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Top 10 SQL Server 2008 Features for the Database Administrator (DBA)

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Microsoft SQL Server 2008 provides a number of enhancements and new functionality, building on previous versions. Administration, database maintenance, manageability, availability, security, and performance, among others, all fall into the roles and responsibilities of the database administrator. This article provides the top ten new features of SQL Server 2008 (referenced in alphabetical order) that can help DBAs fulfill their responsibilities. In addition to a brief description of each feature, we include how this feature can help and some important use considerations.

Activity Monitor

When troubleshooting a performance issue or monitoring a server in real time, it is common for the DBA to execute a number of scripts or check a number of sources to collect general information about what processes are executing and where the problem may be. SQL Server 2008 Activity Monitor consolidates this information by detailing running and recently executed processes, graphically. The display gives the DBA a high-level view and the ability to drill down on processes and view wait statistics to help understand and resolve problems.

To open up Activity Monitor, just right-click on the registered server name in Object Explorer and then click Activity Monitor, or utilize the standard toolbar icon in SQL Server Management Studio. Activity Monitor provides the DBA with an overview section producing output similar to Windows Task Manager and drilldown components to look at specific processes, resource waits, data file I/Os, and recent expensive queries.

DBAs can also use Activity Monitor to perform the following tasks:

  • Pause and resume Activity Monitor with a simple right-click. This can help the DBA to “save” a particular point-in-time for further investigation without it being refreshed or overwritten. However, be careful, because if you manually refresh, expand, or collapse a section, the data will be refreshed.
  • Right-click a line item to display the full query text or graphical execution plan via Recent Expensive Queries.
  • Execute a Profiler trace or kill a process from the Processes view. Profiler events include RPC:Completed,SQL:BatchStarting, and SQL:BatchCompleted events, and Audit Login and Audit Logout.

Activity Monitor also provides the ability to monitor activity on any SQL Server 2005 instance, local or remote, registered in SQL Server Management Studio.

[SQL Server] Audit

Having the ability to monitor and log events, such as who is accessing objects, what changes occurred, and what time changes occurred, can help the DBA to meet compliance standards for regulatory or organizational security requirements. Gaining insight into the events occurring within their environment can also help the DBA in creating a risk mitigation plan to keep the environment secure.

Within SQL Server 2008 (Enterprise and Developer editions only), SQL Server Audit provides automation that allows the DBA and others to enable, store, and view audits on various server and database components. The feature allows for auditing at a granularity of the server and/or database level.

There are server-level audit action groups, such as:

  • FAILED_LOGIN_GROUP, which tracks failed logins.
  • BACKUP_RESTORE_GROUP, which shows when a database was backed up or restored.
  • DATABASE_CHANGE_GROUP, which audits when a database is created, altered, or dropped.

Database-level audit action groups include:

  • DATABASE_OBJECT_ACCESS_GROUP, which is raised whenever a CREATE, ALTER, or DROP statement is executed on database objects.
  • DATABASE_OBJECT_PERMISSION_CHANGE_GROUP, which is raised when GRANT, REVOKE, or DENY is utilized for database objects.

There are also audit actions, such as SELECT, DELETE, or EXECUTE. For more information, including a full list of the audit groups and actions.

Audit results can be sent to a file or event log (Windows Security or System) for viewing. Audit information is created utilizing Extended Events, another new SQL Server 2008 feature.

By using SQL Server 2008 audits, the DBA can now answer questions that were previously very difficult to retroactively determine, such as “Who dropped this index?”, “When was the stored procedure modified?”, “What changed which might not be allowing this user to access this table?”, or even “Who ran SELECT or UPDATE statements against the [dbo.Payroll]table?”

Backup Compression

This feature has long been a popular request of DBAs for SQL Server. The wait is finally over, and just in time! Many factors, including increased data retention periods and the need to physically store more data have contributed to the recent explosion in database size. Backing up a large database can require a significant time window to be allotted to backup operations and a large amount of disk space allocated for use by the backup file(s).

With SQL Server 2008 backup compression, the backup file is compressed as it is written out, thereby requiring less storage, less disk I/O, and less time. In lab tests conducted with real customer data, we observed in many cases a reduction in the backup file size between 70% and 85%. Testing also revealed around a 45% reduction in the backup and restore time. It is important to note that the additional processing results in higher processor utilization. To help segregate the CPU intensive backup and minimize its effect on other processes, one might consider utilizing another feature mentioned in this paper,Resource Governor.

The compression is achieved by specifying the WITH COMPRESSION clause in the BACKUP command (for more information, see SQL Server Books Online) or by selecting it in the Options page in the Back Up Database dialog box. To prevent having to modify all existing backup scripts, there is also a global setting to enable compressing all backups taken on a server instance by default. (This setting is accessed by using the Database Settings page of the Server Propertiesdialog box or by running sp_configure with backup compression default set to 1.) While the compression option on the backup command needs to be explicitly specified, the restore command automatically detects that a backup is compressed and decompresses it during the restore operation.

