To make the best decisions, organizations big and small depend on the data their systems collect on customers and internal operations — and they need someone to keep them in touch with all that information. Enter the database administrator (DBA).

But today’s database admin is not the admin of the 1990s. The last two decades have brought huge changes to the IT industry. Let's take a look at how these changes have evolved the database administrator role and career path.

Before the data-driven web

In the early days of computing, data and the systems it was stored and processed on were synonymous. There were no database administrator jobs because the database was comprised of the system and applications themselves. The specialized role of database admin developed as operating systems became more generic and database technology grew into a separate application running on top of an operating system. Organizations needed someone to manage increasing amounts of data stored in mainframes and client/server applications. The DBA role developed into a gatekeeper and caretaker: ensuring that the data was properly maintained, and helping programmers to work with it.

The web fuels big demand

Databases did not play much of a role in the early days of the Web. However, once web development technologies improved enough to easily connect websites to databases, the need for more database administrators became obvious. Web projects took weeks or months to build, in stark contrast to the years it would take for a mainframe or client/server application to be built. With such rapid development, database administrators often found themselves trying to corral dozens of developers and applications to comply with data integrity and security standards. Since many of these web developers got their start in web design or as web masters, often lacking substantial experience or knowledge in database design or security principles, database administrators had to work even harder to keep things running smoothly.

Over time, the programming languages, frameworks, software and techniques used for web development became much more supportive of sound database design. Object/relational mapping (ORM) systems such as Hibernate and Entity Framework automatically enforced best practices and greatly reduced the need for programmers to directly write database queries. The reduced exposure to direct database access made it easier for database administrators to see what code was accessing the database and to ensure that it met company needs and standards.

NoSQL, big data and the cloud

In the last few years, NoSQL databases, the big data movement and the cloud have all morphed the DBA's job. NoSQL databases relieve many of the traditional issues of database management by focusing less on structure and data relations, and shifting significant amounts of responsibility over data into the hands of application developers.

Big data technologies moved into the space traditionally occupied by data warehouses and made analysis faster and more capable. Like NoSQL databases, big data technologies empower technology professionals to perform significant amounts of work themselves and allow database administrators to focus on improving performance and finding better solutions.

Cloud applications have changed the database administrator's career path as well. As organizations put more data in applications outside the firewall, DBAs have had to find ways to enable integrations to work with these applications while maintaining security and data integrity. Use of cloud applications decentralized some data and pushed it into specialized silos outside the database administrator's reach, making data management more difficult because you can't see what data is stored where. At the same time, a company may often still have their most critical data stored in traditional relational databases. The database administrator of today is adaptive and has responsibility for multiple types of database systems, data storage and maintenance at a company.

Education and training

The major qualifications an employer seeks in a DBA are:

  • A strong technical foundation in database structure, configuration, installation and practice
  • Knowledge and experience in major relational database languages and applications, such as Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle and IBM DB2
  • Professional certifications from Microsoft, Oracle and others
  • Attention to detail, a strong customer service orientation and the ability to work as part of a team
  • At least two years of college education or a four-year college degree

Data storage has dramatically changed over time, from mainframes to databases to the cloud. But as long as there’s data, people will want information from that data, and it will need to be managed. The DBA role is not going to lose steam any time soon.

This post has been updated to reflect more current information.