Small Disasters

Today was an interesting confluence of events. I was exchanging emails with an associate who is in the middle of getting a Master’s in Disaster Management and we were talking about scale and scope of disasters.

At about the same time I was monitoring email from one of my clients. The thread started out with a fairly minor report: Viewpoint Drive – Water Main Break. Not a huge, earth shattering disaster. Simply a notice that there was a waterline break in a nearby road and asked people if they noticed issues to let management know.

Within an hour there was a follow-up email stating that there was no longer adequate water pressure in the building and that folks should go home and finish their workday there. Furthermore, employees were told that for the next day the company was securing water bottles for drinking water and would be bringing in portable toilets.

Now, when people think about disasters, often they think about fires and other things that might destroy a building. But, that’s pretty rare.  It’s the other things that companies don’t necessarily plan for. Your company may have adequate backups of all its servers (but are you sure?) but does it have a plan for not having water?

I’ve worked with managers who have basically said, “eh, we can work around that.” Truth is, legally in most cases they can’t. If the building doesn’t have potable water and working sanitation facilities many municipalities won’t allow it to be occupied.

So does your company have a plan? Are the people who can authorize expenditures in on the loop? Who is going to declare a disaster and put the plan into motion? Who will sign for the porta-potties when they show up?  These are some of the things you have to think about.

So disasters about more than just a good set of backups. Sometimes it’s about the toilets. Think about that.

 

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Deep Drilling

I was reviewing the job history on one of the DR servers of a client of mine. I noticed something funny. The last job recorded in the job history table (msdb.dbo.sysjobhistory for those playing along at home) was recorded in January of this year.

But jobs were still running. It took me awhile to track it down, but through some sleuthing I solved the problem. First, I thought the msdb database might have filled up (though that event should have generated an error I’d have seen).  Nope.

Then I thought perhaps the table itself was full somehow. Nope, only about 32,000 records.  No luck.

I finally tried to run sp_sqlagent_log_jobhistory manually with some made up job information.

Msg 8115, Level 16, State 1, Procedure sp_sqlagent_log_jobhistory, Line 99
Arithmetic overflow error converting IDENTITY to data type int.
Arithmetic overflow occurred.

Now we’re getting someplace.  After a minor diversion of my own doing I then ran

DBCC CheckIDENT('sysjobhistory',NORESEED)

This returned a value of 2147483647. Hmm, that number looks VERY suspicious. A quick check of Books Online confirmed that’s the max value of a signed int.

Now, the simple solution, which worked for me in this case was to issue a

truncate table sysjobhistory

This removed all the rows in the table AND reset the IDENTITY value. Normally I’d hate to lose history information, but since this was 6 months old and seriously out of data it was acceptable. I could have merely reset the IDENTITY seed value, but there’s no guarantee I would not have then had collisions within the table later on. So this was the safest solution.

But wait, there was more. It kept bugging me that I had somehow reached the 2 BILLION row limit for this table. Sure, it handles log-shipping for about a dozen databases and as a result does about 48 jobs an hour, plus other jobs.  But for a year that should generate less than 1 million rows.  This database server hasn’t been running for 2 thousand years.

So, I decided to monitor things a bit and wait for a few jobs to run.

Then, I executed the following query.

select max(instance_id) from sysjobhistory

This returned a value along the lines of 232031.  Somehow, in the space of an hour or less, my sysjobhistory IDENTITY column had increased by over 232,000. This made no sense. But it did explain how I hit 2 billion rows!

So I started looking at the sysjobhistory table in detail. And I noticed gaps. Some make sense (if a job has multiple steps, it may temporarily insert a row and then roll it back once the job is done and put in a job completion record, and with the way IDENTITY columns work, this explains some small gaps). For example, there was a gap in instance_id from 868 to 875. Ok that didn’t bother me. BUT, the next value after 875 was 6,602. That was a huge gap! Then I saw a gap from 6,819 to 56,692. Another huge gap. As the movie says, “Something strange was going on in the neighborhood”.

I did a bit more drilling and found 3 jobs that were handling log-shipping from a particular server were showing HUGE amounts of history. Drilling deeper, I found they were generating errors, “Could not delete log file….”. Sure enough I went to the directories where the files were stored and there were log files going back to November.  Each directory had close to 22,000 log files that should have been deleted and weren’t.

Now I was closer to an answer. Back in November we had had issues with this server and I had to do a partial rebuild of it. And back then I had had some other issues related to log-shipping and permissions. I first checked permissions, but everything seemed fine.

I then decided to check attributes and sure enough all these files (based on the subdirectory attribute setting) had the R (readonly) value set. No wonder they couldn’t be deleted.

Now I’m trying to figure out how they got their attribute values set to R. (This is a non-traditional log-shipping setup, so it doesn’t use the built in SQL Server tools to copy the files. It uses rsync to copy files through an SSH tunnel).

So the mystery isn’t fully solved. It won’t be until I understand why they had an R value and if it will happen again.  That particular issue I’m still drilling into. But at least now I know why I hit the 2 billion row limit in my history table.

But, this is a good example of why it’s necessary to follow through an error to its root cause. All too often as an IT manager I’ve seen people who reported to me fix the final issue, but not the root cause. Had I done that here, i.e. simply cleared the history and reset the IDENTITY value, I’d have faced the same problem again a few weeks or months from now.

