping me on Twitter!

SSMS is now High-DPI ready

One of the most popular posts on this bog describes how to enable bitmap scaling is SSMS on high DPI displays, which is a sign that more and more people are starting to use 4K displays and are unhappy with SSMS’s behaviour at high DPI. The solution described in that post is to enable bitmap scaling, which renders graphic objects correctly, at the price of some blurriness.

The good news is that starting with SSMS 16.3 high DPI displays are finally first class citizens and SSMS does its best to scale objects properly. By default, SSMS will keep using bitmap scaling: in order to enable DPI scaling you will have to use a manifest file.

  1. Merge this key to your registry:
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\SideBySide]
  1. Save this manifest file to “C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft SQL Server\130\Tools\Binn\ManagementStudio\Ssms.exe.manifest” using UTF-8 format:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="yes"?>
<assembly xmlns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:asm.v1" manifestVersion="1.0" xmlns:asmv3="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:asm.v3">
        <asmv3:windowsSettings xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/SMI/2005/WindowsSettings">
            <assemblyIdentity type="win32" name="Microsoft.Windows.Common-Controls" version="" processorArchitecture="X86" publicKeyToken="6595b64144ccf1df" language="*" />
            <assemblyIdentity type="win32" name="debuggerproxy.dll" processorArchitecture="X86" version=""></assemblyIdentity>

This is a huge improvement over the bitmap scaling solution we had to use up to now: no more blurriness and proper fonts are used in SSMS.

For comparison, this is how bitmap scaling renders in SSMS 2014:


And this is how DPI scaling renders is SSMS 16.3, with scaling set to 200%:


As you can see, it’s not perfect yet (for instance, I had to change the grid font size to 9pt. in order to have readable fonts).

However, the GUI is much more readable now. For instance, look at the difference in object explorer: (click on the image to open fullsize and see the difference)


Now that your favourite tool is working in high DPI displays, nothing is holding you back from buying one of those fancy 4K laptops!

My Feedback on my PASS Abstracts Feedback

Brent Ozar recently published the feedback he got on his abstract submissions for PASS Summit 2016 and, as he often does, started a trend which some others followed. I think the feedback is interesting and useful for speakers that plan to improve their own submissions for the years to come, so I decided I will publish my feedback as well.

I did not get selected and, obviously, I would be happier if I got selected instead. This doesn’t mean I have problems with the selection process or the reviewers that implemented it. Instead I’m grateful for the enormous amount of work they did for the community, so a huge thank you goes to the committee.

Every year I see people publicly complain about the selection process or getting mad about being rejected. Folks, get over it: organizers have the right to choose whichever sessions they find more suitable for the Summit. It’s their responsibility to put together the best possible agenda and that doesn’t necessarily include your session.

That said, this is my feedback:

Responding to Extended Events in near real-time

Not Accepted: Higher rated session selected.

Category: General Session (75 minutes)

Track: Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment

Topic: Performance Monitoring / Tuning / Extended Events / Waits

Level: 300

Abstract: Extended Events provide deep insight into SQL Server’s behavior and allow us to gather information not available by other means. However, compared to other technologies such as SQL Trace and Event Notifications, a way to react to the events as soon as they happen seems to be lacking.
In this session we will see how the Extended Events streaming API can be used to process events in a near real-time fashion. We will demonstrate how this technology enables new possibilities to solve real world problems, such as capturing and notifying deadlocks or blocking sessions.

Prerequisites: Extended Events basics, C# basics, Powershell basics. The amount of coding required is in line with the average DBA skills.

Goal1:  Introduce Extended Events and compare them with other monitoring technologies available in SQL Server

Goal2:  Introduce the Extended Events streaming API and demonstrate how it can be used to process the events as soon as they occur, without shredding XML.

Goal3:  Demonstrate how the Extended Events streaming API can be used to solve real world problems, such as building a monitoring and alerting solution for deadlocks and blocked sessions.


Needs more specifics in abstract.

A : 4 The abstract digs a little deeper on what’s being offered by XEs, and what needs to be done to efficiently capture events in near real-time without bogging down the system

T : 5 The topic matches with the goals – and many people hesitate capturing large amounts of .xel files fearing shredding the xml. This session offers a new approach to capturing the same using streaming APIs, with C#/PowerShell

S : 5 Prereqs are a little steep, but given the outcome – justified, and will interest people.

