I’m speaking at SQL Saturday SAN–This Weekend!

SQL SaturdayAlthough this year has been pretty busy and I haven’t been speaking a whole lot this year, I’ve got a couple of sessions coming up this weekend at SQL Saturday San Diego!

I’ve got two sessions on the schedule; the first one is an introductory session to SQL Server Analysis Services Tabular modeling, and the second one is a bit of a more advanced (call it Intermediate) session where I discuss and demonstrate managing databases using Database projects in SQL Server Data Tools.

The Tabular presentation is designed for folks who are new to SSAS in general or the tabular flavor of it. I focus mostly on the development process of these apparatus and how to move from raw data to a model that is useful for business users to explore on their own.

In the SSDT session, I discuss some of the advantages of utilizing database projects to help manage your database schema in Visual Studio. This presentation also has a lot of demo time in it, and I help explain how to start from scratch and manage what I feel is the most important part of schema management: deployments.

We (DCAC) are also sponsoring, so if you are in the southern California area this weekend, come on out to SQL Saturday, say Hi, and learn some new SQL Server stuff!

Using Excel and Get Data to Find Fixes in SQL Server CUs

Lately, for whatever reason, we’ve had clients running into a small rash of bugs or bug-like behavior in SQL Server; soGetData Buttonsme in the Engine, some in SSRS (the SSRS ones have been fun). In one case, it occurred a day or two after SQL Server 2016 SP1 CU3 was released, so we (I was talking to Joey about it at the time) had a list of fixes to go through.

 

This is fine and all, but when one is looking for a fix for a specific behavior (“I’ve had this bug all summer, so I want to look through every CU release to see if it’s in there”), it’s a bit of a pain to go through the whole list just scanning for the, say, Reporting Services fixes. It’s even worse if the instance is behind and you need to look through multiple CUs for something. Another scenario is if you are just reviewing a newly-released CU and really only care about fixes that pertain to the engine…you get the idea.

These lists can get long

Business Intelligence to the Rescue!

Fortunately, there are some tools built right into Excel that make this a whole lot easier than scrolling through the list in your browser. Armed with nothing more than the URL to the CU’s KB article and Excel 2016 (or a few older versions) quick work can be made of generating custom filters for this data.

Here are the steps:

In Excel 2016, click on the Data tab of the ribbon. This is where the artist formerly known as “Power Query” lives, now referred to as “Get & Transform.”

Starting with the New Query button, navigate down through the menu to From Other Sources and then From Web:

New Query | From Other Source | From Web

 

This brings up a simple little dialog that asks for a URL. Paste in the URL for the CU page you’re interested in; here, I’m using SQL 2016 SP1 CU3’s URL: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4019916/cumulative-update-3-for-sql-server-2016-sp1

Clicking OK brings up the next dialog, a security-related dialog that allows you to provide any credentials that may be needed to access the material. Of course, in this case, no specific credentials are needed, as it is a public web page. Leaving Anonymous selected here is the way to go.

Web Page Security

Clicking Connect will bring up the real meat of Power Query Get Data, where we will choose what data we want to import, and optionally do some ETL-like transformations to it.

Whenever pulling in data from a web page/table for the first time, there is a bit of experimentation that needs to happen. For example, when the “Navigator” dialog opens for the first time, there’s a big list of Tables from the web page, and no data displayed:

Select Table to load data from

What has to happen, is you need to find which of those tables contains the data on the web page you’re interested in. In our case, we’re interested in Table 0, where we can see the data we’re looking for; mainly the Fix area column:

Populated Table 0

Quick note: The reason for so many tables of other data on this page is that down towards the bottom of the page, under the “Cumulative update package file information” link/collapsed menu are a bunch of tables that contain a bunch of information about all of the files that are modified by fixes in this CU. All of those tables are available here, too.

Once the table you’re interested in is selected, we can move on. The next step could be clicking the Edit button, where you’d be able to do all kinds of transformations to the data in this table… here, we don’t need to do that, so can skip that part and go straight to loading the data.

As we’re only looking to read through this data on its own (as opposed to loading it into a Power Pivot data model), we can just click the Load button.

The end result will be a table of data in Excel that contains all the fixes in the CU:

Populated Fixes in Excel table

The best part about this, and the whole reason we’re here, is Excel’s “Auto Filter” feature works on this table (and it is already activated, even). Clicking on the arrowhead in the “Fix area” column yields this familiar pop-up menu, where all manner of sorting and filtering can be done.

Excel Auto Filter dialog

Simply check the area of the product you’re interested in from the list, and you’ll be presented with a nice short list of fixes to look through.

Fix list filtered to Heckaton

Awesome!

