Singing The NoCOUG Blues

This is a re-post of an interview between myself and Iggy Fernandez, editor of the Journal of the Northern California Oracle Users Group (NoCOUG), Oracle ACE, OakTable member, blogger, and simply an amazing person.  The interview starts on page 4 of the August 2014 issue of the NoCOUG Journal, and demonstrates how a gifted interviewer can make someone being interviewed more interesting and coherent.

Singing The NoCOUG Blues

You are old, father Gorman (as the young man said) and your hair has become very white. You must have lots of stories. Tell us a story!

Well, in the first place, it is not my hair that is white. In point of fact, I’m as bald as a cue ball, and it is my skin that is pale from a youth misspent in data centers and fluorescent-lit office centers.

It is a mistake to think of wisdom as something that simply accumulates over time. Wisdom accumulates due to one’s passages through the world, and no wisdom accumulates if one remains stationary. It has been said that experience is what one receives soon after they need it, and experience includes both success and failure. So wisdom accumulates with experience, but it accumulates fastest as a result of failure.

About four years ago, or 26 years into my IT career, I dropped an index on a 60 TB table with 24,000 hourly partitions; the index was over 15 TB in size. It was the main table in that production application, of course.
Over a quarter-century of industry experience as a developer, production support, systems administrator, and database administrator: if that’s not enough time to have important lessons pounded into one’s head, then how much time is needed?

My supervisor at the time was amazing. After the shock of watching it all happen and still not quite believing it had happened, I called him at about 9:00 p.m. local time and told him what occurred. I finished speaking and waited for the axe to fall—for the entirely justified anger to crash down on my head. He was silent for about 3 seconds, and then said calmly, “Well, I guess we need to fix it.”

And that was it.

No anger, no recriminations, no humiliating micro-management. We launched straight into planning what needed to happen to fix it.

He got to work notifying the organization about what had happened, and I got started on the rebuild, which eventually took almost 2 weeks to complete.

Side note…

I didn’t explain how we rebuilt the index within the NoCOUG article, but I did so recently in a recent post to the ORACLE-L email forum…

Here is a high-level description of what worked to rebuild it…

1) Run “create partitioned index … unusable” to create the partitioned index with all partitions empty.

2) Create a shell-script to run NN SQL*Plus processes simultaneously, where “NN” is a number of your choice, each process doing the following…

alter index <index-name> rebuild partition <partition-name> parallel <degree> nologging compute statistics

We ordered the SQL*Plus calls inside the shell-script so that the partitions for the most-recent partitions (i.e. the table was partitioned by a DATE column) were populated first, and then let the builds progress back in time.  Depending on the application, you can be doing some or all of the normal activities on the table.  Our assumption (which proved correct) was that all DML occurs against the newest partitions, so those were the partitions that needed to be made “usable” first.

This approach won’t eliminate downtime or performance problems, but it will likely minimize them.

It truly happens to all of us. And anyone who pretends otherwise simply hasn’t been doing anything important.

How did I come to drop this index? Well, I wasn’t trying to drop it; it resulted from an accident. I was processing an approved change during an approved production outage. I was trying to disable a unique constraint that was supported by the index. I wanted to do this so that a system-maintenance package I had written could perform partition exchange operations (which were blocked by an enabled constraint) on the table. When I tested the disabling of the constraint in the development environment, I used the command ALTER TABLE … DISABLE CONSTRAINT and it indeed disabled the unique constraint without affecting the unique index. Then I tested the same operation again in the QA/Test environment successfully. But when it came time to do so in production, it dropped the index as well.


I later learned that the unique constraint and the supporting unique index had been created out of line in the development and QA/test environments. That is, first the table was created, then the unique index was created, and finally the table was altered to create the unique constraint on the already-existing unique index.

But in production, the unique constraint and the supporting unique index had been created in-line. When the table was created, the CREATE TABLE statement had the unique constraint within, along with the USING INDEX clause to create the unique index.

So when I altered the table in production, disabling the constraint also caused the index to be dropped.

After the mishap, I found the additional syntax for KEEP INDEX, which could have been added to the end of the ALTER TABLE … DISABLE CONSTRAINT command because Oracle recognized the difference in default behaviors.

But that was a discovery I experienced after I needed it.

As to why my supervisor was so calm and matter-of-fact throughout this disaster, I was not surprised; he was always that way, it seemed. What I learned over beers long after this incident is that, in his early life, he learned the true meaning of the words “emergency” and “catastrophe.”

He was born in Afghanistan, and he was a young child during the 1980s after the Soviets invaded. His family decided to take refuge in Pakistan, so they sought the help of professional smugglers, similar to what we call “coyotes” on the Mexican-American border. These smugglers moved through the mountains bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan at night on foot, using camels to carry baggage and the very old, the sick and injured, and the very young.

