How to Save Money with Your Azure Virtual Machine Demos

Published On: 2020-09-23By:

Sorry for spammy, SEO title, we got to pay the bills. Sometimes it’s fun to just write some code to solve problems, and not think about the world’s larger problems for a few hours. Last week, I learned something new from a client—that you can change managed disks in Azure in Premium Storage to Standard Storage if the VM connected to those disks is powered off. This is a cost savings of nearly $100/month per month per disk (assuming 1 TB disks) and since the SQL Server image in the marketplace uses two 1 TB disks, this can save you a good amount of money from your Azure spend.

silver and gold coins
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This code will loop through each resource group in your subscription and look for resource groups with the Tag “Use:Demo”. If you aren’t familiar with Tags in Azure (or AWS) they are a metadata application layer that allows you to more easily identity and filter resources. The most common use case is to make your Azure bill easier to navigate. However, you can also incorporate tagging into your management operations, as you see in this example.

After it identifies each resource group with that tag, it will then look for VMs in those resource groups, and power them down if they are running, and then migrate each premium disk on the VM to Standard. I have similar code in Github to do the opposite, however, I haven’t glammed it up to support the tagging functionality yet.

This code is available at DCAC’s GitHub here. To take this a step further you could create an Azure Automation runbook to deploy this code. In order to do that you would need to import the modules Az.Resources and Az.Compute into your automation account.  

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Why I’m Not Speaking at PASS Summit and You Shouldn’t Either

Published On: 2020-09-22By:

If you saw any of my angry tweets last night, it’s not just because the Saints weren’t good. I’ve been writing a lot about PASS and C&C the for-profit event management firm that runs virtually all of PASS’ operation. I personally think C&C imposes a financial burden on the Microsoft Data Platform community that will ultimately kill PASS. I want to run for the board of directors (once you agree to run for the board you have to agree not to speak or write poorly of PASS, but it doesn’t say anything about C&C) to try to return PASS to being a community oriented organization. PASS has been a great organization and the connections I have made have been a great foundation for the career success that myself and many others have achieved. The reason I agreed to speak at PASS Summit this year was to help enable the organization’s survival, despite my lasting frustrations with C&C.

PASS had a couple of options for doing PASS Summit virtually, and they’ve failed at every turn. The best option would have been to do a super low-cost virtual summit, using Microsoft Teams, and tried to keep the pricing at level the average DBA could pay out of pocket. This big reduction in revenue is bad for C&C’s business, but frankly given that there likely won’t be a big conference until 2022, C&C should be operating on an austerity budget, since PASS’ main income source has been severely constrained.

The Burden on Speakers

I’ve lost count of how many webinars I’ve done this year—it’s been a lot. 98% have been live—in some cases with some really dicey demos, like I did at Eight KB.  Doing a webinar or a user group meeting is a decent amount of effort, but no more than doing in-person session. However, PASS Summit has asked speakers to record their sessions—recording a session takes me at a minimum 2-3x the amount of time to execute than to simply deliver a session. Setting up cameras, lighting, and doing small amounts of editing all add up to considerable amounts of time. Additionally, you have to render the video and then upload it to the site. I say this with experience, because I just recorded three sessions for SQLBits.

You might ask why I was willing to record sessions for Bits, but not PASS Summit. That’s a good question—SQLBits is truly a community run event, for the community, by the community. Sure it can be rough around the edges, but it’s a great event, and in general the conference is great to work with. Additionally, SQLBits always pays for speaker’s hotel rooms, it’s nominal in the cost of an international trip, but it’s something that makes you feel wanted as a speaker and I remember it. PASS Summit, unless you have a preconference session (precon) doesn’t offer any renumeration at all to speakers, nor have they ever. All that being said, after recording my Bits sessions, I said “I’m never doing that for free again”. In addition after doing the work for your session, you have to show up and do Q&A for your session.

Why You Shouldn’t Speak at PASS Summit (and TimeZones are hard)

PASS has asked speakers to record their sessions just six weeks before the conference. These recordings will only ever be seen by paid attendees of the conference, and possibly PASS Pro members. Speakers received a highly confusing email informing them of this late last night, which included the time and date of their sessions. It wasn’t clear if “live sessions” still needed to be recorded—which is even more confusing to speakers. Speakers weren’t consulted about the need to record their sessions when the revised speaker agreement went out. This burden has been imposed at the last minute. I haven’t gotten any official communications since July when I received my speaker code. It’s not fair to impose this on speaker’s this late in the process, especially when you aren’t compensating them for their time.  Also, this is insignificant, but we were supposed to get the slide template in July, and it’s still not in my inbox. I’ve have no communications from PASS about Summit since July.