Backup compression is a very useful feature that can help the DBA save space and time. For more information about tuning backup compression, see the technical note on Tuning the Performance of Backup Compression in SQL Server 2008. NOTE: Creating compressed backups is only supported in SQL Server 2008 Enterprise and Developer editions; however, every SQL Server 2008 edition allows for a compressed backup to be restored.


Central Management Servers

DBAs are frequently responsible for managing not one but many SQL Server instances in their environment. Having the ability to centralize the management and administration of a number of SQL Server instances from a single source can allow the DBA to save significant time and effort. The Central Management Servers implementation, which is accessed via the Registered Servers component in SQL Server Management Studio, allows the DBA to perform a number of administrative tasks on SQL Servers within the environment, from a single management console.

Central Management Servers allow the DBA to register a group of servers and apply functionality to the servers, as a group, such as:

  • Multiserver query execution: A script can now be executed from one source, across multiple SQL Servers, and be returned to that source, without the need to distinctly log into every server. This can be extremely helpful in cases where data from tables on two or more SQL Servers needs to be viewed or compared without the execution of a distributed query. Also, as long as the syntax is supported in earlier server versions, a query executed from the Query Editor in SQL Server 2008 can run against SQL Server 2005 and SQL Server 2000 instances as well. 
  • Import and evaluate policies across servers: As part of Policy-Based Management (another new SQL Server 2008 feature discussed in this article), SQL Server 2008 provides the ability to import policy files into particular Central Management Server Groups and allows policies to be evaluated across all of the servers registered in the group
  • Control Services and bring up SQL Server Configuration Manager: Central Management Servers help provide a central place where DBAs can view service status and even change status for the services, assuming they have the appropriate permissions
  • Import and export the registered servers: Servers within Central Management Servers can be exported and imported for use between DBAs or different SQL Server Management Studio instance installations. This is an alternative to DBAs importing or exporting into their own local groupings within SQL Server Management Studio.

Data Collector and Management Data Warehouse

Performance tuning and troubleshooting are a time-consuming tasks that can require in-depth SQL Server skills and an understanding of database internals. Windows System monitor (Perfmon), SQL Server Profiler, and dynamic management views (DMVs) helped with some of this, but they were often intrusive, laborious to use, or the dispersed data collection methods were cumbersome to easily summarize and interpret.

To provide actionable performance insight, SQL Server 2008 delivers a fully extensible performance data collection and warehouse tool also known as the data collector. The tool includes several out-of-the-box data collection agents, a centralized data repository for storing performance data called management data warehouse, and several precanned reports to present the captured data. The data collector is a scalable tool that can collect and assimilate data from multiple sources such as dynamic management views , Perfmon, Transact-SQL queries, by using a fully customizable data collection frequency. The data collector can be extended to collect data for any measurable attribute of an application.

Another helpful feature of the management data warehouse is that it can be installed on any SQL Server and then collect data from one or more SQL Server instances within the environment. This can help minimize the performance impact on production systems and improve the scalability in terms of monitoring and collecting data from a number of servers. In lab testing we observed around a 4% reduction in throughput when running the agents and the management data warehouse on a server running at capacity (via an OLTP workload). The impact can vary based on the collection interval (as the test was over an extended workload with 15-minute-pulls into the warehouse), and it can be exacerbated during intervals of data collection. Finally, some capacity should be considered, because the DCExec.exe process will take up some memory and processor resources, and writes to the management data warehouse will increase the I/O workload and space allocation needed where the data and log files are located.

Data Compression

The ability to easily manage a database can greatly enhance the opportunity for DBAs to accomplish their regular task lists. As table, index, and file sizes grow and very large databases (VLDBs) become commonplace, the management of data and unwieldy file sizes has become a growing pain point. Also, with more data being queried, the need for large amounts of memory or the necessity to do physical I/O can place a larger burden on DBAs and their organizations. Many times this results in DBAs and organizations securing servers with more memory and/or I/O bandwidth or having to pay a performance penalty.

Data compression, introduced in SQL Server 2008, provides a resolution to help address these problems. Using this feature, a DBA can selectively compress any table, table partition, or index, resulting in a smaller on-disk footprint, smaller memory working-set size, and reduced I/O. The act of compression and decompression will impact CPU; however, this impact is in many cases offset by the gains in I/O savings. Configurations that are bottlenecked on I/O can also see an increase in performance due to compression.

