PASS 2009 Thursday – Part 2

Had another great day of training on Thursday at the PASS Summit.  After the fantastic keynote by David DeWitt, I went to a breakout session by Joe Webb on Data Driven Subscriptions in Reporting Services.  We already use Data Driven Subscriptions in my company, but I figured I could always learn something new, and besides, Joe is a good presenter.  Unfortunately I could not stay through the whole session because I had to leave early to get ready for the Meet the Chapters event at the lunch.  I was hosting the table for the Professional Development Virtual Chapter that we just launched.

The Meet the Chapters lunch was fun and I had great conversations with several people who stopped by.  I think that the virtual chapter format is really going to help fill a gap for people who would like to participate with PASS more, but due to scheduling conflicts or geographical barriers, just can’t make it to their local chapter.  I am working out some of the kinks for our first virtual meeting.  Keep an eye on our website for the details.  And come back to the site to continue the conversation even after the meeting is long over.

After lunch, I went to the session entitled Achieving Work-Life Balance which was a panel discussion and Q&A with some members of the Women in Technology Virtual Chapter.  Specifically, the panel consisted of Denise McInerney, Wendy Pastrick, and Meredith Ryan Smith.  Since I know both Denise and Wendy from past PASS Summits, I thought it would be fun to sit in on their session.  And don’t think that this topic, like the subject of Women in Technology overall, is just for women.  This topic is of significant interest to me now that I have a family, and the demands for my time at work are increasing, too.  Back when I was single, work-life balance was pretty much whatever I wanted it to be.  But now that I’m married and have a 1 1/2 year old and a second on the way; if I decide to hang out at the office for a couple of extra hours because I’m “in the zone” and I want to keep on running, it has a lot greater impact than just having to pick up something to eat on the way home.  It likely means that I won’t see my daughter before she goes to sleep, I may not see my wife before she goes to sleep, I don’t get to spend quality time with either of them that I really enjoy, and that’s just the surface stuff.  There are a lot of other relationship effects that can come out of that, especially if it happens a lot.  So, I went to the session and picked up some great tips.  Most valuable, I think, was the reminder to manage expectations and communicate, communicate, communicate!  Wendy had a great analogy about marriage being like an ongoing contract negotiation.  Another good point was to break work tasks down to the simplest components that you can so that you are not necessarily the only one who can do it.  Sometimes it is hard for us in technology to delegate, but if you never do find a way to spread the work, then balance will likely be very elusive.  It makes me think of the verse, “For what does it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, yet lose his own soul (or family)?”

The next session I went to was put on by members of the SQL CAT team on the topic of SharePoint on SQL Server.  There were several very practical bits of advice such as being sure to set the NTFS Allocation Unit size to 64K (the default is 4K); putting TempDB on the fastest drives and the content database Transaction Log files on the next fastest.  They also recommend limiting (soft limit) the content databases to a size of 100GB, primarily for the purposes of backup and restore SLAs.  And they gave a warning to not create any new database columns or indexes in the SharePoint databases, and to use the SharePoint tools to index columns if desired.  There was one more thing that I made note of, and you’ll want to verify this for yourself because I may have misunderstood, but I believe they said that SharePoint 2010 will only run on 64-bit machines.

The last session that I went to has turned out to be the one that sparked the most work and the most benefit immediately upon my return to the office.  The session was Denny Cherry’s Storage for the DBA.  I almost didn’t go because it was the last session of the summit and frankly I was pretty drained.  And I was concerned that this might get really technical and I’d be in over my head.  But fortunately, it was just the right level for me.  I learned some important jargon, a few key concepts, and most importantly, I learned some important questions to ask.  As it turns out, we were right in the middle of re-provisioning our first SAN in the company, and there was some doubt that it had been configured properly for our needs; primarily because of the lack of involvement that my team had in any discussions about our needs.  When I got back to the office, I was armed with the right questions to ask of our tech team and the consultant that helped them set it up, and I understood the jargon to use and the jargon they used in their responses, and I was able to determine that the disk arrays needed to be completely reconfigured.  With a little more research based on my new knowledge, I was able to work with the team to understand what we really needed, and to back up my gut instinct with facts.  After that, both my boss and I are far more confident that we will end up with equipment that is configured to meet our needs properly.  I am by no means a SAN configuration specialist after just 75 minutes of training, but I learned just enough to get us back on track.  How do you calculate the ROI on something like that?  It’s HUGE!  Again, another example of how just one session at PASS can justify the cost of the whole event.