Precons are all starting in the speaker’s native time zone, which will limit the audience for many precon speakers—European speakers are starting at early a 3 AM EST, which means basically no one in North America (PASS’ main market). Most regular conference sessions are 8-5 PM EST—which probably is a decent compromise, but still greatly limits the west coast in the morning and other regions of the world like Asia. There are some evening and overnight sessions but those are extremely limited compared to EST business hour sessions. All schedules for a worldwide event are going to be a compromise, but I feel like some creativity could have been used to better support a virtual audience. For example, Ignite has replays of all its sessions available for broader time zone coverage.  As far as I know, no speakers were consulted during the making of this schedule.  

Doesn’t This Hurt the Community?

A successful PASS Summit is a good thing for the community. However, with the poor management of C&C, the marketing for the event has been poor, and with most other events either going to free or freemium models, PASS continues to charge a premium for the event. The platform that PASS is using hasn’t been demoed to speakers or attendees, to show how it would have value over a free conference like EightKB or Ignite.

I’m not going to speak at PASS Summit. I’m going to record my session, and put it on YouTube, so everyone can watch the session. And I’ll do a live Q&A to talk about it—it’s a really cool session about a project I’ve worked on to aggregate query store data across multiple databases. I challenge other speakers to follow me—the conference is so bad and so expensive, because C&C is trying to prop itself up on the back of the community. C&C needs to go away before we can move forward. I was frustrated before, but this Summit fiasco has really pushed me over the top.

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PASS is Untenable in its Current State

Published On: 2020-09-11By:

I’ve written a couple of recent posts that were extremely critical of PASS and more so C&C which is the company that manages PASS. Someone who read my last post pointed out that I probably didn’t emphasize the budget numbers I talked about enough. So let’s talk about that. I grabbed the most recent PASS financial data which was published in March 2020.

Income7,538,163 
Expenses (total) 6,589,810
Expenses (Non-Summit) 3,275,430
Cash on Hand (effective)2,477,769 

Summit Revenue Projections

This is a challenge, because obviously I don’t have the actual costs for PASS is spending per attendee for virtual summit. Many years ago, my rough understanding of Summit cost per attendee was that it was $400. So, for the purposes of my math, I’m going to estimate that virtual summit will cost $100/attendee (I suspect the actual cost is closer to $250 given that is what chapter leaders are being charged. Per the June, meeting minutes C&C has agreed to reduce their expenses by $500,000. It’s not clear where that comes in, but let’s just say that drops non-Summit expenses to $2.7MM.

If we have 2000 attendees of virtual PASS Summit in 2020 which I think may be generous estimate, all paying for the whole conference.

Income1,998,000 
Expenses (Summit) 200,000
Expenses (Non-Summit) 2,700,000
Summit Subtotal (902,000)
Cash on Hand (effective)1,575,769 

If we have 1000 attendees doing the All in One Bundle and 500 attendees doing the 3 day conference.

Income1,298,500 
Expenses (Summit) 150,000
Expenses (Non-Summit) 2,700,000
Summit Subtotal (1,551,500)
Cash on Hand (effective)926,269 

Given my experience and the current economy, I think my above projections are fairly optimistic. Let’s say my cost projections of $100 per person are too low, and the costs are $250 per person. Also, let’s say only 500 people sign up for the full conference and 500 register for the three day conference.

Income799,000 
Expenses (Summit) 250,000
Expenses (Non-Summit) 2,700,000
Summit Subtotal (2,151,000)
Cash on Hand (effective)326,769 

PASS doesn’t officially release attendance numbers, they say that 4000 people attended PASS Summit last year, which sounds really great. However, conference math is a factor here—many conferences count precons separate from the individual conference attendance. If you attended two precons, and the conference you would count as three conference attendees. In a best-case scenario where you had 4000 attendees, top line revenue would still drop by $3.5 million (or 54%) and fixed operating expenses are only down $500k (or 16%). That is as they say in business school is an untenable situation.

This is just focusing on the short term—2021 will face similar challenges. It is very possible that by November 2021, in-person conferences will be back (this assumes a vaccine in place, but Goldman Sachs does, and I trust them when it comes to money). However, I don’t see attendance quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels until 2022 or 2023, which means PASS will likely continue dipping into its cash on hand until reaching bankruptcy.