Re-use

But, let’s say you’ve gone through this, and you’re thinking “that was kind of a pain, and won’t really save any time for all the more often that page needs looked at.” That’s possibly a fair assessment. Since all of these CU pages are identical (for now), the extract logic stays the same, with the only thing needing to change being the source URL. Once you’ve set up this workbook once, you can save the file and modify the URL it pulls its data from when the next CU comes out, but the amount of clicking required to do that is about the same as it takes to set this up the first time, therefore I’m not sure how helpful that would be.

Probably the best thing to do is to save this file off after you’ve created it and reference it as-needed, clicking the Refresh All button on the Data tab when you open this to make sure you have current data.

T-SQL Tuesday #28: Jack of All Trades Crew, Checking In

T-SQL Tuesday—always a good option for helping to get back on the blogging horse.

TSQL Tuesday #28
T-SQL Tuesday #28

This month is hosted by Argenis Fernandez (blog | @DBArgenis), a SQL Server MCM & a #SQLFamily member that I have yet to meet. His topic of choice is “Jack of All Trades, Master of None?”, which is right up my alley, because for pretty much my entire IT career, that phrase has described me. It still does, right this second, but I’m trying to get over that. More on that coming.

Because I should be able to use them to frame out a good story (and because I’m cheap), I’m going to work with the list of questions Argenis has in his invitation post.

Are you specialized? On something? Or anything at all?

Am I anything at all? No, not really, thanks for asking! 😀

Anyway… it’s not really safe or fair to answer whether or not I’m specialized with anything but a firm “no.” I’ve been this way from day one. I don’t know that it’s been a conscious decision to get to this point more than it just happened as a result of being driven by a desire to know how everything works. Sometimes that leads to depth in weird places, which can come in handy while watching Jeopardy! on TV.

My non-specialization situation at the moment includes the capabilities of a decent SQL Server DBA, being what I’ll call “serviceable” when it comes to data modeling, and could still be a sysadmin if push came to shove, in a day job in which I have become the go-to ETL Developer. It’s a little weird, I admit. But, all of those other things help with the current focus. The ETL job is slow, you say? Well, is the server on the floor? Is the latency over the WAN link 700 ms per round trip? All of my other skills help, and that is what I think is the best part of being a jack-of-all-trades: It’s possible to know just enough to answer a lot of your own questions!

I’ve said it before, but another thing I like about knowing a little bit about a lot is you can make friends/commiserate with almost everyone in the IT department.

Are you the SQL Guy at work? Or the one who does everything?

Due to the size of company that I work for, there are very few “Guys” at work—everyone has a specific job (or sometimes jobs) that they do. Basically…near-insect-grade specialization. There’s not room for a jack-of-all trades at larger organizations, in my experience, with the possible exception of smaller, autonomous groups.

Having spent time in one of those smaller, autonomous groups within a larger organization, I was a little bit of the guy who does everything. My whole team was, actually. We were “Windows System Admins”, who ran just about everything except Exchange and the MSFT monitoring platform du jour, plus Citrix to boot. Although each of us had our strong points, pretty much all of us could get through whatever needed to be done and have things work when we were done. I think that just goes along with being a “sysadmin”—being a jack-of-all-trades is almost a necessity. Need to know hardware? Check. Security theory AND implementation? Yep. IIS (Apache as necessary)? Probably. Networking? You betcha. SQL was just one of the things that I did while there, although I did do a lot of it.

Do you code? And configure wireless routers at work also?

Hell no. I mean… not if I can help it. See, when I started in IT for real, I knew one whole programming language: Visual Basic 6. Two classes in school on it, and that was it. I wrote a little print queue viewer/management app while a student (hey, it was deployed on 2000+ machines!), but no real experience. To this day, VB6 is the only real (“real”) programming language I know. Not having a strong coding background does cause some problems occasionally, especially when talking to Developers who are used to DBAs coming up through those ranks. I definitely don’t know much about software engineering theory, and that’s where it shows up the most.

As part of the afore-mentioned sysadmin gig, I wrote a command-line only VB app as an automated interface between a couple of systems, but I’m not exactly proud of that moment, for a number of reasons. The one that applies here is one of the downfalls of being a jack-of-all-trades: it’s easy to cowboy up and do quick-and-dirty things off to the side, because you can. Perhaps even more dangerous: because no-one else can.What happens as soon as you’re done? Well, if you’re not careful, it winds up in Production, and then it becomes a support nightmare; if not for you, it will be for a coworker or the next guy. Either of which may some day hate you when their phone rings at 0300 because the wrong piece of duct tape fell off your masterpiece. I think being a jack-of-all-trades can be a good thing, as long as one of those trades is holding onto whatever processes and standards are in place…and if there aren’t any of those, hopefully one of said trades is coming up with some good organizational processes and standards!

