It's new—is it worthwhile?

At the fall 1998 Comdex, Microsoft announced the release of SQL Server 7.0 and a new certification for database administrators. The Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) certification was the first new certification Microsoft had introduced in several years and was a long time in coming. Database management specialists in general, and SQL Server specialists in particular, are delighted to finally see database administration officially recognized. The road to the new certification hasn't been a smooth one, however, and questions remain about whether the MCDBA differs substantially from the MCSE with a SQL Server specialization.

Long before Microsoft introduced the MCDBA certification, confusion existed over what MCDBAs would be certified in. Beginning in November 1998, Microsoft awarded the general-purpose Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification to people who passed one exam, and many MCPs say they are certified "in" the topic that this exam targets (e.g., Windows NT 4.0, SQL Server 7.0). However, Microsoft doesn't recognize these self-awarded specializations, and no separate logos for MCP areas of expertise exist. In other words, there's no such thing as an MCP in SQL Server. To give you an understanding of the relative worth of the MCDBA, let's look more deeply at MCDBA certification and explore its pros and cons.

MCDBA Certification Requirements
Microsoft requires MCDBA candidates to pass four core exams:

  • Administering Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 (Exam 70-028)
  • Designing and Implementing Databases with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 (Exam 70-029)
  • Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 (Exam 70-067)
  • Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise (Exam 70-068)

In addition, candidates must pass one elective exam chosen from the following exams:

  • Designing and Implementing Distributed Applications with Microsoft Visual C++ 6.0 (Exam 70-015)
  • Designing and Implementing Data Warehouses with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 (Exam 70-019)
  • Internetworking with Microsoft TCP/IP on Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 (Exam 70-059)
  • Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0 (Exam 70-087)
  • Designing and Implementing Distributed Applications with Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0 (Exam 70-175)

You can get full details about the requirements for the MCDBA certification from Microsoft's Training and Certification Web site. Go to http://www.microsoft.com/ mcp/certstep/mcdba.htm.

Automatic Certification?
As of May 1999, no one had been certified as an MCDBA. Microsoft held the beta exams for Administering Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 and Designing and Implementing Databases with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 during the last week of February 1999 and the first week of March 1999, and the results of the latter exam were not available when this article went to press. As soon as that test's results are available, however, some people might achieve MCDBA certification. I know many Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCTs) who also hold the MCSE certification and took the SQL Server 7.0 beta exams so that they would be qualified to teach SQL Server classes. These trainers didn't intentionally pursue MCDBA certification—they wanted only to be able to teach SQL Server classes. But if one of their electives for MCSE certification is either Internetworking with Microsoft TCP/IP on Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 or Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0 and they also pass the two SQL Server 7.0 exams, they'll have MCDBA certification.

However, most SQL Server trainers won't find achieving MCDBA certification so easy. For example, I earned my MCSE certification several years ago, and I took the NT 3.51 core exams. I took the SQL Server 7.0 administration beta exam, and I'll take the SQL Server 7.0 database design and implementation exam as soon as that exam is available. I'll still need to take Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise and an elective. I intend to take Designing and Implementing Data Warehouses with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 for my elective, and currently no one knows when Microsoft will schedule that exam.

The Potential Value of an MCDBA
According to Microsoft, "The Microsoft Certified Database Administrator credential is the premier certification for professionals who implement and administer Microsoft SQL Server databases. It proves that you're an expert who has what it takes to meet the industry's demands." Many professionals who hope to obtain the certification hold similar views. Stuart Huff, an independent trainer and consultant, said, "I think the MCDBA will give more credibility to the work of SQL Server DBAs, especially if they keep the exams tough, because in most IS circles I've been in, professionals speak about Oracle, Sybase, and DB2 DBAs, but not SQL Server DBAs. Up to this version, I believe SQL Server has not been considered a real contender for high-end critical DBMSs \[database management systems\], so the certification goes hand-in-hand with its improvements."

The idea that MCDBA certification gives database professionals a foot in the door to higher-paying jobs seems to be shared by some hiring managers. Charles Larzalere, a database support manager for a large insurance company, doesn't think that the new certification will be a deciding factor in his hiring decisions because "there doesn't seem to be a substantial difference between an MCSE specializing in SQL Server and an MCDBA." Larzalere said, however, that although his company doesn't require certification, he would certainly look closely at prospective employees who hold MCSE and MCDBA certification. "I consider certification to be a plus, not a requirement," he said.

