Monday, July 5, 2010

My favorite SQL features

Recently I ran across a contest sponsored by Microsoft SQL Server MVP Ken Simmons (Blog | Twitter). One of the ways to enter the contest was to create a blog post listing favorite SQL features. But how do you select a favorite? That’s like asking someone to choose a favorite song. Like most things the the SQL world, the correct answer is “it depends”, usually on what I’m trying to do at the time.

So here’s my top 10 favorite SQL features and tips, in the order that they come to mind. I’m ignoring features I’m not currently using, like backup compression and data encryption, and limiting myself to those I use the most often.

  1. Integration with PowerShell. This is a great feature to administer multiple SQL instances easily. For those who haven’t been on the internet in the last few years, PowerShell is Microsoft’s new scripting language based on the .NET framework. And starting with SQL 2008, PowerShell became integrated with SQL. What does this mean to you as a DBA? Well, imagine yourself as the new head DBA for your company, and you’re now in charge of 100 SQL instances. Your boss tells you that your first task is to standardize all instances. How can you quickly view the properties of each server? With PowerShell and remoting, you can easily query each instance and save the results to an Excel spreadsheet for easy analysis. I gave an example of how I do it in an earlier blog post here.      
  2. Dynamic Management Views and Functions (DMV). Introduced with SQL 2005, DMVs are a great way to see how your server is performing. I’m not going to go into them in depth here since they’ve been written about by many others much better than I can. If you’re not familiar with them, do yourself a favor and start reading about them. They’ll make your life much easier.
  3. Storing queries in the toolbox. Like all DBAs, I’ve got a number of queries that I run over and over again. There’s numerous ways to store these for easy access, but my favorite for short one-line queries is to store them on the toolbox. Simply open the toolbox (Ctrl + Alt + x) and drag your query over. To recall it, open the toolbox, copy the desired query, and paste it into a new query window.
  4. Policies. Introduced in SQL 2008, Policy Based Management allows DBAs to manage multiple servers from a central server. Policies can standardize server configurations and check them for compliance.   
  5. Report Services. Built-in reporting capabilities for the same price as the database engine. ‘nuff said.
  6. IntelliSense. This feature gives the same statement completion that you see in Visual Studio, not surprising since SQL Management Studio uses the same IDE and Visual Studio. Unfortunately it doesn’t work against 2005 servers or earlier. It did in the earlier betas but was removed in the final release. Hopefully Microsoft will put it back.
  7. Object Explorer Details. You can now see details of different database objects using the details view (F7). It’s also configurable. Just right click on the screen and choose what columns you want to see.    image   
  8. Running queries against multiple instances. If you set up Registered Groups and register SQL instances by groups, you can execute a query against all servers in the group. You can select all groups, but you can’t choose to ignore instances inside the group. It’s all or nothing. But still, a significant timesaver when you need to run multiple statements against multiple instances.  
  9. Setting variable values. One of the nice things in the .NET world is the ability to use easily change the value of a variable; i += 1 for instance. Now you can do that in SQL too. Instead of 
  10. SET @i = @i + 1

    you can now do it like this 

    SET @i += 1

  11. SQL Community. Not technically part of SQL itself, but I feel it’s important nevertheless. I first began learning about SQL on my own and quickly found myself overwhelmed. There was no time to learn at work, and I needed to find the knowledge to do my job. I found the Chicago SQL User Group and found what I needed; experienced DBAs volunteering to talk about a subject they love. ChiSUG lead me to PASS, an international group with tons of free resources. I began following blogs written by the same people authoring the articles on PASS and presenting at the group meetings. Reading these blogs lead me to twitter, where I can follow SQL experts in real-time and ask for help with the #SQLhelp tag. Finally there’s SQL Saturdays, day-long events with SQL experts speaking on various topics. Notice the recurring theme about these resources; they are all free. I’m constantly amazed by the amount of content that SQL DBAs and developers make available for no cost, and the time they put in as volunteers at in-person events. To the entire SQL community, thank you. I wouldn’t be where I am today without your help. 

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