My supervisor was about 9 years old at the time, so the smugglers put him on a camel so he would not slow them down. During the night, as they were crossing a ridge, they were spotted by the Soviets, who opened fire on them using machine guns with tracer bullets. Everyone in the caravan dove to the ground to take cover. Unfortunately, they all forgot about the 9-year-old boy on top of the 8-foot-high camel. My supervisor said he saw the bright tracer bullets arching up toward him from down below in the valley, passing over his head so close that he felt he could just reach up and grab them. He wanted to jump down, but he was so high off the ground he was terrified. Finally, someone realized that he was exposed and they pulled him down off the camel.

As he told this story, he laughed and commented that practically nothing he encountered in IT rose to the level of what he defined as an emergency. The worst that could happen was no more catastrophic than changing a tire on a car.

I’ve not yet been able to reach this level of serenity, but it is still something to which I aspire.

We love stories! Tell us another story!

A little over 10 years ago, I was working in downtown L.A. and arrived in the office early (5:00 a.m.) to start a batch job. I had a key card that got me into the building and into the office during the day, but I was unaware that at night they were locking doors in the elevator lobby. I banged on the doors and tried calling people, to no avail. Finally, after a half-hour, out of frustration, I grabbed one of the door handles and just yanked hard.

It popped open.

I looked at it in surprise, thought “sweet!”, walked in to the cubicle farm, sat down, and started my batch job. All was good.

Around 7:00 a.m., the LAPD showed up. There were about a dozen people in the office now, so the two officers began questioning folks nearest the door. From the opposite side of the room, I stood up, called out “Over here,” and ’fessed up.

They told me that if I hadn’t called them over immediately, they would have arrested me by the time they got to me.

Have a nice day, sir.

The NoCOUG Blues

NoCOUG membership and conference attendance have been declining for years. Are user groups still relevant in the age of Google? Do you see the same trends in other user groups? What are we doing wrong? What can we do to reverse the dismal trend? Give away free stuff like T-shirts and baseball caps? Bigger raffles? Better food?

Yes, the same trends are occurring in other users groups. IT organizations are lean and can’t spare people to go to training. The IT industry is trending older as more and more entry-level functions are sent offshore.
Users groups are about education. Education in general has changed over the past 20 years as online searches, blogs, and webinars have become readily available.

The key to users groups is the quality of educational content that is offered during live events as opposed to online events or written articles.

Although online events are convenient, we all know that we, as attendees, get less from them than we do from face-to-face live events. They’re better than nothing, but communities like NoCOUG have the ability to provide the face-to-face live events that are so effective.

One of the difficulties users groups face is fatigue. It is difficult to organize events month after month, quarter after quarter, year after year. There is a great deal of satisfaction in running such an organization, especially one with the long and rich history enjoyed by NoCOUG. But it is exhausting. Current volunteers have overriding work and life conflicts.

New volunteers are slow to come forward.

One thing to consider is reaching out to the larger national and international Oracle users groups, such as ODTUG, IOUG, OAUG, Quest, and OHUG. These groups have similar missions and most have outreach programs. ODTUG and IOUG in particular organize live onsite events in some cities, and have webinar programs as well. They have content, and NoCOUG has the membership and audience. NoCOUG members should encourage the board to contact these larger Oracle users groups for opportunities to partner locally.

Another growing trend is meet-ups, specifically through This is a resource that has been embraced by all manner of tech-savvy people, from all points on the spectrum of the IT industry. I strongly urge all NoCOUG members to join, indicate your interests, and watch the flow of announcements visit your inbox. The meet-ups run the gamut from Hadoop to Android to Oracle Exadata to In-Memory to Big Data to Raspberry Pi to vintage Commodore. I think the future of local technical education lies in the intersection of online organization of local face-to-face interaction facilitated by

Four conferences per year puts a huge burden on volunteers. There have been suggestions from multiple quarters that we organize just one big conference a year like some other user groups. That would involve changing our model from an annual membership fee of less than $100 for four single-day conferences (quarterly) to more than $300 for a single multiple-day conference (annual), but change is scary and success is not guaranteed. What are your thoughts on the quarterly vs. annual models?

I disagree with the idea that changing the conference format requires increasing annual dues. For example, RMOUG in Colorado ( has one large annual conference with three smaller quarterly meetings, and annual dues are $75 and have been so for years. RMOUG uses the annual dues to pay for the three smaller quarterly education workshops (a.k.a. quarterly meetings) and the quarterly newsletter; the single large annual “Training Days” conference pays for itself with its own separate registration fees, which of course are discounted for members.

Think of a large annual event as a self-sufficient, self-sustaining organization within the organization, open to the public with a discount for dues-paying members.