As for the wireless router configuration bit—I try to keep that at home. Pretty sure the network guys wouldn’t like me messing around with those things. Just because I [used to] know Cisco IOS, doesn’t mean I should use it. That brings us to another good specific skill that a jack-of-all-trades should have: Knowing when to sit quietly. This goes for both wireless routers and writing anything in VB6 that has a prayer of ever seeing real, actual production use.

If you had to pick one thing to specialize on, what would it be?

Yeah, about that… All the above said, I actually am going to try to specialize on something. Of course, it isn’t enough to say I’m going to specialize on SQL Server. There’s too much in the product now. I’m going back to the thing that got me truly interested in the prospects of becoming a Data Pro in the first place: Business Intelligence. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s safe to make that a goal, either. Just the BI side of the SQL Server platform is becoming too broad and too feature-rich to come to grips with. I’m going to have to be content with possibly not knowing anything at all about Reporting Services to focus on what I really want to do: Analysis Services. I actually want to be able to do most of the architecture work surrounding big BI projects, from start to finish (except for SSRS!), but I’m afraid that even just SSAS, including all of its new related technologies, could turn out to be too much.

That, though, is a journey that I hope we can all share in. Because I’m nice like that.

Other Thoughts

Being mechanically wired more than anything, it’s not quite as easy for me to tear down a piece of T-SQL as it is, say, the battery operated toys I used to take apart…Or a carburetor. But thanks to the Internet, it’s easy for me to read about and learn from someone who is more adept at doing that sort of thing. This shows two more helpful skills for a jack-of-all-trades: Being able to read and learn is a really important one, and being able (and willing) to share back out is another good one. You never what kind of DBA trying to configure Exchange you’re going to help out.

T-SQL Tuesday #22: Data Presentation

TSQL Tuesday Logo

Robert Pearl hosts No.22

It seems like it hasn’t been that long since last month’s T-SQL Tuesday post; I suppose time flies when you’re having fun and trying to finish up the same ETL project you’ve been working on since March.

This month’s SQL blog party is being hosted by Robert Pearl (blog| @PearlKnows), on the topic of “Data Presentation.” This is a good topic for me at this point, as I’ve all but finished my transition from DBA to BI Monkey (that’s something else I need to write about…). I think Robert is looking for specific examples of ways to present data, but since, as usual, I don’t have anything specific that I can actually publish, I’m left to speak generally about the topic.

Data Presentation: Just as Important as the Data Itself

In a previous life, I was responsible for almost everything data-related for the systems that we ran. As a result, I would get a lot of requests for data. One of my favorite requests would come in the form of, “can you give me some numbers for <X system>?” I would try to keep my response at least marginally non-snarky, but it would generally include two questions:

  1. What, exact, “numbers” do you want? (this is especially where I would have snark problems)
  2. What do you want the data to look like?

Of course, the first one is an important question—if the requestor cannot articulate what it is they actually want (or even what question they’re trying to answer), little else is going to matter. I’ll not dwell on this particular item too much, but suffice to say, sometimes getting a good answer to this seemingly easy question is anything but. I’ve basically come to the conclusion that this is normal.

Once over that hurdle, the conversation can move on to the presentation of whatever data/”numbers” it is the requestor wants. There are almost as many options for presenting data as there are for way to write the T-SQL to retrieve it. Just like writing the SQL in a way that is performance- and resource-conscious, care should be taken when working on the presentation design. It is imperative for the data to be presented in such a way that is understandable and digestible by its intended audience.

Notice I didn’t say “digestible by the party asking for it.” Don’t forget that the request originator may not be the party who is ultimately going to be parsing the provided data. If the audience is not clear in the original request, add a third question to the two that I have listed above: “Who is going to be acting on this data?”

Options for What Happens Next

When the “What do you want it to look like” question is asked, chances are decent that you’ve an idea about what the answer is going to be. If this is a one-off, ad-hoc request, Excel is a popular option. Alternatively, if a robust reporting system is in place, or this request will be a recurring one, developing a report to present the data might be a stronger choice. There are of course other options: the data could be destined for a statistical analysis application, where a CSV file would be more suitable. I would consider this an outlier, though—most of the time, data is prepared for direct human consumption.

Excel is such a popular option that you could almost call it Data’s Universal Distribution Engine (DUDE). Sending data over in Excel is less about the “make it pretty” side of good presentation as it is the “make it useful” side. I’ve found that Excel is a choice a lot of the time because the requestor wants to do more manipulation of the data once they get it. I’ll leave whether or not that is a good thing to the side; the truth is, such activity happens all the time. As a result, when preparing data for an Excel sheet, I like to have an idea of what the user is going to do with it. This sometimes helps to determine what data the user is looking for (if they don’t have a clear idea) but also can help with some formatting or “extras” to include. These “extras” could take the form of running subtotals, percent changes for Year over Year situations, or anything else that is easier to add via SQL instead of someone having to putz around in Excel.

