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The Importance of Blue-Sky Planning

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

As data professionals, most of us are quite busy with the day-to-day operations of our respective platforms. You may be in charge of not only SQL Server Instances, servers and architectures, but also other data platforms and perhaps even other “information distribution systems” like SharePoint or integration suites. In fact, the “Day to Day” or operational work is so essential and time consuming that we often don’t have time to think of much else. Most of us don’t have jobs that allow us to only focus on what is new and cool — we have to provide a value to our organizations beyond what is coming next, so we often don’t think that much about it.

But it’s important that we do. In a moment I’ll talk more about that, but the first thing to focus on is finding any time at all to devote to new technologies and trends. I have a few tricks and tips that I’ve learned over the years that have helped me to do that, and I’ll share what I’ve learned.

Staying Ahead of the Tidal Wave

I use a variety of methods to help me deal with the pressure of ensuring that my systems stay up and running. The first thing I ensure is that my systems are running using the best practices, with the exceptions carefully documented. There are a lot of sources for this information, from Microsoft corporate websites to various blog entries, whitepapers and other resources, all the way to checklists and tools like the Best Practices Analyzer and SQL Server 2008 (and higher) Policy Based Management. The reason I focus on this so much is that by ensuring I’m following the best practices to begin with I don’t generate as many problems, especially ones that will take a lot of time to correct. It’s no guarantee, of course, but it does help.

Just after I audit my systems and protect those using best practices, I look into automation. Automation is simply finding a way to have the computer take care of tasks on a scheduled or event basis. The key here is looking for any task that has repetition involved — even if some things change. Which brings me to the next strategy...

I try and leverage as many tools as I can. The first set of tools I leverage are the ones included with SQL Server. There are automation tools from SQL Server Agent to SQL Server Alerts, and PowerShell and others even in the Windows platform that will respond to events or work on a schedule. Understanding where these fit and then implementing them with proper error correction and logging can free up an amazing amount of time.

Another strategy I use to gain time actually takes a little time — education on the current product. I find that the more I know about the product I’m working on, the more efficient I am with it — meaning the faster I can do a task, and the fact that I do it “correctly” means that I have to spend less time fixing problems or optimizing a badly running function. that buys me more time to squeeze a little forward-thinking in.

Why Perform Blue Sky Research and Planning

If you follow the steps above, you may be able to find a little time to study for “Blue Sky” projects. And just what does that mean?

“Blue Sky” is a term that means projects involving upcoming (or even nonexistent) technologies that you may never get to implement. It’s asking yourself (and your team) the question “If we had an unlimited budget and time to do things the way we wanted to, what would we do?” or “What are some of the most trendy companies — even those outside our area — doing to make their organization better?”

It’s important to realize that you always have to keep the servers going, the organization running, and costs low. But thinking in new ways, even ways that don’t apply directly to your systems, has a lot of benefits. It allows you to find things that do apply to your situation that you might not have thought of before. This kind of thought process, called “lateral thinking," is also sometimes called “out of the box," since you’re no longer thinking in ways bound by the previous way you did something before.

This importance isn’t just limited to new ways of problem-solving. By investigating future trends, you can help your organization prepare for the future, which helps with budgeting and forecasting as well.

This is all strategic-level work. That means you’re not focusing on the parts that work on a day-to-day basis, but on long-term goals — which assumes, of course, that you have some long-term goals! If not, then blue-sky research is a great way to get some.

And there is another, less tangible reason to do blue-sky planning. It’s fun! Most of us are technical “geeks” — meaning we really enjoy learning, playing with and using new technology. As part of the benefits for putting in long hours and thinking deep thoughts, a little time to play with the new technology is simply a benefit for the technologist that can end up being a benefit for the organization. As trivial as this sounds, allowing my team to stay on the cutting edge is something I worked hard at as a manager. It can actually draw top talent to your efforts.

I’ve had to carefully budget my time for learning new things. Once again, even with all of the efforts of automation and best practices there is still a significant amount of work to do just to keep operations running. But when I do find a little time, I try and spend it in a concentrated effort on new and exciting technologies.

Resources for Blue Sky Research

I’ve found that there are quite a few resources available to help me learn new technologies — many, in fact most of them free. While there are many sources (which I’ll explain in a moment), the first place to start is with a Virtual Machine.

That’s right — the first thing I do is to install a Virtual Machine (I use Virtual PC, but VMWare or Xen are fine as well) and then either download an evaluation copy of the operating system I want to work with or use a legal copy I have for this purpose. I want to ensure I have a place to install and work with the latest technology so that I don’t ever corrupt my production or even development servers. This also allows me to make rapid changes and return to a point in time for the operating system.

Which brings me to the first resource I rely on for new technology research, particularly in the Microsoft world. The Microsoft Developer Network, or MSDN, has a “subscription” that you can buy for a yearly fee that gives you a certain number of legal licenses for most Microsoft products (not games) for development and evaluation purposes. The MSDN Library is available online for free, but this offering does have a cost. For what you get, however, it’s well worth the money, and most places I’ve worked pay for a subscription for most of the developers. There are other benefits with this subscription, including having those legal licenses for operating systems and of course SQL Server. You also get early access to the Beta or Community Technology Preview (CTP) releases of Microsoft products.

Of course, Microsoft isn’t the only game in town. Many vendors have a similar offering, so you should investigate the vendors you’re interested in. Some of the vendors also have beta or CTP-like offerings, so make sure you research each vendor’s site and plug into those.

Along with the MSDN site, I also visit the Microsoft Research website, and others like it such as IBM’s Research Centers.

I also frequent the major news sites, in their technology and science areas. I follow Twitter and FaceBook feeds of important scientific and technological people, and I also watch many of the TED videos — you are watching those already, are you not?

I attend as many conferences as I can. Some of these are local and free, others are in distant locations and cost money. Whenever possible, I try to present what I do know at one of these, which not only makes me learn more but makes the event less expensive.

Finally, there are several Web sites and Journals I follow. InformIT has several vertical technological areas that I don’t specialize in, so I try and keep a close eye on those as well, especially in the topic headings. After all, they will have the same mix of operational and future technology discussions that we have in the database world. The journals I read are the ACM “Queue” magazine and Microsoft’s Architecture Journal, among others.

So as you can see, there’s a lot out there to help you — if you’ll take the time to do a little blue-sky research on your own.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

Technology forecasting — a great article from 2001, The Future of Technology, by Cooper Smith is here.

Books and eBooks

A great example of things you can learn about the future and blue-sky planning are in the book Innovate the Future: A Radical New Approach to IT Innovation, by David Croslin.

Online Resources

And then there’s Gizmodo — one of the sites I follow to find new and sometimes strange technology stories.