Level looks ok for the prereqs and goals. Topic is ok. Abstract is good overall. Only issue is the second sentence reads a little oddly.

Abstract: Well written abstract with strong supportive goals. Topic: Great topic!            Subjective: This sounds like a very interesting session. Taking xEvents to the next level. I would attend this session. I think it will be a large draw!

Feedback on comments:

“Needs more specifics in abstract”. What kind of specifics is needed in the abstract? A clue would be helpful here.

A/T/S: what do these letters stand for? I suppose they mean Abstract, Topic, Subjective. What do the numbers stand for? A mark maybe? Again, no explanation.

“The second sentence reads a little oddly”. I really don’t understand grammar or language comments. It’s not a conference on the English language and non-native speakers are already disadvantaged enough without being constantly reminded that their language skills can’t compare to Shakespeare’s. Speakers names are stripped away from the sessions, so the reviewers may not be aware that the session comes from a foreigner. If the topic is good and fits what the organizers are looking for, minor grammar/language mistakes can be fixed. BTW, one of the reviewers told me that when multiple sessions are on a tie, language is the tie breaker. Questionable, but understandable.

The feedback itself is not very useful for improving this submission for next year.

SQL Server Infernals: Worst Practices in Action

Not Accepted: Other sessions selected based on building a balanced program for track coverage, speaker coverage, topic coverage, and session rating.

Category: General Session (75 minutes)

Track: Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment

Topic: Internals: Storage Engine / Query Engine / Compression

Level: 100

Abstract: Let’s face it: Best Practices are too many to really know them all and choose which ones should be applied first. Does your telephone ring all the time? Do your users ask for that “quick report” that instead takes ages and keeps changing every time you think it’s done?
Have you ever thought that in dire times avoiding Worst Practices could be a good starting point and you can leave fine tuning for a better future? If the answer is “yes”, then this session is for you: we will discover together how not to torture a SQL Server instance and we will see how to avoid making choices that in the long run could turn out to be not as smart as they looked initially.

Prerequisites: Basic database design skills, basic development concepts, basic database administration skills.

Goal1: Demonstrate how bad Database Design decisions (irresponsible denormalization, EAV, bad data types, wrong or missing primary keys) can haunt a project through its whole lifetime.

Goal2: Illustrate how bad development practices (SQL Injection, RBAR, poor or no testing) can hurt performance, put security at risk and pose serious threats to the success of our projects.

Goal3: Enumerate and explain the worst installation and administration practices for SQL Server instances, offering the correct alternatives. Topics covered: HW choice, OS policies, security, ongoing administration, monitoring and tuning.


Abstract: compelling

Topic: I like goals

Subjective rating: interesting, but level too low

Abstract: The outline and details of this abstract are well written

Topic: This is a great topic

Subjective: I may attend this session

The outline does not seem to clearly describe the contents of the presentation. The level of detail seems low – more detail might help attendees decide on value of attending. The title may not attract the appropriate attendees – it seems a little vague.

Abstract: Abstract is a little muddled. Goals are clearly laid out. Goals seem to contain the entire gamut of SQL Server. Perhaps a more focused area of SQL Server would help.

Topic: Title is cute.

Subjective: Could be a fun session.

Feedback on comments:

“Level too low”. Level is intentionally low: it’s meant as an introductory session. What to avoid is exactly that: an introductory topic for beginners. Have you ever noticed that basic introductory sessions pack the room? Should we take it as a clue that attendees want 100-level sessions? Apparently not.

“The outline does not seem to clearly describe the contents”. True, I agree. Next time I submit this session I will include in the abstract more details about the contents. It seems that including those details in the goals is not enough.

“Goals seem to contain the entire gamut of SQL Server”. True. I don’t see how this is a bad thing for an introductory session.

This feedback is much more useful than the other ones.

The shape of your Workload: Benchmarking and Baselining

Not Accepted: Higher rated session selected.