Writing a report to present data has a different set of opportunities than pasting data into Excel. One of the things that I like to see in a solid reporting environment is a set of standards that apply to the reports themselves. Things like common header contents (report name, date/time stamp, name of the data source/DB the data is from, etc), standard text formatting, a common set of descriptors, etc, etc. In addition to making individual reports easier to read & feel more familiar, it can make it easier to compare data etween reports the hard way (one on each monitor), if one has to.

It's only worth 1,000 words if the first ones that come to mind are work safe

One thing each of these two tools gives you is the ability to present data in the form of pretty pictures. There’s a time and a place for everything, but the old cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words” can/does apply. Sometimes it’s just flat-out hard to beat a good trendline. I have a much easier time seeing even the simplest of trends when data’s plotted out in a histogram. Conversely, one of my coworkers can look at a pile of numbers, not even sorted chronologically, and tell you what is going on in about three seconds.

Knowing where to put your effort goes back to knowing who your intended audience is. Likewise, knowing when to say “no” to visualization is a terribly useful skill. Every data element on the chart should be discernable, or else it doesn’t convey the information it is supposed to, and now the visualization is working against itself. The pie chart to the right? Don’t do that.

Summary

That’s about all I’ve got. In short: Presentation is important. Unfortunately, it can also be complicated. It’s important to ask questions early on in the process and to know your audience. Standardize if you can; help out a little with the complicated work if it can be done in SQL. Also, add visual representations without going overboard. I’ve always found turning “data” into “information” for people to be fun; if it can make someone else’s job easier/more fun, too, then all for the better.

T-SQL Tuesday #14: Resolutions

T-SQL Tuesday 14

T-SQL Tuesday 14, hosted by Jen McCown

Resolutions… For a long time, I thought 1600 x 1200 to be the ideal, but with the proliferation of widescreen—oh…wait…not that kind of Resolution? Sorry. My bad.

It’s that time again: the monthly blog party known as T-SQL Tuesday. This month is #14, hosted by the deservedly newly-minted Microsoft MVP Jen McCown (blog | @MidnightDBA). The topic this time around is “Resolutions,” originally, “techie resolutions have you been pondering, and why.”

In my 2011 “Goals” post, I talked about one of the things I need to do this year: something about my career direction. I’ll take this opportunity to elaborate a little bit on what that means for me this year. The part about needing to pick one of two directions still applies, but the work that I need to do for each of those is pretty different.

If I stay a DBA…

If I stay a DBA, what I need to work on the most can be summed up fairly simply: Catch up.

Since I work with SQL 2000 almost exclusively these days, there are a lot of current bits of technology that I need to spend time working on and learning:

  • DMVs
  • Policy-Based Management
  • T-SQL advancements (Actually using Try/Catch, TVPs, etc)
  • PowerShell

That’s just a few things that I can pull off the top of my head; I know there are more that I should know and be able to use at this point. Not having the opportunity to use these features day-to-day doesn’t exactly help me learn and keep these skills sharp 😉

If I want to be one of the cool kid DBAs on Twitter, 2011 is a year in which I have to do a lot of work on these topics.

Less BI-Curious and more BI-…uhh…Pro?

The other choice I have is to do awesome Business Intelligence work. I’m still turned on by a lot of these technologies and the power that they can put into the hands of business users at all levels of an organization. A change in direction at my current job to a more BI-focused role has yet to fully materialize, and as for right now I’m still somewhat impatiently watching that carrot out there.

Whether I do it in my current position or choose to take something new, changing direction to full-time BI work comes with its own set of topics that will need lots of attention from me:

  • Improve dimensional modeling skills (I do some of this already)
  • Actually learn how to do work with SSAS
  • PowerPivot
  • Get better at talking to non-geeks!

There are lots more topics than those three here, too. However, BI in and of itself is a pretty wide field, so the specific topics that would need attention would be dictated by the flavor of BI work that I was doing and my involvement on such a team.

Actually making this stuff happen

Like all resolutions, this is, of course, the hard part. Making this happen isn’t going to be easy for me, either, but the rewards should be very well worth the effort required. Unfortunately, since knowing is half the battle, and I don’t have that taken care of yet, the near-term has the potential to be pretty rough.

At the absolute bare minimum, I resolve to do my best to take care of “knowing” in the first quarter of the year.

(Also, I’m sorry about that screen resolution thing at the beginning; couldn’t help myself)