Let’s Talk PASS Summit with Microsoft’s Conor Cunningham

As you know, the SQL Server event of the year, PASS Summit, is coming to Charlotte, North Carolina this October.  The event promises a range of top notch training and networking opportunities that are designed to take your SQL Server skills to the next level.

Conor CunninghamIn today’s post, we are excited to present this interview with Conor Cunningham, a principal software architect at Microsoft on the SQL Server Query Processor Team about the Summit.  He’s worked on database technologies for Microsoft for over 10 years and holds numerous patents related to query optimization and query processing. Conor is the author of a number of peer-reviewed articles on query optimization techniques. Recently, he wrote a chapter for the book “Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Internals” on how the query optimizer works. He also publishes a blog called “Conor vs. SQL“, where he answers questions about databases.

Please read on to hear more from Conor Cunningham on PASS Summit, and be sure to include Conor’s sessions on your PASS agenda:

•    SQLCAT: Windows Azure Data Platform Technical Immersion Day (Cloud Application Development & Deployment)
OLTP Sharding Techniques for Massive Scale (Enterprise Database Administration & Deployment)

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Q: Tell us about your current role and why you are excited about the Windows Azure Data Platform?

I am an architect for the SQL team, which effectively means I help make the whole service “work”.  Sometimes that means working with engineering teams to design specific extensions to the software.  Other times, this means working with big customers on hard problems to creatively find solutions to problems that we haven’t yet officially added features to solve in the service.   I get to work on a wide range of problems every day, and it is both challenging and fun.

The Azure Data Platform is compelling because there we rarely have opportunities for large changes in the industry.  Cloud computing forces us to re-think design assumptions and to aggressively try new ideas.  I go to work each day knowing that Microsoft is serious about being a major player in the space, and getting a chance to help grow a new business is a huge opportunity.  This kind of change only happens every 20 years or so, and many people in the industry have never had a chance to work on something like this.  Every day, I have to learn something new, and it’s rare to find a job where I get paid to work on cool problems and solve new problems each and every day!

Q: Is this your first PASS Summit?  What are you most looking forward to in Charlotte?

I’ve been going to PASS for enough years that I honestly don’t really remember how many I’ve attended now.  PASS is a great chance to have people from the SQL team talk directly to customers and learn what they are doing.  To me, I always make a point of trying to go have lunch with a random table of people I don’t know and just ask them what they do with our software.  I learn a lot of things doing this, and it helps me calibrate my work when I go back to building future services to have specific use cases which I can use to tune the software.  PASS Summit brings the largest collection of members of our community together, and the resulting energy is great for me – On the days where perhaps I am a little tired or worn down by a problem, I really love reflecting on the customer cases to focus my energy to make better software.   On a personal level, I am a big fan of BBQ and I am very interested in trying some in Charlotte.

Q: What topics are you planning to cover in your Windows Azure deep-dive pre-con and sharding sessions at PASS Summit?

The pre-con idea is a result of some discussions that I had with the Customer Advisory Team (CAT) over the past year or two as we were working on some of the first big customers migrating to our cloud platform.  We had a lot of lessons learned and war stories, and we wanted to find a new way to present that material in a format that would jump start the platform a bit.  We came up with this idea to do a set of sessions where Microsoft rolled up the best practices from the people who had done the actual implementations, and then go out and spend a full day teaching people all of the key techniques we use to build a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) ISV.  It takes more than 60-90 minutes to really go deep on the material, and often having a slightly smaller room where you can take more questions helps people get engaged and take more out of the session.  The key material will cover techniques for how to build a solution on a range of services, how to architect solutions for scale and to be resilient to failure, concepts that are more critical in cloud models like building telemetry systems and dashboards, and working with people to understand how to think about scale-out architectures instead of scale-up architectures (which is more common in the SQL Server model). 

The sharding talk I will do is related to the pre-con, but I will be doing that one by myself and I will go deep on the key patterns and practices that are used to set up your data model for scale-out architectures.  I get to work with the largest customers with some of the biggest scaling requirements, and one thing I’ve found over the past few years is that not everyone immediately sees the power of what they can do with a sharding model and specifically they can make mistakes in how they design the core pieces.  Getting those early design choices right can make or break a project, and I aim to go through how to think about the design of sharding models such that you can achieve maximum uptime, perform granular live updates to a service, and allow your system to scale almost arbitrarily for whatever big problem you want to solve.

Q: What are the 3 biggest things you want your pre-con attendees to walk away with?

Attendees of our pre-con should be able to leave that day with a great understanding of how to:

  • Think about the different layers of an N-tier cloud solution and how they interact
  • Design your system to understand its current state at scale with data-driven techniques to dashboard the health of the system and to prioritize how your engineering team spends it day to improve the service
  • Think differently about SQL Azure and SQL Server, as the best practices on each are often different from what you would guess.

Q: What’s the main reason attendees shouldn’t miss the session? 

Sharding is a topic that makes a lot more sense once you’ve done it.  I urge people building cloud solutions who do not have experience with sharding to come to the talk because it has a really good chance to help you avoid the common mistakes that I see with customers trying to build sharding models for the first time.  Given that we’ve recently announced the public preview of the Premium Edition in WA SQL Database, there are now ways for customers to reason about how performance will work per shard, and this topic is not one that has been covered before in any depth.

Q: Are there things attendees can leverage in Windows Azure right away even if their organizations are not broadly implementing cloud solutions?

Absolutely – there are a number of Microsoft and third-party solutions that are already running at least partially on Windows Azure, including Microsoft Team Foundation Services (TFS) for developer tools and source control as well as parts of Microsoft Office 365.  These technologies provide a great opportunity for someone to see how they can leverage cloud-based solutions without having to install and manage tons of local software.  We’ve had customers leverage the VM-based infrastructure to do lots of creative things to enable a company to dip their toes into hosted solutions from Microsoft even if the company is still not ready to move large portions of their business to the cloud.  Inside the SQL team we actually have started looking very closely at how we can move specific things on top of our public cloud infrastructure instead of waiting for computers to be purchased and installed.  It’s a game-changer on both the individual level as well as for organizations.

Q: What would you say to someone who said he or she isn’t interested in the Cloud?

It’s getting harder for people to be ignorant of the cloud – the economics of it are such that a lot of companies will revisit decisions for parts of their businesses to see how it will move there.  There are also a lot of brand-new businesses that weren’t possible within the cost constraints of traditional software models.  While not every person will be impacted the same way or at the same time, it’s very hard for me to imagine how someone in the technology space can be uninterested in the cloud.  As Microsoft develops new versions of our services that learn and improve from what we learn with our customers today, we’re going to be able to help more and more customers take advantage of cloud-based solutions.

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Get the inside scoop from peers, and industry and Microsoft experts at the Summit.  Register now!