In some lab tests, enabling data compression resulted in a 50-80% saving in disk space. The space savings did vary significantly with minimal savings on data that did not contain many repeating values or where the values required all the bytes allocated by the specified data type. There were also workloads that did not show any gains in performance. However, on data that contained a lot of numeric data and many repeating values, we saw significant space savings and observed performance increases from a few percentage points up to 40-60% on some sample query workloads.

SQL Server 2008 supports two types of compressions: row compression, which compresses the individual columns of a table, and page compression, which compresses data pages using row, prefix, and dictionary compression. The amount of compression achieved is highly dependent on the data types and data contained in the database. In general we have observed that using row compression results in lower overhead on the application throughput but saves less space. Page compression, on the other hand, has a higher impact on application throughput and processor utilization, but it results in much larger space savings. Page compression is a superset of row compression, implying that an object or partition of an object that is compressed using page compression also has row compression applied to it. Also, SQL Server 2008 does support the vardecimal storage format of SQL Server 2005 SP2. However, because this storage format is a subset of row compression, it is a depreciated feature and will be removed from future product versions.

Both row and page compression can be applied to a table or index in an online mode that is without any interruption to the application availability. However, a single partition of a partitioned table cannot be compressed or uncompressed online. In our testing we found that using a hybrid approach, where only the largest few tables were compressed, resulted in the best performance in terms of saving significant disk space while having a minimal negative impact on performance. Because there are disk space requirements, similar to what would be needed to create or rebuild an index, care should be taken in implementing compression as well. We also found that compressing the smallest objects first, from the list of objects you desire to compress, minimized the need for additional disk space during the compression process.

Data compression can be implemented via Transact-SQL or the Data Compression Wizard. To determine how compressing an object will affect its size, you can use the sp_estimate_data_compression_savings system stored procedure or the Data Compression Wizard to calculate the estimated space savings. Database compression is only supported in SQL Server 2008 Enterprise and Developer editions. It is implemented entirely within the database and does not require any application modification.

Policy-Based Management

In a number of business scenarios, there is a need to maintain certain configurations or enforce policies either within a specific SQL Server, or many times across a group of SQL Servers. A DBA or organization may require a particular naming convention to be implemented on all user tables or stored procedures that are created, or a required configuration change to be defined across a number of servers in the same manner.

Policy-Based Management (PBM) provides DBAs with a wide variety of options in managing their environment. Policies can be created and checked for compliance. If a target (such as a SQL Server database engine, a database, a table, or an index) is out of compliance, the administrator can automatically reconfigure it to be in compliance. There are also a number of evaluation modes (of which many are automated) that can help the DBA check for policy compliance, log and notify when a policy violation occurs, and even roll back the change to keep in compliance with the policy. For more information about evaluation modes and how they are mapped to facets (a PBM term also discussed in the blog)

The policies can be exported and imported as .xml files for evaluation and implementation across multiple server instances. Also, in SQL Server Management Studio and the Registered Servers view, policies can be evaluated across multiple servers if they are registered under a local server group or a Central Management Server group.

Not all of the functionality of Policy-Based Management can be implemented on earlier versions of SQL Server. However, the policy reporting feature can be utilized on SQL Server 2005 and SQL Server 2000. For more information about administering servers by using Policy-Based Management.

Predictable Performance and Concurrency

A significant problem many DBAs face is trying to support SQL Servers with ever-changing workloads, and achieving some level of predictable performance (or minimizing variance in plans and performance). Unexpected query performance, plan changes, and/or general performance issues can come about due to a number of factors, including increased application load running against SQL Server or version upgrades of the database itself. Getting predictable performance from queries or operations run against SQL Server can greatly enhance the DBAs ability to meet and maintain availability, performance, and/or business continuity goals (OLAs or SLAs).

SQL Server 2008 provides a few feature changes that can help provide more predictable performance. In SQL Server 2008, there exist some enhancements to the SQL Server 2005 plan guides (or plan freezing) and a new option to control lock escalation at a table level. Both of these enhancements can provide a more predictable and structured interaction between the application and the database.

First, plan guides:

SQL Server 2005 enabled greater query performance stability and predictability by providing a new feature called plan guides to enable specifying hints for queries that could not be modified directly in the application. For more information, see the Forcing Query Plans white paper. While a very powerful feature, the USE PLAN query hint only supported SELECT DML operations and were often cumbersome to use due to the sensitivity of the plan guides to the formatting.

