Networking

The benefits from using wireless in database administration

How to add wireless DBA tools to your consulting toolkit

It's 2:30 P.M. and you're working on-site for one of your customers. Your pager bleats out an urgent call from a second client across town whose server is down. You can try to help the second client on the phone—a slow, tedious process that may create political issues with the current customer. Or you can leave the one client to drive to the other. Either way, the second client’s server is down, and the clock is ticking.

The rapid expansion of wireless Internet access is making this scenario easier to handle. Now you can take out your Palm or Pocket PC and quickly correct the issue regardless of your location. You've become the wireless database administrator.

Several companies, including Expand Beyond, TUSC, Proactive Technologies, and Youngtech are already offering such solutions. Even Oracle has announced its intention to offer wireless administration as part of its Enterprise Manager product.

In this article, I'll show you some of the reasons to add wireless DBA tools to your consulting toolkit and describe some of the security measures such tools take to ensure the safety of your transmissions.

Why wireless?
Ari Kaplan, president and CEO of Expand Beyond in Chicago, says his company's PocketDBA and PocketAdmin grew out of his own experiences as a consultant for Oracle. In an interview, he cited four main reasons consultants could benefit from wireless database administration:
  • Faster problem resolution. When DBAs are paged for trouble calls, they’re alerted to an issue, but they're still powerless to respond without having to drive in somewhere, he said. To do their jobs, DBAs still need to be at a connected computer. Wireless solutions can reduce the time to resolve an issue from hours to minutes. With the cost of downtime averaging $4,000 to $7,000 per minute, Kaplan says, this reason alone can cost-justify a wireless administration implementation.
  • Service-level agreements (SLAs). Consultants are sometimes bound by contract to provide a minimum level of response time to problems. Often, this means not traveling more than an hour from the customer's site on nights that they are "on call." By being able to resolve issues remotely, it becomes easier to meet SLA targets and have a longer leash.
  • Best-of-breed technology. One mission of IT consultants is to advise their customers on current technology trends. Being able to recommend and implement a wireless administration solution helps fulfill that mission.
  • Ability to stay connected to the enterprise. Consulting is more than just firefighting. The day-in, day-out tasks of monitoring the server, tuning for performance, and catching problems before they become crises can all be done from anywhere in the world when you're wireless. Without the necessity of travel, you can fit a quick look at a server into otherwise unproductive moments.

How do they work?
Wireless administration solutions are client/server applications. The client software runs on a personal digital assistant (PDA) with wireless Internet capabilities. The handheld uses its wireless adapter to connect to the Internet, and from there it connects to a server application on the customer's network.

The server application connects to the various databases on the customer's network on behalf of the wireless user. It submits queries and/or commands to the databases and returns the results in the form of Web pages that the remote device can read. It can also buffer large result sets, allowing the DBA to page through them or search for specific records, thus conserving wireless bandwidth and PDA memory.

Unlike Microsoft's Windows 2000 Terminal Services or Symantec's PC Anywhere, these wireless client programs don't try to reproduce the server's desktop directly. Wireless devices typically have only a three-inch screen, as opposed to the 11- or 12-inch screen on a laptop.

Such programs represent typical DBA functions by icons, and they let you drill down into various levels of detail. PocketDBA, for example, includes icons for the following DBA functions:
  • Sessions/connections: See who's connected to the database and what each user is doing.
  • Security: Create new logins, change passwords, and enable or disable accounts.
  • Audit: Mine the data in the database's audit feature to track past activity. Discover when a table was deleted and by whom, for example.
  • Objects: Create and alter tables and other objects in the database.
  • Storage: Check on the amount of space remaining, allocate additional disk space, and reorganize tables.
  • SQL: Call up a command line similar to Oracle's SQL*Plus or Microsoft SQL Server's OSQL to give direct SQL commands and queries.
  • Server/instance: Start and stop instances on the server.
  • Database: Examine the database configuration and make changes.

Security
So if you can get to your customer's databases from anywhere in the world, what's to keep the bad guys from doing the same thing? To protect the database, wireless administration solutions will use a combination of techniques to protect your customer's privacy when you connect to their servers.

"Companies typically already have remote access capabilities, for example, dialing in from home," Kaplan says. "We're just using the same capabilities." These measures include end-to-end encryption and authentication.

For example, PocketDBA can use SSL or a VPN to create end-to-end encryption. PocketAdmin creates a secure shell (SSH) session in order to manage the server on which the database is running. In terms of authentication, PocketDBA can use either single- or two-factor authentication. (Single-factor authentication relies on only one type of identification, such as a password. Two-factor authentication requires both a password and a physical object, or "token," such as a smart card or fingerprint.)

An additional benefit of these Web-based or "thin-client" solutions is that you're working in real time with the database. Sensitive data is not stored on your PDA, as it might be on a laptop. If the PDA is lost or stolen, the customer's network is not compromised in any way. And session timeouts typically require re-authentication after only a few minutes of inactivity.

Bottom line
If you aren't offering faster response time and increased connectedness to your customers, your competitor probably is. Now is a great time to take the first steps to becoming a wireless DBA.
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