Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Is SQL Anywhere Cool?

It's not that hard to get into the ServerFault beta...

[ "How hard can it be, they let you in?" says DoppelGanger ]
...all you need is 100 reputation points in StackOverflow and then follow the instructions on this page.
[ "And it's really easy to get 100 points on StackOverflow, isn't it?" ]
OK, here's why I think ServerFault's gonna be a huge success, just like StackOverflow: it's already got useful content. In fact, it's got the answer to the first question I wanted to ask.
[ "It's better than that, isn't it? It already had the first answer you were going to post, didn't it?" ]
Yes, that's right... I had a question, and I didn't look it up on ServerFault, I thought I would find the answer elsewhere first and post both question and answer, as my first working experience with ServerFault.

So I went and wasted a bunch of time, finally found the poorly indexed Microsoft KB page (it didn't include the message text I was getting), applied the fix, then went over to ServerFault to post the answer... and this is what I saw as soon as I started the "Ask a question" dialog:

My question was "How do I fix "MMC could not create the snap-in" in Windows?", and when ServerFault popped the list of "Related Questions" the very first one was an exact match: "MMC could not create the snap-in".

And yes, the answer was exactly the same as the one I was going to post. I'm guessing it didn't show up earlier in my Google searches because StackOverflow's still in beta.

When I wrote StackOverflow and ServerFault Are The Future I wondered if a site devoted to "people who manage or maintain computers in a professional capacity" would be suitable for asking questions about database servers. The answer is yes, ServerFault already has 34 questions tagged "sqlserver" and 15 tagged "mysql" in the first week of beta.

That means if your SQL Anywhere question is about writing application code that talks to the server, or writing SQL code that runs on the server, then StackOverflow is the place to be, but if you question is about, say, setting up a High Availability configuration, or backing up your 100GB database, then ServerFault is the place.

The question now is, "Will anyone go there, to ask and answer questions about SQL Anywhere?"

More specifically, "Will iAnywhere Solutions staff go there?" ...the vast majority of questions on the NNTP newsgroups are answered by iAnywhere tech support, professional services and engineering folks. Without them, asking a SQL Anywhere question on StackOverflow and ServerFault will be like asking a COBOL question... an experience in loneliness.

Maybe THAT'S the question: "Is SQL Anywhere cool? Or is it COBOL?"

Monday, May 4, 2009

Image Preview in ISQL

Here's a sweet new feature in SQL Anywhere 11 that didn't make it into the "What's New" section (or anywhere else) in the Help: Image Preview in dbisql.

The following SELECT includes a LONG BINARY column holding JPEG images. In Version 10 dbisql it shows up as "0xffd8ffe000104a46..." but in Version 11 it appears as "(IMAGE)":

Select one of the (IMAGE) cells and click on the "..." ellipsis button, and you get this:

Like I said, sweet! Sure beats zero-ex-eff-eff-dee-eight-blah-blah-blah...

Sunday, May 3, 2009

StackOverflow and ServerFault Are The Future

Going out on a limb here: the StackOverflow and ServerFault websites are the future for finding answers to your questions about SQL Anywhere. The first site is for programming questions, including SQL, and the second site will be for "system administrator" questions so that will cover system setup, peformance and tuning and so on.

At least, I hope that last part's right... ServerFault is currently in beta, and no, I'm not in the beta; I can't even get access to the FAQ. But it's from the same folks who gave us StackOverflow so it's probably not vaporware.

Folks who read my earlier rant about StackOverflow may be surprised at my new position. The truth is, even as I was writing that article, I knew that I'd be back. I knew that StackOverflow was so much better than all the alternatives that my negative opinions meant very little... ok, they meant nothing.

I knew that eventually I'd suck it up and return to StackOverflow.

So here I am, having just watched Joel Spolsky's Google video Learning from, all excited again...

You don't need to know anything about StackOverflow to watch the video, but you will know all about it by the time it's over.

If you're already familiar with StackOverflow, it's still worth watching; you'll learn all sortsa stuff that isn't in the FAQ:

  • In its first 8 months of operation StackOverflow has reached about 30% of the world's English-speaking professional programmers.

  • Joel is most proud of the fact that answers to new questions appear right away.

  • He is least proud of the common practice of closing off questions that are off-topic without having a place to send people. The user community is too focussed on the purity of the home page, and off-topic questions are jumped on in ways that are not friendly to newbies. Also, edit wars are recognized as being an ongoing problem.

  • The observation that "people are really good at tagging their questions" surprised me... and makes me much more optimistic about StackOverflow's future. It might have something to do with the fact that while StackOverflow's user interface works well for professionals it probably wouldn't work well for the general public; i.e., a StackOverflow for "gardeners" might work, but not one for "gardening".

  • StackOverflow is place of choice for questions about new technology; e.g., it's the number one resource for iPhone programming. New technology users tend to organize around a StackOverflow tag. SQL Anywhere may have been around for years but it's "new technology" too: web services and clients, built-in HTTP server, XML, JSON, PHP and C# stored procedures, and so on.

  • The badges you earn in StackOverflow are Napoleonic in nature: "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon."

  • The search facility isn't very good; it uses SQL Server. No surprise there, but it's kinda moot: the majority of StackOverflow hits come from Google search.

  • The StackOverflow organization: four people, two servers. No mention of backup, sure hope it's not another Ma.gnolia waiting to happen.

  • Future possibilities include lots and lots of vertical StackOverflows; e.g., StackOverflow for tax accountants. Also: StackOverflow for recruiting.

  • People have asked about licensing the software to large corporations, and although "in the long run it completely makes sense", they don't have the resources to do anything about it right now.

  • ServerFault will be up "in a couple of weeks" ...which might mean "any day now", now. If StackOverflow is any indication, ServerFault will be useful from Day One.

  • On the subject of program maintenance: There is nothing you can do to a large, working software product that is worse than deciding to simply start over and rewrite it from scratch. Examples include Netscape and Perl 6.
Why am I so interested in StackOverflow and ServerFault? Because for all sorts of reasons NNTP is doomed, and if the public SQL Anywhere Q&A process is going to survive it has to move to the web. Today. Not a year from now, not six months from now.

It has to move to a modern website, one that works well, one that's popular, one that's fast and Google-searchable.