SQL Server 2008 builds on the plan guides mechanism in two ways: It expands the support for the USE PLAN query hint to cover all DML statements (INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE, MERGE), and it introduces a new plan freezing feature that can be used to directly create a plan guide (freeze) any query plan that exists in the SQL Server plan cache, as in the following example.

sp_create_plan_guide_from_handle

@name = N’MyQueryPlan’,

@plan_handle = @plan_handle,

@statement_start_offset = @offset;

A plan guide created by either means has a database scope and is stored in the sys.plan_guides table. Plan guides are only used to influence the query plan selection process of the optimizer and do not eliminate the need for the query to be compiled. A new function, sys.fn_validate_plan_guide, has also been introduced to validate existing SQL Server 2005 plan guides and ensure their compatibility with SQL Server 2008. Plan freezing is available in the SQL Server 2008 Standard, Enterprise, and Developer editions.

Next, lock escalation:

Lock escalation has often caused blocking and sometimes even deadlocking problems, which the DBA is forced to troubleshoot and resolve. Previous versions of SQL Server permitted controlling lock escalation (trace flags 1211 and 1224), but this was only possible at an instance-level granularity. While this helped some applications work-around the problem, it caused severe issues for others. Another problem with the SQL Server 2005 lock escalation algorithm was that locks on partitioned tables were directly escalated to the table level, rather than the partition level.

SQL Server 2008 offers a solution for both of these problems. A new option has been introduced to control lock escalation at a table level. By using an ALTER TABLE command, option locks can be specified to not escalate, or escalate to the partition level for partitioned tables. Both these enhancements help improve the scalability and performance without having negative side-effects on other objects in the instance. Lock escalation is specified at the database-object level and does not require any application change. It is supported in all editions of SQL Server 2008.

Resource Governor

Maintaining a consistent level of service by preventing runaway queries and guaranteeing resources for mission-critical workloads has been a challenge. In the past there was no way of guaranteeing a certain amount of resources to a set of queries and prioritizing the access. All queries had equal access to all the available resources.

SQL Server 2008 introduces a new feature called Resource Governor, which helps address this issue by enabling users to differentiate workloads and allocate resources as they are requested. Resource Governor limits can easily be reconfigured in real time with minimal impact on the workloads that are executing. The allocation of the workload to a resource pool is configurable at the connection level, and the process is completely transparent to the application.

 

Below are some other points you need to consider when using Resource Governor.

  • Resource Governor relies on login credentials, host name, or application name as a ‘resource pool identifier’, so using a single login for an application, depending on the number of clients per server, might make creating pools more difficult.
  • Database-level object grouping, in which the resource governing is done based on the database objects being referenced, is not supported.
  • Resource Governor only allows resource management within a single SQL Server instance. For managing multiple SQL Server instances or processes within a server from a single source, Windows System Resource Manager should be considered.
  • Only processor and memory resources can be configured. I/O resources cannot be controlled.
  • Dynamically switching workloads between resource pools once a connection is made is not possible.
  • Resource Governor is only supported in SQL Server 2008 Enterprise and Developer editions and can only be used for the SQL Server database engine; SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS), SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS), and SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) cannot be controlled.

 

Transparent Data Encryption (TDE)

 

Security is one of the top concerns of many organizations. There are many different layers to securing one of the most important assets of an organization: its data. In most cases, organizations do well at securing their active data via the use of physical security, firewalls, and tightly controlled access policies. However, when physical medium such as the backup tape or disk on which the data resides is compromised, the above security measures are of no use, because a rouge user can simply restore the database and get full access to the data.

SQL Server 2008 offers a solution to this problem by way of transparent data encryption (TDE). TDE performs real-time I/O encryption and decryption of the data and log files by using a database encryption key (DEK). The DEK is a symmetric key secured by using a certificate stored in the master database of the server, or an asymmetric key protected by an Extensible Key Management (EKM) module.

TDE is designed to protect data ‘at rest’, which means the data stored in the .mdf, .ndf, and .ldf files cannot be viewed using a hex editor or other means. However, data that is not at rest, such as the results of a SELECT statement in SQL Server Management Studio, will continue to be visible to users who have rights to view the table. Also, because TDE is implemented at the database level, the database can leverage indexes and keys for query optimization. TDE should not be confused with column-level encryption, which is a separate feature that allows encryption of data even when it is not at rest.

Encrypting a database is a one-time process that can be initiated via a Transact-SQL command or SQL Server Management Studio, and it is executed as a background thread. You can monitor the encryption or decryption status using thesys.dm_database_encryption_keys dynamic management view. In a lab test we conducted, we were able to encrypt a 100 GB database using the AES_128 encryption algorithm in about an hour. While the overhead of using TDE is largely dictated by the application workload, in some of the testing conducted that overhead was measured to be less than 5%. One potential performance impact to be aware of is this: If any database within the instance does have TDE applied, thetempDB system database is also encrypted. Finally, of note when combining features:

  • When backup compression is used to compress an encrypted database, the size of the compressed backup is larger than if the database were not encrypted, because encrypted data does not compress well.
  • Encrypting the database does not affect data compression (row or page).
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