Help! Which button do I press?!

04 Aug 2014 | Share

EXASOL is truly easy to use and self-tuning – not like certain other databases I could mention.

This is one of my favourite pictures – at first sight it looks like a wonderful idea to have such flexibility but then you wonder – if your car is starting to slide into a wall at over 200 mph – wouldn’t you prefer one of the on-board computers to just sort it out for you rather than to try to remember which button to press and how hard?

The same issue exists in databases – you can have almost total flexibility – but at the cost of complexity of use. Given that Big Data analytics is already complex enough, EXASOL’s approach is, as far as possible, to remove tuning buttons and let the computer do most of the driving.

The myth of “easy-to-use”

Quite a few other databases have claimed to be “easy-to-use” and “self-tuning” like EXASOL. Often though, this has just been empty marketing words and the reality for the poor DBA who needs to implement these systems has turned out to be quite different.

I speak from experience – I was in charge of one such databases at one of my previous jobs. I will not say which database it was, but you are very welcome to guess – the facts fit quite a few on the market today.

First of all, it was claimed that this database was easy to set up. True enough, you could to some extent run queries “out of the box” using the default parameters, but when you (inevitably) hit a performance problem, the support desk would tell you that you were quite insane for doing so. They would point you towards the configuration file (and if you were lucky they might suggest which parameter they thought needed to be changed).

The configuration file was just a text file that you edited with your favourite Linux editor. There were around a hundred possible parameters in the file. The options were poorly documented and some of them seemed contradictory. I have seen experienced consultants from that company make a set of queries actually run slower after their first three attempts to make “improvements” to the parameter file.

Things didn’t get much better after we installed their product

  • Routine server/cluster management tasks should be … routine. Swapping out a failed hard disk on a node shouldn’t require three pages of detailed Linux commands.
  • Most upgrades required you to backup the data to flat file and restore it after the upgrade
  • You needed to manually define the compression algorithm for every column
  • The backup process was absurdly manual and troublesome

I’ve seen the current version of the product and very little has changed, but the marketing collateral continues to claim otherwise.

Let’s compare this to EXASOL

  • Genuinely works out of the box – there are a few parameters that you can change, but the intention is that most customers, most of the time would not need to.
  • Just about everything on the system is managed through the same well-designed GUI or can be changed for the current session just by running SQL commands. It is never necessary to hack around on the Linux command line
  • There’s no need to worry about compression or to guess which indexes to create – EXASOL just works out what you need and gives it to you when you need it.
  • Routine server/cluster tasks are … totally routine. A well-designed set of screens replaces pages of manual Linux hacking.

You might think – OK, you are saying that our DBA needs to work a bit harder if we don’t buy your product – what’s the big deal?

The big deal? I scarcely know where to start.

  • more errors
  • longer to install
  • more outages for maintenance
  • upgrades may require a week, instead of hours

Potentially more important though is that you’ll likely need two or more DBAs with deep Linux skills working fulltime on the competitor database rather than one (or even less that one) DBA on an EXASOL database.

This issue of usability therefore isn’t just a technical “nice to have” – there’s a financial cost to having a database that’s difficult to use and which needs manual tuning.

I recommend you try to look past the slick marketing and it would be only fair to ask any prospective database supplier to show you in simple terms WHY it is easy to use and HOW it manages to be self-tuning.

Don’t believe their hype – and you don’t need to believe ours either. You are very welcome to take a test drive of EXASOL.