Thursday, March 10, 2011

GUI or not GUI

One of the longest and loudest controversies in the DBA world is that of the graphical user interface vs command line.  Some of the opinions sound like this…

“GUIs are for newbies who don’t know what they’re doing.”
“Why should I learn all the commands – there’s already a tool to do that.”
“GUIs are too slow.”
“Learning the command line takes too long.”
“I don’t need to learn a bunch of commands that I’ll never use – I just want to get my job done.”

My own feelings about this go back to my early days as a DBA.  I had this supervisor who was an absolute wizard when it came to Enterprise Manager.  Now, we’re talking the early OEM that came with Oracle version 8.0, here.  Ancient stuff.  If it could be done with OEM, this guy could “git ‘er done”.  One day tho, some kind of devastating emergency happened.  As a newbie, I wasn’t always trusted to handle the big issues, so I went to the supervisor and told him the situation. 

“Hey boss, we need to do so-and-so.” 
“Oh,” says Boss, “I don’t know how to do that with Enterprise Manager.” 
“Um,” I says, “I don’t think you *can* do that with Enterprise Manager.” 
“Oh,” says Boss, “Then what do we do?”

I remember the look of defeat on his face.  He was a nice guy, he wanted to help, he was responsible to help, but since Oracle hadn’t written that particular ability into his GUI tool, he had no idea as to how to do it.  It made an impression on me.  I decided then and there - that wasn’t going to be me.  I made a commitment that lasted for years – I will not use GUI tools.  No matter how much longer it takes me to do the job, with looking up commands and all, I will abstain from the evil of the GUI.  And so I did.

As a result, I learned the command line.  I REALLY learned the command line.  SQL*Plus was my home.  Not only did I learn a ton of data dictionary views by heart, over time, I sort of developed a “feel” for syntax even if I didn’t know it.  I could kinda intuit what might be in a certain v$ view or I could guess what the columns of a particular dba_* view should be.  It was and is incredibly useful and I don’t regret it.  I wrote and saved my little scripts to do things.  But, over time, I started to look down on my peers who used GUI tools, inwardly thinking they really couldn’t hack it from the command line.  You obviously don’t say something like that, but you joke about it, etc, just to let them know.  It probably didn’t help matters that in the ultimate GUI vs command line deathmatch, Windows vs Linux, I was (and am) squarely on the Linux side.

What started to change me was, ironically, Enterprise Manager.  Although I didn’t use it, I’d kept up with OEM, watching it get, for the most part, better and better.  But when 10g was released, it was like OEM had a bar mitzvah, sweet sixteen and a coming-out party all in one.  Re-christened as Grid/Database Control, you could do dang near EVERYTHING with OEM now.  OEM was finally a comprehensive tool.  It was so comprehensive, that it started to shake my “GUIs are for losers” mentality.  I thought, I could really do some damage with this OEM thing (in a good way).  I started to think in terms of what would be more efficient, OEM or command line, for different situations.  Command line was still winning in my mind, but not by as much as before.

The thing that finally “brought balance to the force” for me was a quote I read by a well-known Oracle consultant/author/blogger guy.  If I said his name, you’d probably recognize it.  I read something of his where he was consulting for a client and said this, almost verbatim, “I knew their DBAs were incompetent because they were using Enterprise Manager.”  Whoa.  Now it’s true that I didn’t want to be like my old boss, unable to do anything without a GUI, but I sure didn’t want to be like this arrogant bastard either.  Besides that, I had seen enough of Grid/Database Control to know that his reasoning was crap.

In the end, the command line versus GUI war boils down to a few principles for me.  A good DBA needs to be efficient.  If you’re more efficient using a GUI than command line, then go for it.  If, on the other hand, the only reason you use a GUI is that you’re just too lazy to learn the commands, then you get what you deserve.    I’m still heavily command line oriented, but, in truth, I know there are instances where it would just be faster to use a GUI tool.  Take, for instance, performance tuning.  Everybody has their own way of doing it, but Grid/Database Control really does a good job of pulling a lot of different metrics together.  It would take a lot of scripts to pull that much information into one place.  It’s not for everyone, but it shouldn’t just be written off without a second thought.  And when you decide which one's "faster", you have to take into consideration the amount of time it took for you to come up with that whiz-bang script of yours.

In the end, I think everyone should aspire to learn how to leverage the command line.  It’s powerful, open ended, versatile and doesn’t tie you down to any particular toolset.  A GUI will always be limited by its programming.  If the programmer didn't dream it, you probably can't do it.  But the point is to get the job done.  If Enterprise Manager helps you bust out your super ninja DBA skillz, I won’t stop you.

And if you're still a hardcore command liner, I'll try to change your mind next time.  What if you could make your own GUI?  Hmm?


  1. Well I have to say I used to agree with you. Then I got more into training newbie DBAs and would start them with Toad. Its visual, and before they execute any command, we "show SQL". I consider a GUI tool a learning tool - you also alluded to this.

    GUI does save typos.

    Most ninja DBAs that have the true calling won't be satisfied in GUI. They will want to dig deep, explore and discover and yes, write their own scripts for their own views of the world. This is actually one of my interview questions when hiring - GUI or commando?

  2. Aw Dianne, you one-up'ed me. I forgot to mention that thing about "show SQL". In my newbie days, I did the same thing. Whenever I couldn't find the commands I needed, I would fire up OEM and do a "show SQL". I would never execute it directly, but would use that nice little feature to teach myself. You're right - GUIs can be great learning tools.