Database resellers and managed service providers (MSPs) choosing to specialize or supplement their offerings with remote DBA services face the same hurdles and challenges they'd face when trying to sell any other service offering. I have ordered these problems according to client feedback on problem areas.
Limits to remote DBA profit potential
Different types of businesses scale in different ways. Software companies can scale extremely well, as their initial costs are in research, development and marketing, and to a lesser extent support. This is a fixed cost no matter how much product they sell and consequently the profit potential can be huge. However, most businesses are labor intensive, and can only scale to the extent the public demands their services and they provide labor to meet those demands.
The profit potential of a remote DBA company is limited. Remote DBA companies can only scale according to the number of DBAs they have on staff. For example, they can't commit to offer their clients 200 hours of services per month unless they have DBAs to meet these contract requirements. Finding or attracting and retaining quality DBAs is the toughest hurdle for companies offering remote DBA services. Typically more time is spent finding staff than finding clients. A good approach is to find the staff and then find work for them.
While the maxim "if you build it they will come" worked in the movie Field of Dreams it won't work for remote DBA service companies; they have to constantly actively recruit new talent. Personal referrals are always best as they remove the element of the unknown with new hires. SQL Server user groups can also be a good source of new recruits. As these new recruits are the remote DBA company's public face, the behavioral interview can be more important than the technical interview.
Selecting a remote DBA pricing model
Fixed-price model: The pricing model lends itself to scalability. For example, if a value-added reseller (VAR) is merely offering a maintenance service, he can also offer a fixed price per month. The VAR can then bring the client under a stable environment that is largely self maintaining and therefore requires fewer hours on a monthly basis than the monthly fee. This model will typically not work for contract work.
Tiered-support model: The classic way to scale is to offer tiered support. Client requests would be assigned to the remote DBA company's appropriate group (i.e., the SQL developer group, backup group, performance and troubleshooting group, etc.) or tier depending on the task or its complexity. Should the task prove too complex for the lower tier it would be escalated to a higher tier consisting of DBAs with greater levels of experience, who could complete the task in a timely manner without taking away from their work at hand. This proves to be scalable as it is easier to attract and train entry level or junior DBAs than to attract and train senior DBAs. The lower-tiered staff quickly develops skills to handle the more simple tasks and should become familiar with the more complex tasks. It is a good idea to keep the lower-tiered support DBAs involved in the problem as it is escalated to the more senior DBAs to expand their knowledge and leverage the skill set of their knowledgeable counterparts.
Retainer-fee model: Some remote DBA service providers offer specialized services that clients will pay a retainer for. For example, SQL Servants offers high-end performance tuning and the majority of its business is on a retainer model. Clients pay a monthly retainer should they ever require services for performance tuning or troubleshooting on mission-critical SQL Servers.
One interesting twist on the retainer model is the concept of an auto-renewing contract. A client will purchase 200 hours of contracting services for the first month and the contract auto-renews each month. Should the 200 hours worth of service be depleted in less than the first month, it will be renewed.
Providing contracting services
As mentioned previously, like all service-based businesses, contracting services only scale as much as a remote DBA company can add contractors to service clients. Not only do clients have to be continually recruited, but contractors must also be recruited.
Other VARs like Solid Quality Learning (now Solid Quality Mentoring) offer specialized training and mentoring. Training is not a repeatable or renewable service. (How many times can you train the same people on the same topics?) So the company has expanded its services into mentoring, and consulting and contracting services.
Client communication challengesOne of the buzz phrases in the database sales force right now is "feel the love!" The sales force has to constantly communicate the value of its services to clients. Similarly, remote DBAs may face a crisis of confidence with some clients especially during the early days of an engagement. It is critical that the remote DBA company demonstrates that its offering a team of three or more DBAs the clients can trust with their data.
It is also appropriate to set client expectations. Clients may have ill-informed notions of what constitutes high availability, for example. They may expect five 9s without clustering. Service-level agreements (SLAs) should be negotiated in terms of service, and backup and recovery.
During the engagement, team members should keep each other informed of all aspects of the project. The recommended way of doing this is through a run book, which contains information on all the servers supported, as well as details on client contact information, the databases, jobs, backups, etc. Also critical is that the VAR's DBA team knows its limits. For example, if they think a stored procedure must be changed, they must understand the client's change management protocol. Can they make the changes themselves and report them to the client, or do they have to submit the requested changes to the client and have them approve and implement them? These limits must be predefined with the client and strictly adhered to.
Conducting database environment assessment
Frequently clients will not have a good inventory of their SQL Servers; they may not know passwords or service pack levels, for instance. Nor may their databases be backed up or adhere to best practices. It is essential that a remote DBA service provider conduct an assessment to understand what they can expect when managing the client. This will give them an understanding of the client's skill level as well as environmental complexities. It also provides the opportunity to implement best practices.
Oddly enough, client retention has not been a problem for remote DBA service providers I have worked with or interviewed, who say the quality of their services keeps clients renewing. Client retention is typically in excess of 90%.
Providing 24x 7 DBA support
Should a VAR elect to provide 24x7 support to a client, staff may quickly burn out should a client continually require support outside of the normal business hours -- unless staff is in place to work off hours. One option is to diversify a remote DBA business with offshore services. For example; SQL Servants is an Australian-based company with U.S. branches; Australian affiliates provide services to the American clients from 9 pm to 9 am and the American affiliates provide services to their Australian clients.
Should a VAR not be able to diversify off shore, reliable methods of contacting staff during off hours must be established. Answering services traditionally filled this void, however, with the advent of mobile phone technologies, 24x7 coverage answering services may no longer be essential.
About the author: Hilary Cotter has been involved in IT for more than 20 years as a Web and database consultant. Microsoft first awarded Cotter the Microsoft SQL Server MVP award in 2001. Cotter received his bachelor of applied science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Toronto and subsequently studied economics at the University of Calgary and computer science at UC Berkeley. He is the author of a book on SQL Server transactional replication and is currently working on books on merge replication and Microsoft search technologies. Ask Hilary your remote database services questions.