PASS 2009 Thursday – Part 1

Thursday was the last day of the main conference this year, and it was kicked off in fine fashion by Bill Graziano who promised to have the fastest keynote at the conference.  Part of Bill’s talk involved a moment of recognition for Kevin Kline, for the amazing amounts of work he did over 10 years of being on the PASS Board of Directors.  Over the seven Summit conferences that I have attended, I have never seen the PASS crowd give a standing ovation to anybody, but they did this year, and it was well deserved.  Thanks, Kevin, for all you have done to build PASS into the great organization it is today.

After Bill’s brief talk, a representative from Dell took the stage for a Keynote presentation.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember a thing he covered.  I’m sorry guys, I like your computers, but your keynote talks at PASS Summits are horrendous.  I’m sure the guy who talked this year is a fine fellow, and probably very successful and important to Dell; however he and his presentation were utterly forgettable, and not just because he was upstaged by the next keynote speaker.  The Dell guy sounded very nervous all of the way through, which was a huge distraction.  Perhaps he was nervous, I’m sure all speakers that get up in front of a crowd of this size experience nervousness, but most of them still come across fine.  So what was the issue?  Was he not prepared?  Did he not practice his talk, over and over, refining the message, like most of the other speakers at the conference?  Was he just trying to wing it?  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that the vendor keynotes have never gone over very well.  Maybe they just don’t understand who the audience is that they are talking to.  That, and failing to practice would be like breaking cardinal rules #1 and #2 of public speaking.

The third portion of the Thursday Keynote was a talk by David DeWitt which was really outstanding.  DeWitt is a Technical Fellow in the Microsoft Data and Storage Platform Division, and he leads the Microsoft Jim Gray Systems Lab in Madison, Wisconsin.  Or in other words, he’s really, really smart.  He talked about storage performance and stretched our brains with discussion of column-store vs. row-store methodologies, along with disk latency analysis and a whole bunch of other really technical stuff.  Interestingly, although none of what he covered is directly applicable to anything I will be doing or needing in the next several years, it still kept my attention.  WHY?  Well, first of all, he was very comfortable presenting, knew his stuff, knew that he knew his stuff, and obviously enjoyed the subject he was discussing.  And he did a fantastic job of taking some rather complex stuff that would normally fly right over my head, and conveyed it in a manner that I was able to understand and follow without having to work hard.  I’m sure everyone there will remember his reference to the greens stuff on the stacked bar chart and that “the green stuff is bad”.  This is the trait of a great communicator.  Communicators take the complex and make it simple so that others can participate.  All too often, it seems that really smart people do just the opposite, taking rather simple stuff and make it so complex that only a couple other people in the world can participate in the conversation.  So, massive kudos to David DeWitt for doing it right.

And DeWitt understood his audience, and also understood the perception that many have of keynote presentations in general.  This was made abundantly clear when he told a little of his background and talked about preparing for this talk, and poked fun at his own employer by saying that his boss had told him to make his talk more marketing-like and that he had refused.  The loud cheer that went up when he said that should have sent the message loud and clear to all past and future speakers at PASS.  Again, well done…very well done.

I should also give credit to the folks behind the scenes at PASS that arranged to have DeWitt present, because the truth is that he presented last year and was wildly popular then, too, and they made the effort to get him to come back again this year.  Also, kudos to the Board or whoever made the decision to include DeWitt’s presentation on the Summit DVDs.  Keynotes don’t usually end up on the DVDs, and this will be a great addition.  And kudos specifically to PASS President Wayne Snyder, for coming out right at the end of DeWitt’s talk to announce that it would be on the DVDs.  Well done!

PASS 2009 Wednesday

The Summit on Wednesday kicked off with Rushabh Mehta, new PASS President, making some opening remarks and then handing-off to Ted Casey from Microsoft for the keynote.  The things that stuck in my mind from Tom’s talk were some whiz-bang demos of PowerPivot with Excel 2010 and SharePoint 2010.  There was a demo where they were manipulating 100 million rows in Excel and made an off-hand remark about Excel 2010 including a mini OLAP engine in it to handle this.  And there was something about Reporting Services Data Sources can be exported as a Data Feed which can be consumed by Excel.  Didn’t quite get all the details of those, but that’s enough to spark your research if you’re interested.  One other thing that really caught people’s attention was use of a moving bubble chart.  I had seen this type of thing before from some posts that Garr Reynolds has on his Presentation Zen blog; specifically, check out the videos by Hans Rosling.  (I’ve soap-boxed on this before, but presentation does matter.  If you were in that room and heard the gasps and sounds of approval and being impressed, you would have no doubt on this.)

The first breakout session I went to on Wednesday was Brian Larson’s presentation on Creating Dashboards.  This is something that we will be focusing on over the next couple of years in my company.  We definitely need better visibility into (and presentation of) key business information throughout the company.  I liked a definition that Brian gave…Business Intelligence is getting accurate and useful information to the appropriate people at the appropriate time.  Simple, but powerful.  Another good point that Brian made was that financials are usually a lagging indicator of organizational health, and so he advocated use of a Balanced Scorecard that includes measures from many different areas.  A couple of cool tricks he shared were to build a nice calendar display built as a nested tablix on a Reporting Services report; and to insert a rectangle in a Reporting Services cell and then insert your image inside the rectangle in order to preserver a little white space around the image.  He also mentioned an upcoming book named Reporting Services Recipes which sounds like it will contain several more tips and tricks.  I’ll have to add that to my wish list.

Next I went to the Women in Technology luncheon which was great again this year.  I blogged on the luncheon last year, and there are several bloggers continuing the conversation this year.  I don’t know what more to say on this other than I again applaud all those involved in the goal of getting more women involved in technology and seeing it as the great and rewarding career path it can be; and tearing down barriers that interfere.  As a father of a little girl, I know this will become even more important and meaningful for me over time.

After lunch I went to a panel discussion on SQL Injection.  It turned out to be more simplistic than I expected.  Perhaps I need to review the Level it was assigned, but it turned out to be much repeating of the mantra, “parameters, parameters, parameters”.  This is good and important advice, and maybe I just was not the right target market for this breakout session since I have been using stored procedures with strongly typed parameters extensively for about a decade now and I put up quite a fight against use of dynamic SQL in our systems.  I did make note of a few good references for testing tools that I’ll look into to see what vulnerabilities may have slipped in despite my best efforts.

I wrapped up the training day in a session on using Sparse Columns and Filtered Indexes, two new features in SQL 2008 that we will likely be implementing in the next couple of months, although I still need to do a little research.  Dan Kiely did a good job explaining these topics and demonstrating them, along with some of the pitfalls to watch out for; especially the fact that if you issue an update against the Columnset column, it will cause any sparse column that is not included in your update statement to be set to null.  That would be quite a shock if you accidentally triggered that feature.  I like that he started off with a trivia question that will catch you if you’re not paying close attention.  Here it is…”How much room does a NULL integer take?”  Take a moment and think about it…  WAITING… WAITING…  OK, here’s the answer, “The same amount as a non-null Integer, 4 bytes”.  If you said it takes up no space because it is NULL, you better go back and read it again.

The final event of the evening, was of course, the party at Gameworks.  What can I say?  Free food and drink…free games…good conversations…it was great!  Thanks Microsoft for picking up the tab on that!

Another very valuable day at the PASS Community Summit!