The most tangible benefits to earning an MCDBA include a 1-year subscription to Microsoft TechNet Plus, a new TechNet CD-ROM subscription level that lets subscribers test and evaluate beta products. Another benefit is a free 1-year subscription to SQL Server Magazine, a sister publication of Windows NT Magazine. Other benefits that Microsoft's Web site lists are those that any MCP receives. At this early stage in the MCDBA's existence, the possibility is unlikely that professionals who earn an MCDBA won't already have another Microsoft certification.

The Case Against MCDBA Certification
Many IT professionals are frustrated with what they perceive as a trend toward paper certification. These professionals contend that certification alone is at best a poor indicator of competency and a complete failure at measuring depth of experience.

Steve Myers, a SQL Server trainer and consultant, said that potential employers virtually never ask him about his certifications and are far more interested in his experience. He continued, "I've also known several individuals who have passed some of the certification exams who still don't know anything. The cram sites and all the books and tests out there can help you pass the exams fairly easily without any real experience or in-depth knowledge. Personally, I felt the exams had been dumbed down to turn out more certified individuals."

Many other professionals would like to see Microsoft toughen MCDBA certification requirements. I believe the certification needs more database-specific requirements and fewer OS-knowledge requirements.

Rick Sawtell, a SQL Server trainer and writer in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, thinks that Microsoft should rename the certification, as currently specified, to MCSE + SQL (to parallel the MCSE + Internet designation). According to Sawtell, a true DBA certification should include exams targeting performance tuning and optimization, Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS), and OLE DB and ODBC, in addition to SQL Server administration and implementation. Sawtell also thinks the Designing and Implementing Data Warehouses with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 exam should be a core requirement (rather than an elective) for MCDBA certification.

How Tough Are the Certification Exams?
Aside from questions about the value of certification in general, some consensus exists that Microsoft's SQL Server 7.0 exams are more difficult than the exams for other topics. In the May 1999 issue of Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, Brian Moore wrote an article about the Designing and Implementing Databases with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 certification exam, which he had taken in beta. Moore described the exam as one of the most difficult he'd ever taken. He summarized his experience by stating that "even if you have hands-on experience, you'll still have to commit to learning how to implement all the new features of SQL 7.0 and be clear on syntax. ...I wouldn't even consider taking the test unless you're building actual solutions with SQL Server 7.0 on a regular basis."

I concur with most of Moore's conclusions based on my experience with the SQL Server 7.0 administration exam. The exam was very detail- and syntax-oriented. You might find this view surprising, because SQL Server 7.0 administration is so GUI-based. In fact, one SQL Server professional I know was amazed to learn that Microsoft was offering MCDBA certification. His opinion is that SQL Server 7.0 is so simple, wizard-driven, and automated that enterprises using SQL Server don't really need a DBA.

However, to be a good DBA, you need to know more than which wizards to run and which buttons to click. You need to know what SQL Server is doing when you run a wizard or click a button. Many of the questions on the SQL Server administration exam expect you to understand the whys, and not just the hows, of using SQL Server.

Two of the SQL Server 7.0 core exams also include many questions that target performance and tuning. In the SQL Server implementation exam, the main concern is query performance; in the administration exam, the main concerns are overall system performance and specific operations' (e.g., backup) performance. Most of the performance-oriented questions concern material that anyone who has tuned a SQL Server system would likely know but that isn't specifically targeted in Microsoft SQL Server training courses.

Is MCDBA Certification Worthwhile?
Microsoft's MCDBA certification exams aren't guaranteed to map directly to the SQL Server training courses that Microsoft offers—you might not learn everything you need to know to pass the certification exams in any one training course. I won't go so far as to say that you can't pass the exams and obtain your MCDBA certification without real-world experience, but I will say that you can't acquire all the knowledge you need from one or two training sources.

Obtaining MCDBA certification requires breadth of knowledge, which reflects positively on any DBA. If you believe that Microsoft certification in general is a valuable qualification to place before prospective employers or clients, then possessing MCDBA certification will let you present yourself as someone who takes SQL Server skills seriously and who can bring valuable expertise and technical insights to any organization.