Category: General Session (75 minutes)

Track: Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment

Topic: Performance Monitoring / Tuning / Extended Events / Waits

Level: 300

Abstract: The key to optimizing SQL Server performance is to establish a performance baseline and thoroughly analyze the workload on the server. Collecting a baseline is not enough: it is important to analyze the workload in order to intervene effectively exactly where performance issues lie.
In this session we will describe the techniques and tools to analyze SQL Server performance and we will introduce benchmarking techniques that allow us to rate our tuning efforts. We will also introduce some tools included in SQL Server 2014, such as the Distributed Replay, and several third-party applications that come at little or no cost, but provide the highest benefit.

Prerequisites: Basic SQL Server performance tuning techniques (DMVs, Performance Counters), basic monitoring techniques (SQL Trace, Extended Events).

Goal1: Introduce SQL Server performance analysis tools (DMVs, Performance Counters, Data Collector) and demonstrate how to use them to collect a baseline.

Goal2: Introduce workload analysis techniques, using SQL Server and third party tools, including cache analysis queries, RML Utilities and ClearTrace.

Goal3: Demonstrate benchmarking techniques which will allow us to compare performance before and after applying tuning measures, using RML utilities, Distributed Replay and Qure Analyzer.


Needs more specifics in abstract.

A : 5 The abstract clearly spells out the need for baseling, and benchmarking, to identify performance workload.

T : 5 The topic maps well with the session goals – and makes use of the Dist Replay Controller/Client to replay the prod workload on lower environments, and making use of RML utils and ClearTrace

S : 5 The prereqs are not steep, and the session offers a lot to replay prod workload on lower envs.

Topic is a good and relevant choice that appeals to a distinct attendee pool. Level appears good for the prereqs and goals.

Abstract is ok. Some word choices make the sentences difficult to follow (ie. ‘intervene effectively exactly’).

Abstract: Well written abstract with strong, supportive goals. Enough information is provided from which an attendee can make an informed decision on whether or not to attend this session.

Topic: Excellent topic. Likely a 200 level session, not 300.

Subjective: Great session which should draw in attendees. This is a skill every database professional needs.

Feedback on comments:

“Needs more specifics in abstract” and “enough information is provided” in the same feedback. Not very helpful.

“Some word choices make the sentences difficult to follow”. I’ve already said what I think about language comments.

Reading the comments, you would think it made the cut, but it didn’t. What can I say? Competition is tough: there are lots of great speakers with lots of great sessions.

“Likely a 200 level session, not 300”. I disagree: I’ve never seen anyone less than experienced fiddling with RML Utilities or distributed replay.

General feedback

The comments I received this time are less helpful than the ones I got last year on the same exact sessions. Yep: I submitted the same sessions last year and I got very useful comments that I used to improve my submissions this year. Unfortunately, it will be hard to improve next year.

The level discussion is completely subjective. I was under the impression that here in Europe we tend to rate sessions lower than Americans do, so a 200 session in Europe could easily be a 300 session in USA. Maybe my impression was wrong. However, it’s interesting to see how the session that I proposed with level 100 was deemed to be underrated and the one that I proposed with level 300 was deemed to be overrated. Levels are part of the session: the speaker chooses which level to go for and I would have a really hard time as a reviewer arguing against that decision without having seen the session.

Regarding the reason for rejection, I am not completely sure it can be helpful for improving next year’s submissions. For instance, my session on Extended Events got “Higher rated session selected” as the reason for rejection, but looking at the schedule there is no other session on Extended Events (which is quite surprising) and no other session on monitoring (which is even more surprising and maybe a bit disappointing). This means that the higher rated session does not have to be on the same topic, which makes the other reason for rejection (Other sessions selected based on building a balanced program for track coverage, speaker coverage, topic coverage, and session rating) difficult to decipher.