Moral of the story: When troubleshooting, it’s almost always worth taking the time to figure out not just what happened and fixing that, but WHY it happened and preventing it from happening again.

 

Testing

This ties in with the concept of experimentation. Thomas Grohser related a story the other night of a case of “yeah, the database failed and we tried to do a restore and found out we couldn’t.”

Apparently their system could somehow make backups, but couldn’t restore them. BIG OOPS.  (Apparently they managed to create an empty database and replay 4.5  years of transaction logs and recover their data. That’s impressive in its own right.)

This is not the first time I’ve worked with a client or heard of a company where their disaster recovery plans didn’t pass the first actual need of it. It may sound obvious, but companies need to test the DR plans. I’m in fact working with a partner on a new business to help companies think about their DR plans. Note, we’re NOT writing or creating DR plans for companies, we’re going to focus on how companies go about actually implementing and testing their DR plans.

Fortunately, right now I’m working with a client that had an uncommon use case. They wanted a restore of the previous night’s backup to a different server every day.

They also wanted to log-ship the database in question to another location.

This wasn’t hard to implement.

But what is very nice about this setup is, every 15 minutes we have a built-in automatic test of their log-backups.  If for a reason log-backups stop working or a log gets corrupt, we’ll know in fairly short time.

And, with the database copy, we’ll know within a day if their backups fail.  They’re in a position where they’ll never find out 4.5 years later that their backups don’t work.

This client’s DR plan needs a lot of work, they actually have nothing formal written down. However, they know for a fact their data is safe. This is a huge improvement over companies that have a DR plan, but have no idea if their idea is safe.

Morale of the story: I’d rather know my data is safe and my DR plan needs work than have a DR plan but not have safe data.

Experimenting

There are times when you have to take at face value what you are told.

There are 1.31 billion people living in China. This according to several sources (that all probably go back to the same official document from the Chinese government.)  I’m willing to believe that number. I’m certainly not going to go to China and start counting heads. For one, I don’t have the time, for another, I might look awfully weird doing so. It’s also accurate enough for any discussions I might have about China. But if I were going to knit caps for every person in China I might want a more accurate number.

That said, sometimes one shouldn’t take facts at face value. A case in point is given below. Let me start out with saying the person who gave me this fact, wasn’t wrong.  At least they’re no more wrong than the person who tells me that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8m/s².  No, they are at worst inaccurate and more likely imprecise. Acceleration due to gravity here on Earth IS roughly 9.8m/s². But it varies depending where on the surface I am. And if I’m on the Moon it’s a completely different value.

Sometimes it is in fact possible to actually test and often worth it. I work with SQL Server and this very true here. If a DBA tells you with absolute certainty that a specific setting should be set, or a query must be written a specific way or an index rebuilt automatically at certain times, ask why. The worst answer they can give is, “I read it some place.”  (Please note, this is a bit different from saying, “Generally it’s best practice to do X”. Now we’re back to saying 9.8m/s², which is good enough for most things, but may not be good enough if say you want to precisely calibrate a piece of laboratory equipment.)

The best answer is “because I tested it and found that it works best”.

So, last night I had the pleasure of listening to Thomas Grohser speak on the SQL IO engine at local SQL Server User Group meeting. As always it was a great talk. At one point he was talking about backups and various ways to optimize them. He made a comment about setting the maxtransfersize to 4MB being ideal. Now, I’m sure he’d be the first to add the caveat, “it depends”. He also mentioned how much compression can help.

But I was curious and wanted to test it. Fortunately I had access to a database that was approximately 15GB in size. This seemed liked the perfect size with which to test things.

I started with:

backup database TESTDB to disk=’Z:\backups\TESTDB_4MB.BAK’ with maxtransfersize=4194304

This took approximately 470 seconds and had a transfer rate of 31.151 MB/sec.

backup database TESTDB to disk=’Z:\backups\TESTDB_4MB_COMP.BAK’ with maxtransfersize=4194304, compression

This took approximately 237 seconds and a transfer rate of 61.681 MB/sec.

This is almost twice as fast.  While we’re chewing up a few more CPU cycles, we’re writing a lot less data.  So this makes a lot of sense. And of course now I can fit more backups on my disk. So compression is a nice win.

But what about the maxtransfersize?

backup database TESTDB to disk=’Z:\backups\TESTDB.BAK’

This took approximately 515 seconds and a transfer rate of 28.410 MB/sec. So far, it looks like changing the maxtransfersize does help a bit (about 8%) over the default.

backup database TESTDB to disk=’Z:\backups\TESTDB_comp.BAK’ with compression

This took approximately 184 seconds with a transfer rate of 79.651 MB/sec.  This is the fastest of the 4 tests and by a noticeable amount.

Why? I honestly, don’t know. If I was really trying to optimize my backups, most likely I’d run each of these tests 5-10 more times and take an average. This may be an outlier. Or perhaps the 4MB test with compression ran slower than normal.  Or there may be something about the disk setup in this particular case that makes it the fastest method.

The point is, this is something that is easy to setup and test. The entire testing took me about 30 minutes and was done while I was watching tv last night.

So before you simply read something on some blog someplace about “you should do X to SQL Server” take the time to test it. Perhaps it’s a great solution in your case. Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps you can end up finding an even better solution.