Other Oracle users groups, such as UTOUG in Utah (, hold two large conferences annually (in March and November), and this is another way to distribute scarce volunteer resources. This offers a chance for experimentation as well, by hiring one conference-coordinator company to handle one event and another to handle the other, so that not all eggs are in one basket.

The primary goal of larger conferences is ongoing technical education of course, but a secondary goal is to raise funds for the continued existence of the users group and to help subsidize and augment the website, the smaller events, and the newsletter, if necessary.

It costs a fortune to produce and print the NoCOUG Journal, but we take a lot of pride in our unbroken 28-year history, in our tradition of original content, and in being one of the last printed publications by Oracle user groups. Needless to say it also takes a lot of effort. But is there enough value to show for the effort and the cost? We’ve been called a dinosaur. Should we follow the other dinosaurs into oblivion?

I don’t think so. There are all kinds of formats for publication, from tweets to LinkedIn posts to blogs to magazines to books. Magazines like the NoCOUG Journal are an important piece of the educational ecosystem. I don’t think that any of the Oracle users groups who no longer produce newsletters planned to end up this way. They ceased publishing because the organization could no longer sustain them.

I think today the hurdle is that newsletters can no longer be confined within the users group. Both NoCOUG and RMOUG have independently come to the realization that the newsletter must be searchable and findable online by the world, which provides the incentive for authors to submit content. Today, if it cannot be verified online, it isn’t real. If it isn’t real, then there is little incentive for authors to publish.

So making the NoCOUG Journal available online has been key to its own viability, and NoCOUG membership entitles one to a real hard-copy issue, which is a rare and precious bonus in this day and age.

Oracle Database 12c

Mogens Norgaard (the co-founder of the Oak Table Network) claims that “since Oracle 7.3, that fantastic database has had pretty much everything normal customers need,” but the rest of us are not confirmed Luddites. What are the must-have features of Oracle 12c that give customers the incentive to upgrade from 11g to 12c? We’ve heard about pluggable databases and the in-memory option, but they are extra-cost options aren’t they?

I know for a fact that the Automatic Data Optimization (ADO) feature obsolesces about 3,000 lines of complex PL/SQL code that I had written for Oracle 8i, 9i, 10g, and 11g databases. The killer feature within ADO is the ability to move partitions online, without interrupting query operations. Prior to Oracle 12c, accomplishing that alone consumed hundreds of hours of code development, testing, debugging, and release management.

Combining ADO with existing features like OLTP compression and HCC compression truly makes transparent “tiers” of storage within an Oracle database feasible and practical. The ADO feature alone is worth the effort of upgrading to Oracle 12c for an organization with longer data retention requirements for historical analytics or regulatory compliance.

What’s not to love about pluggable databases? How different is the pluggable database architecture from the architecture of SQL Server, DB2, and MySQL?

I think that first, in trying to explain Oracle pluggable databases, most people make it seem more confusing than it should be.

Stop thinking of an Oracle database as consisting of software, a set of processes, and a set of database files.

Instead, think of a database server as consisting of an operating system (OS) and an Oracle 12c container database software; a set of Oracle processes; and the basic control files, log files, and a minimal set of data files. When “gold images” of Oracle database servers are created, whether for jumpstart servers or for virtual machines, the Oracle 12c CDB should be considered part of that base operating system image.

Pluggable databases (PDBs) then are the data files installed along with the application software they support. PDBs are just tablespaces that plug into the working processes and infrastructure of the CDBs.

When PDBs are plugged in, all operational activities involving data protection—such as backups or redundancy like Data Guard replication—are performed at the higher CDB level.

Thus, all operational concerns are handled at the CDBs and the operational infrastructure from the PDBs and the applications.

Once the discussion is shifted at that high level, then the similarities are more visible between the Oracle 12c database and other multitenant databases, such as SQL Server and MySQL. Of course there will always be syntactic and formatting differences, but functionally Oracle 12c has been heavily influenced by its predecessors, such as SQL Server and MySQL.

Bonus Question
Do you have any career advice for the younger people reading this interview so that they can be like you some day? Other than actively participating in user groups!

This sounds corny and trite, but there is no such thing as a useless experience, and while it may be frustrating, it presents the opportunity to build. Understand that everyone starts at the bottom, and enjoy the climb.
Understand that learning causes stress. Stress is stress and too much can be unhealthy, but if it is a result of learning something new, then recognize it for what it is, know it is temporary and transitory, tough it out, and enjoy knowing the outcome when it arrives.

Also, don’t voice a complaint unless you are prepared to present at least one viable solution, if not several. Understand what makes each solution truly viable and what makes it infeasible. If you can’t present a solution to go with the complaint, then more introspection is needed. The term “introspection” is used deliberately, as it implies looking within rather than around.

Help people. Make an impact. Can we go wrong in pursuing either of those as goals? Sometimes I wish I had done more along these lines. Never do I wish I had done less.