Sure, PASS Pro is a second potential revenue source, but it faces many challenges in getting of the ground and adding enough revenue to have any substantial impact. In addition to the fact that it has many community speakers feel alienated by the conversion of their Summit sessions or networking events into paid of profit sessions.

One final note, in FY2020 PASS spent approximately five percent ($385K) of its revenue on community activities. That number was substantially beefed up by a Microsoft SQL Server 2019 upgrade effort and to the total community spend has been dropping over time.  For a point of reference C&C charged pass $525k for IT services in 2019. It’s important to remember that PASS exists to serve the broader SQL community and not a for-profit firm.

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Distributed Availability Groups–The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Published On: 2020-09-10By:

I’m writing this post because I’ve been mired in configuring a bunch of distributed availability groups for a client, and while the feature is technically solid, the lack of tooling can make it a challenge to implement. Specifically, I’m implementing these distributed AGs (please don’t use the term DAG as you’ll piss off Allan Hirt, but more importantly its used in Microsoft Exchange High Availability, so it’s taken) in Azure which adds a couple of additional changes because of the need for load balancers. You should note this feature is Enterprise Edition only, and is only available starting with SQL Server 2016.

First off why would you implement a distributed availability group? If you want to implement a disaster recovery (DR) strategy in addition to a high availability strategy with your AG. There’s limited benefit of implementing this architecture if you don’t have at least four nodes in your design. But consider the following design:

In this scenario, there are two data centers with four nodes. All of the servers are in a single Windows Server Failover Cluster. There are three streams from the transaction log on the primary which is called SQL1. This means we are consuming double the network bandwidth to send data to our secondary site in New York. With the distributed availability group, each location gets its own Windows Cluster and availability group, and we only send one transaction log stream across the WAN.

This benefits a few scenarios–the most obvious being, it’s a really easy way to do a SQL Server upgrade or migration. While Windows clustering now supports rolling OS upgrades, its much easier to do a distributed AG, because the clusters are independent of each other and have no impact on each other. The second is that its very easy to fail back and forth between these distributed availability groups. You have also reduced by half the amount of WAN bandwidth you need for your configuration, which can represent a major cost savings in a cloud world or even on-premises.

If you think this is cool, you with smart people–this is the technology Microsoft has implemented for geo-replication in Azure SQL Database. The architecture is really robust, and if you think about the tens of thousands of databases in Azure, you can imagine all of the bandwidth saved.

That’s Cool How Do I Start?

I really should have put this tl;dr at the start of this post. You’ll need this page at docs.microsoft.com. There’s no GUI. Which kind of sucks, because you can make typos in your T-SQL and the commands can still potentially validate and give you non-helpful error messages (ask me how I know). But in a short list here is what you do:

  1. Create your first WSFC on your first two nodes
  2. Create an Availability Group on your first WSFC, and create a listener. Add your database(s) to this AG
  3. If you are in Azure, ensure your ILB has port 5022 (or whatever port you use for your AG endpoint) open
  4. Create your second WSFC on the remaining two nodes
  5. Create the second AG and listener, without a database. In case you really want to use the AG wizard, add a database to your AG, and then remove it. (Or quit being lazy and use T-SQL to create your AG)
  6. Create the distributed AG on the first AG/WSFC
  7. Add the second AG to your distributed Availability Group

This seems pretty trivial and when all of your network connections work (you need to be able to hit 1433 and 5022 from the listener’s IP address across both clusters). However, SQL Server has extremely limited documentation and management around this feature. The one troubleshooting hint I will provide is to always check the error log of the primary node of the second AG (this is known as the global forwarder), which is where you will see any errors. The most common error I’ve seen is:

A connection timeout has occurred while attempting to establish a connection to availability replica ‘dist_ag_00’ with id [508AF404-ED2F-0A82-1B8A-EA23BA0EA27B]. Either a networking or firewall issue exists, or the endpoint address provided for the replica is not the database mirroring endpoint of the host server instance

Sadly, that error is a bit of a catch all. In doing this work, I had a typo in my listener name on the secondary and SQL Server still processed the command. (So there’s no validation that everything and connect when you create the distributed AG). I’m sure in Azure this is all done via API calls, which means humans aren’t involved, but since there is no real GUI support for distributed AGs, you have to type code. So type carefully.

Overall, I think distributed availability groups are a nice solution for high available database servers, but without more tooling there won’t be broader adoption, and in turn, there won’t be more investment from Microsoft in tooling. So it’s a bit of a catch 22. Hopefully this post helps you understand this feature, where it might be used, and how to troubleshoot it.

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