Ajarn Mark Caldwell Blog

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SQL Sentry First Impressions

After struggling to defend my SQL Servers from a political attack recently, I realized that I needed better tools to back me up, and SQL Sentry is the leading candidate.

A couple of weeks ago, seemingly from out of nowhere, complaints from the business users started coming in that one of the core internal applications was running dramatically slower than normal, and fingers were being pointed at the SQL Server.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a production DBA whose entire job is to monitor and maintain our SQL Servers.  The responsibility falls to me to do the best I can, investing only a small portion of my time, because there are so many other responsibilities to take care of, and our industry is still deep in recession.  I inherited these SQL Servers and have made significant improvements in process and procedure, but I had not yet made the time to take real baseline measurements or keep a really close eye on the performance.  Like many DBAs, I wrote several of my own tools and used the “built-in tools” like Profiler, PerfMon, and sp_who2 (did I mention most of our instances are SQL Server 2000?).  These have all served me well for in-the-moment troubleshooting and maintenance, but they really fell down on the job when I was called upon to “prove” that SQL Server performance was acceptable and more importantly had not degraded recently (i.e. historical comparisons).  I really didn’t have anything from a historical comparison perspective, but I was able to show that current performance was acceptable, and deflect attention back onto other components (which in fact turned out to be the real culprit).

That experience dramatically illustrated the need for better monitoring tools.  Coincidentally, I had been talking recently to my boss about the mini nightmare of monitoring several critical and interdependent overnight jobs that operate on separate instances of SQL Server.  Among other tools, I had been using Idera’s SQL Job Manager which is a free tool and did a nice job of showing me job schedules and histories in a nice calendar view.  This worked fairly well, and for the money (did I mention it was free?) it couldn’t be beat.  But it is based on the stored job history in MSDB, and there were other performance problems that we ran into when we started changing the settings for how much job history to retain, in order to be able to look back a month or more in the calendar view.  Another coincidence (if you believe in such things) was that when we had some of those performance challenges, I posted a couple of questions to the #sqlhelp hashtag on Twitter and Greg Gonzalez (@SQLSensei) suggested I check out SQL Sentry’s Event Manager.  At the time, I just thought he worked there, but later found out that he founded the company.  When I took a quick look at the features & benefits, the one that really jumped out at me is Chaining and Queueing which sounded like it would really help with our “interdependent jobs on different servers” issue.

I know that is a lot of background story and coincidences, but hopefully you have stuck with me so far, and now we have arrived at the point where last week I downloaded and installed the 30-day trial of the SQL Sentry Power Suite, which is Event Manager plus Performance Advisor.  And I must say that I really like what I see so far.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Great Support.  I had two issues getting the trial setup and monitoring a handful of our servers.  One of which was entirely my fault (missed a security setting in SQL 2008) and the other was mostly my fault (late change to some config settings that were apparently cached and did not get refreshed properly).  In both cases, the support staff at SQL Sentry were very responsive and rather quickly figured out what the cause and fix was for each of them.  This left me with a great impression of the company.  Kudos to them!
  • Chaining and Queueing.  While I have not yet activated this feature, I am very excited about the possibilities.  We have jobs on three different instances of SQL Server that have to be run in a certain order, and each has to finish before the next can successfully begin, and I believe this feature will ensure just that.  It has been a real pain in the backside when one of those jobs runs just a little too long and does not finish before the job on another instance starts, thus triggering a chain reaction of either outright job failures, or worse, successful completion of completely invalid processing.
  • Calendar View.  I really, really like the Event Manager calendar view where I can see all jobs and events across all instances and identify potential resource contention as well as windows of opportunity for maintenance activity.  Very well done, and based on Event Manager’s own database of accumulated historical information rather than querying the source instances every time.
  • Performance Advisor Dashboard History View.  This view let’s me quickly select a date and time range and it displays graphs of key SQL Server and Windows metrics.  This is exactly the thing I needed to answer the “has performance changed recently” question at the beginning of this post.
  • Reporting Services Subscription Jobs with Report Name.  This was a big and VERY pleasant surprise.  If you have ever looked at the list of SQL Server jobs that SQL Server Reporting Services creates when you make a Subscription, you will notice that they all have some sort of GUID as the name of the job.  This is really ugly, and really annoying because when you are just looking at the SQL Agent and Job Activity Monitor, if you see that Job X failed, you really do not have any indication in the name or the properties of the Job itself, as to what Report that was for.  But with SQL Sentry Event Manager you do.  The Jobs list in the Navigator pane in SQL Sentry, amazingly, displays the name of the Report that the Subscription Job is for.  And when you open it to see more details, it shows you the full Reporting Services path to that Report, so you can immediately track it down in the Report Manager in case you want to identify/notify the owner or edit the Subscription information.  I did not expect this at all, but I sure do like it.  HOORAY!

That is just my first impressions from using the tools for a few days.  And I haven’t even gotten into how it showed me where I was completely mistaken about one aspect of my SQL Server disk configurations.  I’ll share that lesson in another blog entry.  But I have to say it again, the combination of Event Manager and Performance Advisor working together have really made me a fan.