Lessons learned

  1. You’re selling the abstract, not the session
    The reviewers are evaluating your abstract, not your session. All your efforts should be pushed towards perfecting your abstract. Craft it as your masterpiece. Start well in advance, don’t wait for the last minute.
  2. Take as many shots as you can
    Looking at the selection process from the outside it’s really hard to tell how it works, so submitting multiple abstracts can increase your chances of scoring a session. Maybe that session that you don’t like is exactly what the committee is looking for. Again, you’re selling only the abstract and if you get selected you have several months to improve the session.
  3. There’s a review service offered by PASS. Use it.
    There is no guarantee that it is going to be the best feedback you will get, but it’s some feedback at least.
  4. You have friends in your #sqlfamily: ask for advice.
    If you don’t trust the feedback that you get from the PASS review service, trust your friends. If you’re submitting for PASS Summit, chances are that you already have spoken at SQLSaturdays or other community events (if not, maybe you should think twice before submitting: PASS Summit is not for inexperienced speakers). In this case, you got in touch with the community leaders in your chapter, who probably keep scoring sessions at Summit year after year: ask them to review your sessions. I am sure that they will have precious suggestions for you.
  5. If you’re not an English native speaker, ask a native speaker to proofread it
    Sure, your English is great. Sure, the reviewers have something to say about native speakers’ English as well. Sure, language should not be the focus of the reviewers. However, see lesson learned #1.
  6. Speaker/Abstract separation is a joke
    If you read Brent’s feedback, one thing emerges quite clearly: in many cases, the reviewers know exactly whose abstract they are reviewing. This might be because they already have seen the session somewhere else or because the abstract contains some “distinctive features” (sp_AskXXX anyone?). This means that some speakers have an advantage over the average Joe, but rightly so: those speakers are awesome and well known for being awesome. I’m not saying that the “Top Guns” can submit their grocery list: what I’m saying is that they are not selling only their abstracts. Now that Brent has published his abstracts, I wonder what would happen next year if somebody submitted one of his sessions… 🙂

Bottom line

Being selected for speaking at the PASS Summit is damn hard. I hope that sharing my feedback will help you improving your submission next year. I also hope that you will find my advice useful, if you dare accepting advice from somebody who never managed to score a session himself.

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

The next few months will be crazy for me. I will be travelling a lot around Europe, speaking about SQL Server topics.

Here is where you will find me in the upcoming weeks:

SQLNexus is a new conference in Copenhagen and will be the official launch event in Denmark for SQL Server 2016.
I will speak about “Responding to Extended Events in near Real-Time”.

SQLBits doesn’t need to be introduced. It’s the biggest SQL Server event in Europe and it will also be the official SQL Server 2016 launch event in UK.
Again, I will speak about “Responding to Extended Events in near Real-Time”.

NTK is a famous conference in Slovenia, which has been running for many years now. This year it will be held in Portorosz, near the Italian border.
It’s going to be fun: I will speak about “Benchmarking, Baselining and Workload Analysis”.

INSIDE-SQL is also a new event, run this year for the first time. It’s an event focused on in-depth concepts, delivered in 75 minutes sessions, with long breaks between sessions, so that attendees can go to the next session without rushing and can hang out with the speakers and ask questions.
I will deliver two sessions:
“Responding to Extended Events in near Real-Time”
“Advanced T-SQL Techniques”

Free SQL Server training from the 40th floor of the Tour Montparnasse in Paris.What else can I say?
I will be speaking about “New Security Features in SQL Server 2016”

One of the coolest SQLSats around!
This time I’ll be speaking about “SQL Server Infernals”, AKA “how to torture your SQL Server instances to death with worst practices”. It’s going to be fun!

I hope to see you at these super cool events!

An annoying Bug in the Restore Dialog

Today, thanks to a customer, I discovered  one of those annoying little things that can really drive you nuts.

Basically, they were trying to restore a backup using the SSMS Restore Database window and they kept getting “No backupset selected to be restored” whenever a backup file was selected.

You just had to select a file for restore and click OK…


… to be met with an error message in the Restore Database window:


The weird thing about it is that the backup file restored perfectly fine from a T-SQL script:


So it had to be something wrong with SSMS, but what?

Looking closer at the restore script, one thing stands out. Look at the file name:


Yep, there’s a leading whitespace in the file name. Could that be the source of the problem?

Let’s try again with the GUI in a slightly different way. This time I will copy the folder path from the “Backup File Location” textbox…


… and paste it directly in the “File name” textbox, right before the file name:


This time everything works as expected.

Bottom line:

  1. This is a bug in SSMS: go on and vote this Connect item to have it fixed in a future version.
  2. Don’t use the GUI to restore a database.
  3. Don’t use the GUI at all.