Building the Agile Database – book review

How do you create enterprise quality databases, that can be built quickly, effectively maintained/changed over their often long lifetimes and therefore achieve real and sustainable business value – within the constraints of an agile project? A big ask!

In Building the Agile Database: How to Build a Successful Application Using Agile Without Sacrificing Data Management’ Larry Burns looks to answer this question – building on articles he has published in this area and which I have previously referenced – see Agile database development 101.

In many projects there is often a contention between developers (tend to short term, project focused) and data professionals (tend to be longer term, enterprise focused), and while there is an abundance of material on agile software development – there is little to none relating to data management. This book looks at the issue of how agile development and data management can coexist – ‘agile data management’. It offers lots of practical advice on many topics including:

  • Considering how a project/application fits within the overall enterprise.
  • Logical and physical modelling – taking a ‘just enough’ approach without losing quality.
  • Database design and development in an ‘agile way’.
  • Taking into account all stakeholders within the enterprise.

Key take aways

  • When designing databases teams need to think about PRISM – performance, reusability, integrity, security and maintainability.
  • Achieve an appropriate balance of getting functionality to users quickly and thinking about the long term best interests of the organisation ie do not add unsustainable enterprise debt.
  • Automate database development – from ‘physicalising’ logical models, testing, to deployment.
  • Think about the maintenance and quality of the database and the data within it. Not just for initial development but for the overall life span of the database. Data quality issues are often much harder and more costly to fix than software issues. A truly agile approach needs to address this point. (the author makes the suggestion that developers should have to maintain application for at least a year after deployment!)
  • Decouple databases from their applications by using a ‘virtual data layer’(VDL) (I would use the term DB API)using technology such as views/sprocs. This makes refactoring/changes less costly and ultimately more agile for both individual projects and the enterprise as a whole.
  • The use of a VDL allows application specific views of the data – whilst allowing base schema to be based on a fully normalised logical model’.

Some enhancements?
There are a couple of areas in which I would have liked to have seen more detail including:

  • Modelling data at an enterprise level and how it relates to projects.
  • Database unit testing and automating techniques

Many developers perceive data management practices to be an unnecessary bottleneck, are often not aware that a continuous integration approach can be taken when developing databases and how using a ‘VDL’ can help decouple applications from databases therefore allowing more effective refactoring/changes without the need for ‘scrap and rework’. Many data professionals perceive agile as meaning little to no analysis/design and not paying appropriate attention to the strategic needs of the enterprise.

Whilst the book does address these misconceptions, I think it would have been the ‘icing on the cake’ to have included a more detailed end to end case study (especially the areas outlined above) – including enterprise models, code, scripts and tests – to clearly show the advantages this approach brings and to show how ‘both camps’ can learn from each other.

Note this is not meant to be a criticism of the book. In its 270 odd pages the author covers a lot of ground and I realise that at some point a line has to be drawn on what is/is not included. This is a good book and I would recommend all involved in projects to read it.

But, I would have liked to have seen them covered in a more detail. Ideally with practical examples and ‘fully integrated’ with the other areas covered in the case study.

Final note
To sign off I will leave you with a quote from the book – perhaps the key point for ALL involved in projects to remember:

“Both application developers and data managers need to understand that it’s not their money that is being spent and that, personal interests aside, the important goal is to satisfy both the short-term and long-term needs of the business.”


One Response to Building the Agile Database – book review

  1. physical Education Within the homeschool

    Building the Agile Database – book review | Michael Baylon's blog

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