Reducing SSIS anxiety

Story time again. This tuesday I was to create a set of import packages in SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) to automate data loading from a couple of my customers’ storage systems. Said data comes in the shape of several text files - some delimited, some fixed length, all of varying size and shape. Anyone who’s worked with SSIS know how “fun” it is to click-click-click your way through the incomprehensibly boring GUI - a GUI that does NOT lend itself to any efficient work at all. We had been struggling with this for a couple of days before summer already, but the data format has changed and it’s basically the same amount of work to just redo the whole thing again from scratch than to try to edit all the tiny details in all the gazillion boxes everywhere.

I can’t really say that I was looking forward to this work. Again. And I knew that if we made this proof-of-concept work, we’d have to do it several times over for each and every customer that wanted in on this idea. Ugh. Then something interesting happened. This weekend I had the honour of presenting at SQL Saturday #536 in Gothenburg and I had the pleasure of meeting several amazing people. Among these was a Norwegian MVP named Cathrine Wilhelmsen, whose presentation “From accidental to efficient BI developer” I decided on a whim to attend. She showed some interesting things about the SQL Server Management Studio that I had no idea about, and I felt that those tidbits alone were well worth my time listening to someone talk about something I know basically nothing about.

Then she whipped out BIML and everything I thougth I knew about SSIS went out the window. BIML stands for Business Intelligence Markup Language and is basically a XML wrapper language for generating SSIS packages. This way I can write a bunch of XML code, generate a package or a hundred, over and over again. I don’t have to click on forty different places to change one thing in forty packages, I just change one thing in the XML and regenerate the packages. This. Is. Awesome. She showed us some websites and her blog, and home I went to study.

Tuesday came around, and I first spent about 20 minutes outlining BIML for my colleague, and then we set off - basically from scratch. We are both old hands at programming in different languages, so that was nothing new for either of us. Using different websites, examples, blogs and the like we managed to do in about six hours what we had kind of failed to do in three days. We now have a few hundred lines of code that does exactly what we want, is well documented(!), is easy to read and above all - is extensible. When I need to add a new file or two to the input - I copy and paste some code. Need to add a derived column? Sure thing, a tad more XML. And so on and so forth. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what BIML can do, but the key takeaway is this: I could get from zero knowledge of BIML and a VERY difficult relationshop to SSIS to a fair grasp of the basics of BIML and a newfound appreciation of the power of SSIS in about six hours. When was the last time you had such a return of invested time? Exactly. Now, BIML is definately not new but as a DBA I had not come across it earlier. Now I will sing the praise of BIML to all my DBA colleagues.

Now - I would not have attended Cathrine’s session had i not been invited to SQL Saturday in Gothenburg. I would not have been invited to Gothenburg had I not written an abstract and sent it for review to the organizers of said SQL Saturday. I had not had the idea to send in an abstract had I not met representatives of PASS (the association for SQL Server and BI professionals) at PASS Summit in Seattle and seen first-hand what the community can do. I’ve only been a part of the PASS community for a couple of years, but I can’t praise it enough. The community is about sharing above all - knowledge, contacts, the works. The people I’ve met have all been friendly, caring, eager to help and very, very good. I rate my getting involved in the community as one of the best and most pivotal choices of my professional career. My one regret is that I’m a bit late to the party. But I’m bringing cookies and 20 years’ worth of experience…

Useful links: