SQL Server is a complex product, often
tightly integrated with mid-tier and end-user applications. Problems
can be many and varied, and the scope of a database administrator (DBA)
is broad, covering storage, servers, networking, applications, and
meeting business requirements. DBAs often find themselves supporting
third-party and in-house-developed applications with varying levels of
maturity and robustness. There are no fixed requirements for
Transact-SQL development, and application developers often overlook the
performance and scalability of code they write.
Consisting of the following
three steps (the data collection and analysis may require multiple
iterations until the problem’s cause is identified):
1. Define the problem.
- Data collection
- Data analysis
3. Validate and implement resolution.
Investing time and effort to develop and refine a
troubleshooting methodology helps improve the efficiency and speed with
which you troubleshoot problems. Much like planning a trip, the route
and endpoint may vary, but identifying the destination and developing
an approach to planning an efficient route is a distinct and different
skill from driving itself. As you plan subsequent journeys, you can
refine your approach, becoming more adept at determining the quickest
route and better at estimating the length of time it takes between
breaks and optimal departure time.
Troubleshooting SQL Server problems is similar to
planning a long car trip.
As you do so, consider roles and responsibilities,
communication, reporting, and seeking external help. Reaching a
successful resolution can often be achieved by more than one route.
Identifying the path of least resistance while achieving the goal is
the hallmark of a database professional experienced in troubleshooting
Developing a professional methodology
to managing problems will lead to a less stressful time at work, help
make work more rewarding, and differentiate you from others. Although
SQL Server is a discrete technology, it is often the case that when
problems occur, uncertainty arises regarding the root cause, and
problem scope is rarely well-defined. As such, issues can be passed
around support teams with little progress or ownership.
Although many of the details here
are not specific to SQL Server problems, they are good practices for
troubleshooting many types of complex IT issues.
Ten Steps to Successful Troubleshooting
The following steps provide a detailed
methodology for successful and efficient incident resolution. They
intentionally separate identification of the root cause and issue
resolution. These are different tasks, and many situations require
equal (or greater) effort to identify the root cause of an issue versus
actually fixing it. Indeed, the fix itself may be trivial, but knowing
exactly which fix to make is completely dependent on accurately
understanding the problem and its cause; therefore, accurate root cause
diagnosis is vital.
To get in front of a complex issue — that is, understand it and resolve it — use the following ten steps:
1. Define the problem —
Establish a clear problem statement. The objective is to capture in one
or two sentences a summary of the technical problem and success
criteria. A detailed explanation will likely be required later, but aim
initially to create a concise summary for circulation to interested
2. Ascertain the problem’s impact —
The business stakeholders and sponsors often don’t want to know
technical details. They want to know the operational and financial
impact of the incident. This must be categorized and monetized to the
furthest extent possible. For example, if you had a website outage, you
should estimate the cost to the organization — e.g., $10,000/ hour. If
degraded service is likely, how much will it cost in lost revenue or
reputation? If the incident prevents employees from completing their
work (e.g., call center workers are unproductive), this can be
estimated by the cost of wages plus operational impact (e.g., $10/ hour
for 50 call center employees plus any overtime to make callbacks).
3. Engage the correct resources —
These could be internal or external. In many enterprise scenarios, it
is necessary to formally engage internal resources from other
disciplines, such as storage operations, application support, and
incident management. There may be external suppliers or third parties
who should be engaged, such as hardware manufacturers, software
vendors, or implementation consultants. Ensure that all participants
are briefed with the same problem description and have a good
understanding of the success criteria.
4. Identify potential causes —
Meet all necessary parties (physically or virtually) to share the
problem description, its impact, and any troubleshooting steps already
performed. Consider proposed options to mitigate the impact or work
around the problem. Identify any possibility to minimize the immediate
impact to the business while a long-term solution is sought.
5. Plan and coordinate tasks across teams —
Develop a plan, consisting of a number of hypotheses and a number of
scenarios that may cause or influence the problem. Seek to prove or
disprove each hypothesis by assigning it to a team with the skills and
experience necessary to prove the hypothesis and reach a conclusion. —
The intention is to narrow the focus by eliminating components that are
not causing the problem, until eventually the problem component is
found. Iterate around this method until the hypotheses are proven or
6. Select a communication plan and review —
Document the plan and agree who will keep management, end users, and
the technical team updated. Mutually agree on a time to reconvene,
(e.g., every 2 hours or 4 hours may be appropriate). In scenarios with
geographically dispersed teams, maintaining an open conference call to
assist troubleshooting can be useful, but it’s still important to plan
and execute regular reviews.
7. Identify root cause —
After a number of iterations (each iteration should be isolated,
repeatable, and have narrow scope),you will have disproved a number of
hypotheses, and hopefully proved one. Once the cause of the problem is
understood, progress to the next step to find a fix.
8. Determine solution — This step involves identifying a resolution to the defined and understood cause of the problem.
9. Test and implement —
Even if the problem does not exist in the test or pre-production
environment, implement the fix there first. This involves making the
identified change and confirming no undesired impact, then deploying to
the production environment. If possible, ensure a rollback position and
be prepared to invoke this plan if necessary.
10. Review —
Post-mortem analysis will help prevent further recurrence of this issue
or new issues in the future and can be used to identify other
vulnerable systems within the organization which should be fixed, and
will improve the troubleshooting approach to ensure it is as optimized
and efficient as possible.
The ten steps outlined above and described in
more detail in the following sections describe a troubleshooting
approach you can adapt and simplify as desired. Not all problems
require full formal engagement, but adopting an approximation of these
disciplines can help you prioritize other activities, such as
monetizing the impact of problems and defining a clear problem
Behavior and Attitude
In addition to employing a good
troubleshooting approach, adopting a positive attitude with moderate
determination and persistence to identify the root cause and resolve
issues definitely helps. A positive attitude leads to better quality
results, faster resolution, and it will reduce the stress level for you
and co-workers during the troubleshooting process. Using a consistent
approach to resolving problems by decomposing them scientifically is a
proven and effective method, and many of these aspects are within your
The following behaviors and attitudes are
characteristic of the most effective database professionals when
troubleshooting complex problems:
- Remain calm — Stay objective, no
matter how urgent the problem. Project confidence and calmness to your
peers, end users, and management, even if they show signs of stress or
panic. This reassures them that you are in control and able to resolve
the problem. These people are more likely to give you the time and
space necessary to investigate and resolve the issue if they trust your
- Remember that problems are never random —
Problems with computers happen for a reason. When you don’t understand
the reason, the cause may seem random, but there is always an
explanation. Intermittent or infrequent problems in particular appear
random; seek to identify patterns or correlating events that could lead
to the circumstances that cause the problem.
- Avoid prejudice — Never assume that
you know how to solve a problem until you have a problem description
and have done some basic testing. It is not necessary to provide an
instant answer; the correct answer with a short delay trumps a quick,
inaccurate answer. This habit also builds your credibility with
management as a reliable and capable engineer.
- Avoid looking for fixes — Ensure
that finding the cause is your first priority! The people around you
will be pressing hard for a fix or an estimated time to fix. The fix is
the goal, but you must first lay the foundation by understanding the
- Think ahead — Proactively consider
potential blockers. If you may need to restore the database, start the
tape retrieval process in parallel with troubleshooting. This reduces
overall downtime and impact if you do need to revert to the backup.
Having defined the problem, recognizing
its resolution is usually relatively straightforward. Nonetheless,
explicitly agreeing on a set of success criteria helps to structure
troubleshooting steps and provide a positive test case scenario.
Otherwise, what constitutes problem resolution can be subjective.
With performance problems, for example, it can be
difficult to reach a consensus about what constitutes good-enough
performance, which can mean different things to different people. From
a DBA’s perspective, it’s often the case that the first few
optimizations realize the most performance gains, with each subsequent
performance improvement harder to achieve — meaning more effort, more
fundamental schema changes, and smaller incremental performance
improvement. For this reason, it’s important to agree on the
performance objective and when to stop tuning.
Unfortunately, it’s common to see an enterprise
spend a lot of time troubleshooting numerous issues that have nothing
to do with the main source of the problem. Avoid this by defining both
the problem and the success criteria, and seeking agreement with the
sponsor; that way, expectations are clear and understood by all parties.
Working with Stakeholders
Stakeholders are a group of people
usually consisting of business management, IT management, owners,
shareholders, and anyone with an interest in the success or failure of
the organization. Most business stakeholders want problems resolved as
fast as possible using the fewest possible resources, and managers
often feel under pressure to provide answers to users, their superiors,
and external stakeholders such as customers, investors, auditors, or
When managers are not well informed or they don’t
have confidence in the incident team, this can lead to the undesirable
behavior of micro-management. These are the managers who hover,
requesting constant updates and generally inhibiting the
troubleshooting process. You can avoid this, however, by proactively
handling an incident to ensure both that stakeholders have the
information they need and that they receive regular updates.
Broadly speaking, managers look first for a
solution, then the cause. Database professionals should first attempt
to understand the cause, then identify a solution. These opposing
approaches can lead to friction, so it’s important to recognize them
and respect each other’s priorities.
To minimize friction with management, try
enlisting their help by nominating a single spokesperson for the
incident. Request that they communicate with stakeholders and anyone
who isn’t directly involved in troubleshooting the problem. Agree on a
schedule for providing updates and stick to that schedule to reduce
distractions, such as requests for information. Identify one person to
whom you will provide updates, letting that person communicate with
anyone else who needs the information. If more than one person is
directly involved in the technical aspects of troubleshooting, nominate
just one technical person to talk to the management contact.
Managers can also help by gathering information
to determine the problem’s real impact on the business. As a guideline,
try to establish the following:
- How severely is the system affected?
- How many users cannot work?
- Is money being lost? If so, quantify the amount.
- What is the visibility of the issue?
- Are external customers affected?
- Could any regulatory or compliance obligations be breeched?
- How serious are the consequences if the problem persists?
Management can also be enlisted to
identify mitigating factors. Are any options available to run a
degraded service such as manual systems that enable some operations to
continue? Encourage managers to generate ideas for a short-term
tactical solution while the root cause is investigated and a resolution
Managers might also be helpful in engaging third
parties, initially to make contact and open a dialog, and, in
situations in which escalation is required, to engage the right
resources to advance a solution. Each of these factors can be used to
help shape the solution.
A service-level agreement (SLA) forms
an agreement between IT and the business or between an outsourcer and
an organization. The SLA should define availability and performance
metrics for key business applications. SLAs often include metrics for
response and resolution times in the event of an incident. These
agreements are non-functional requirements and useful for managing
business expectations in terms of application performance,
availability, and response time in the event of an incident.
Two terms commonly used in storage solution
design can be borrowed and adapted to most other areas of IT and
business agreements: recovery point objective (RPO) and recovery time objective (RTO). Both can be included within an SLA to govern the data loss and recovery period following an incident.
RTO refers to the amount of time a solution can
be down before the system is recovered. This varies according to the
type of failure — for example, in the event of a single server failure
in a failover cluster, the RTO could reasonably be 1–2 minutes; in the
event of a total site loss, it might reasonably be four hours. This RTO
metric essentially governs how long IT has to restore service in the
event of various types of failures.
RPO refers to how much data loss can be tolerated
without impact to the business. In the SQL Server world this commonly
determines the frequency of transaction log backups. If, for example,
the RPO were five minutes, you would need to take log backups every
five minutes to ensure a maximum data loss of the same duration.
Combining these facets of an agreement, it would be fairly common for a
DBA to agree to configure five-minute log backups, and log shipping to
a second location with an RPO of 15 minutes and an RTO of four hours.
This would mean bringing the disaster recovery location online within
four hours and ensuring a maximum data loss duration of 15 minutes.
Agreeing to these objectives ahead of time with the business is an
important part of setting and managing expectations.
Engaging External Help
It is not always necessary or possible
to solve a problem with external assistance if there is a lack of
knowledge, experience or time. Knowing who and when to call are
important aspects of successful troubleshooting. Often, the objection
to hiring a consultant, specialist, or support provider, or to open a
support request with Microsoft Customer Service and Support (CSS), is
financial. In reality, many problem scenarios can be much more
expensive to resolve without external help. The time, resources, and
opportunity costs of taking a long time to solve a problem, solving it
in an inappropriate or inefficient way, or not solving it at all can be
high. Ensure that all factors are taken into consideration when
deciding if and when to engage outside help.
In some situations, it may be cheaper to engage
help immediately — e.g., when the day rate for a consultant is half the
cost of revenue loss per day; in this scenario it may make sense to
bring in a consultant immediately. For example, it may be most
beneficial to engage a specialist for problems related to rarely used
features, as an organization might not have deep expertise with such
Besides cost, another barrier to enlisting
external help is a desire to be perceived by the organization as the
expert in a particular feature or technology. This can be quite
short-sighted, particularly if an incident is causing revenue or
reputation damage to the organization. Knowing when to ask for help is
a valuable trait, and engaging an external resource also provides the
opportunity to learn and increase the value you deliver to the
business. Using external resources also provides a firsthand
opportunity to see different approaches to troubleshooting, which can
be more valuable than the technical skills themselves.
Certain types of problems are well suited for
outside help. One such example is database corruption. This can be a
serious problem, and many urban legends and “common wisdom” surround
the best approach to resolving corruption problems, and mistakes could
easily make a problem worse, without solving the underlying cause of
If you do engage support, whether it’s from CSS,
a consultant, or another outside assistance, you will need to provide
them with some basic information. Consider the following as a starting
- Environment overview (network diagram, application architecture)
- Problem statement and steps to reproduce
- success criteria
- Key stakeholders
- Steps already taken to resolve issue and outcome
- Windows System and Application Event Logs and SQL Server Error Logs
- Profiler trace containing the problem (if possible)
- SQLDiag output if it will add value