SQL101: Avoiding Mistakes on a Production Database Server

As Kimberly blogged about earlier this year, SQLskills has an ongoing initiative to blog about basic topics, which we’re calling SQL101. We’re all blogging about things that we often see done incorrectly, technologies used the wrong way, or where there are many misunderstandings that lead to serious problems. If you want to find all of our SQLskills SQL101 blog posts, check out SQLskills.com/help/SQL101.

One reason that it is relatively difficult to get your first job as a DBA (compared to other positions, such as a developer) is that it is very easy for a DBA with Production access to cause an enormous amount of havoc with a single momentary mistake.

As a Developer, many of your most common mistakes are only seen by yourself. If you write some code with a syntax error that doesn’t compile, or you write some code that fails your unit tests, usually nobody sees those problems but you, and you have the opportunity to fix your mistakes before you check-in your code, with no one being any the wiser.

A DBA doing something like running an UPDATE or DELETE statement without a WHERE clause, running a query against a Production instance database when you thought you were running it against a Development instance database, or making a schema change in Production that is a size of data operation (that locks up a table for a long period) are just a few examples of common DBA mistakes that can have huge consequences for an organization.

A split-second, careless DBA mistake can cause a long outage that can be difficult or even impossible to recover from. In SQL Server, Cntl-Z (the undo action) does not work, so you need to be detail-oriented and careful as a good DBA. As the old saying goes: “measure twice and cut once”.

Here are a few basic tips that can help you avoid some of these common mistakes:

Using Color-Coded Connections in SSMS

SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS) has long had the ability to set a custom color as a connection property for individual connections to an instance of SQL Server. This option is available in legacy versions of SSMS and in the latest 17.4 version of SSMS. You can get even more robust connection coloring capability with third-party tools such as SSMS Tools Pack.

The idea here is to set specific colors, such as red, yellow, or green for specific types of database instances to help remind you when you are connected to a Production instance rather than a non-Production instance. It is fairly common to use red for a Production instance. This can be helpful if you don’t have red green color blindness, which affects about 7-10% of men, but is much less common among women.

Figure 1 shows how you can check the “Use custom color” checkbox, and then select the color you want to use for that connection. After that, as long as you use the exact same connection credentials for that instance from your copy of SSMS, you should get the color that you set when you open a connection to that instance.

I would not bet my job on the color always being accurate, because depending on exactly how you open a connection to the instance, you may not always get the custom color that you set for the connection. Still, it is an extra piece of added insurance.


Figure 1: Setting a custom color for a connection

Figure 2 shows a red bar at the bottom of the query window (which is the default position for the bar) after setting a custom connection color. This would help warn me that I was connected to a Production instance, so I need to be especially careful before doing anything.


Figure 2: Query window using red for the connection

Double-Checking Your Connection Information Before Running a Query

Something you should always do before running any query is to take a second to glance down to the bottom right of SSMS Query window to verify your current connection information. It will show the name of the instance you are connected to, your logon information (including the SPID number), and the name of the database you are connected to.

Taking the time to always verify that you are connected to the database and instance that you think you are BEFORE running a query will save you from making many common, costly mistakes.

Wrap Queries in an Explicit Transaction

One common safety measure is to wrap your queries (especially potentially dangerous ones that update or delete data) in an explicit transaction as you see in Figure 3. You open an explicit transaction with a BEGIN TRAN statement, then run just your query, without the COMMIT TRAN statement. If the query does what you expect (which the xx rows affected message can often quickly confirm), then you commit the explicit transaction by executing the COMMIT TRAN statement.

If it turns out that you just made a horrible mistake (like I did in the example in Figure 3) by omitting the WHERE clause, you would execute the ROLLBACK TRAN statement to rollback your explicit transaction (which could take a while to complete).


Figure 3: Using an explicit transaction as a safety measure

Test your Update/Delete Queries as Select Queries Before You Run Them

Another common safety measure is to write and run a test version of any query that is designed to change data, where you simply SELECT the rows that you are planning on changing before you actually try to change them with an UPDATE or DELETE statement. You can often just have the query count the number of rows that come back from your test SELECT statement, but you might need or want to to browse the data that comes back to be 100% sure that you don’t have a logic error in your query that would end up deleting or updating the wrong result set.

These are just a few of the most common measures for avoiding common DBA mistakes. The most important step is to always be detail-oriented and very careful when you are making potentially dangerous changes in Production, which is easier said than done. If you do make a big mistake, don’t panic, and don’t try to cover it up. Taking a little time to think about what you did, and the best way to quickly and correctly fix the problem is always the best course of action.

5 thoughts on “SQL101: Avoiding Mistakes on a Production Database Server

  1. I also recommend relocating the status bar to the top of the query window. This makes it much more obvious to see, and a more visual reminder to review your connection before running the query.

    1. The color-coded connection option works just fine on older version of SSMS. In addition, you can also use SSMS 17.x to manage older versions of SQL Server, going back to SQL Server 2008 with official support.

  2. I completely agree and still do these techniques because I’ve learnt the hard way. I’d also note if you do use explicit transactions remember to rollback or commit. I’ve seen forgotten transactions cause issues too.

  3. >> Using Color

    Using different colors for different connections in SSMS is nice, but still it’s too easy to make mistakes, since the colors appear on the bottom but the “look & feel” of the entire windows is the same. You might move a lot from one editor to the other and missed it…

    The new “SQL Operations Studio” gives the power to create a whole different “Looks & feel” for each connection. You can create different Workspace for production, testing, QC, or community lectures. Each Workspace can based on different “color theme” and include different dashboards as well. There is no need to open the properties windows in order to change something, and we can create in advance different Workspaces.

    * This is not a recommendation to use it always as replacement for the SSMS (yet) at this time, but you might find that for daily work for some people there are advantages (and no installation is needed so you can have it with you anywhere in USB flash disk).

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