Database performance optimization is usually concerned with indexes, SQL design, lock contention, and the like. But the real database bottleneck is the siloed culture that accretes around the database and has far more pernicious ripple effects than you might think. The real opportunity in database optimization is the interplay between the technology and the team, and its communication structures.

I’ve been thinking about this for years. While I was at Percona I always tried to consult with Cary’s advice in mind: don’t spend $1000 optimizing a $100 dollar problem. And as VividCortex has grown, it has taught me a valuable series of lessons about how to apply the advice in new ways.

As I shared on LinkedIn, the goal is to think creatively about how to make the largest impact for the biggest portion of the business, whether that implies people, systems, customers or other areas.

Traditional advice, which I received when beginning to develop VividCortex, was to hammer on the cost of downtime during sales conversations. I was deeply skeptical of that for the same reasons John Allspaw is. The simplistic math isn’t truthful, and we all know it. But beyond that, avoidance of a bad outcome is not the greatest value we can create for customers. It’s limited to the size of the potential downside. The real value we can create is adding to the top line, not the bottom line, and is unlimited.

What is that impact? Think of it this way:

  • Instead of making one DBA a little more productive (30% of a $200k fully loaded annual cost, say), what if we can make 80 developers more productive (5% of 80 developers at $200k annually)?
  • Instead of keeping the site online and fast for 5 minutes more per year, what if we can actually improve engineering velocity by 18 calendar days?
  • Instead of improving database performance by 50%, what if we can reduce the cycle time for continuous delivery ship-measure-iterate cycles from 2 days to 15 minutes?

By understanding deeply the flow of work and communications in your teams, you can actually have this kind of impact. You do not need any tools (this is not a vendor pitch for VividCortex).

Databases aren’t the only team bottlenecks. But the database is often a pretty central one in many teams. It’s a huge lever for IT productivity.

How can breaking down visibility silos around the database improve team performance so much?

It all goes back to the principles of operations research. But we don’t need to be all technical about it. If you’ve ever read The Goal you totally get it. You’ve got processes, workflow happening, people who are special, etc. You’ve got inventory and throughput and stuff like that. And your human systems are just as influenced by these things as your technical systems are.

So when you freeze in fear after a database outage, and proclaim that there’s a new code review process or something that’ll prevent it from happening again in the future, and it just happens to go through a committee or a DBA or some other person or thing or system with a specialized role…

Specialized… that’s a dirty word. You’ve introduced dependencies and that’s a huge problem. Read The Goal, and you’ll see how bad it is. All you need now is statistical variations to complete the unholy bottlenecking of your entire engineering team. Oops, your DBA went on maternity leave! Sounds like some processes are going to be more variable than they were before, right?

These are the same topics that have resonated so deeply with my readers and audiences over the last few years: freezes don’t prevent outages, everything is about dependencies and statistical fluctuations, databases are really complex and that’s a problem, teams are systems too.

As I said at a Meetup on this topic:

… your database’s performance is a lot less important to your business than the way you structure your engineering team. The interesting thing is that a lot of the most serious team, communication, and process bottlenecks in your business (the ones that make you miss ship deadlines, crash the site, and lose your best team members after repeated all-nighters) are actually driven by database issues, but not the way you think they are.

Watch out, your database isn’t bottlenecked. Your team is. And your database, the lack of democratized access to production performance data about it, and the way you’re reacting to outages and other problems by creating cultural scar tissue, is reducing the effectiveness of every single person on your team by 10%, 25%, you name it—I have seen teams I personally felt were running at less than half of the productivity they could have, because of database-related policies and processes that backfired.

That’s your true database bottleneck.

Further reading on this topic: - Silvia Botros

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