If I’ve acheived my aims then this is the most comprehensive resource out there covering the tools available in SQL Server for encrypting your data. I hope to supplement it with a video course covering the same topics sometime in early 2023.
The book covers the following topics:
Part I: “Understanding the Landscape” Discusses what we are hoping to achieve through encryption and why. We then look in brief at the tools available and how they should fit into your overall strategy.
Part II: At-Rest Encryption Here we look at the tools you can use to encrypt your data where it is stored on the disk. We take a deep dive into Transparent Data Encryption (TDE) as well as covering the separate Backup Encryption feature.
Part III: Column Encryption Using Always Encrypted This part is a comprehensive look at the Always Encrypted feature, introduced in SQL Server 2016, that allows you to encrypt your columns of data with the maximum level of security and the minimum amount of application rework.
Part IV: Column Encryption Using Always Encrypted with Enclaves Having looked at the “basic” version of Always Encrypted, we now take an in-depth look at how the version with enclaves differs and how you work with it.
Part V: Completing the Picture In addition to the big features like TDE and Always Encrypted, there are other items that should be included in a comprehensive encryption strategy such as TLS and EKM. We cover those in this part as well as looking at other methods that are available for encrypting data.
Appendixes In the appendixes I look at how encryption differs (or not) if you are running on a cloud platform as well as exploring encryption algorithms in a little more depth.
Over the next few months I’m going to blog about most of the topics in the book. If you’re interested in encryption though, then now is the time to buy before the publishers put the price up!
There are so many options for running SQL Server now. It can feel a little intimidating.
You’ve spent years gaining experience with SQL running on Windows Server. On bare metal or in a VM. Locally or in a data centre.
Now people are talking about SQL on Linux. SQL on VMs in the cloud. SQL Server Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering such as Azure SQL DB, Azure Managed Instance, or Amazon RDS.
Running SQL in a container on Docker or Kubernetes.
It’s easy to feel like you’re at risk of getting left behind. Feel like you’ve got to start learning from the beginning all over again.
The good news is that whatever the flavour – it’s still SQL Server. For everything that’s different there are a hundred things that are still the same.
Database design, writing and executing queries and stored procedures – it’s still the same.
Query tuning, indexing, looking at execution plans. All the same.
Even administration, many of the core concepts are the same, understanding how security works, backups, high-availability. The main difference is often that some of these might be taken care of for you and you don’t need to worry about them any more.
Caveat – you still need to worry about them a bit!
The point is, most of what you already know, the experience you have gained over the years, is still totally valid. Learning about SQL Server on a new platform may feel like a big learning curve, but in reality, the new stuff you need to get to grips with is small compared to all the stuff you already know.
And in some cases, the skills you already have become even more valuable. People might not care if your query tuning on physical kit takes your CPU down from 50% to 10%. But tell them you’ve just reduced their cloud bill by 80% and they really care!
So don’t be intimidated, and don’t feel you need to learn every flavour. Have a play with SQL Server in the cloud, have a play with containers, set up SQL on Linux. You’ll quickly find it’s not that hard, and once it’s running – it’s pretty much the same as ever.
And remember, if someone comes to you with a question about why SQL is running slow, or why a query isn’t doing what they want – on RDS, Docker, Linux, or whatever. You don’t need to know that platform inside out to be able to help, you already know SQL Server and that’s the important bit.
To paraphrase a popular lyric :
If you’ve got SQL problems I can help you son. I’ve got 99 problems but SQL aint one.
The pros and cons of parallelism have always been with us in SQL Server and I blogged about this a couple of years ago. This is an updated version of that post to include details of the new wait stat related to parallelism that was added in 2017 (CXCONSUMER), as well as to discuss the options available for cloud based SQL Server solutions.
There’s no doubt that parallelism in SQL is a great thing. It enables large queries to share the load across multiple processors and get the job done quicker.
However it’s important to understand that it has an overhead. There is extra effort involved in managing the separate streams of work and synchronising them back together to – for instance – present the results.
That can mean in some cases that adding more threads to a process doesn’t actually benefit us and in some cases it can slow down the overall execution.
We refer to the number of threads used in a query as the DOP (Degree of Parallelism) and in SQL Server we have the setting MAXDOP (Maximum Degree of Parallelism) which is the maximum DOP that will be used in executing a single query.
Microsoft generally recommend caution setting MAXDOP above 8:
Out of the box, MAXDOP is set to 0, which means there is no limit to the DOP for an individual query. It is almost always worth changing this to a more optimal setting for your workload.
Cost Threshold for Parallelism
This is another setting available to us in SQL Server and defines the cost level at which SQL will consider a parallel execution for a query. Out of the box this is set to 5 which is actually a pretty low number. Query costing is based on Algorithm’s from “Nick’s machine” the box used by the original developer who benchmarked queries for Microsoft.
Compared to modern servers Nick’s machine was pretty slow and as the Cost Threshold hasn’t changed for many years, it’s now generally considered too low for modern workloads/hardware. In reality we don’t want all our tiny queries to go parallel as the benefit is negligible and can even be negative, so it’s worth upping this number. Advice varies but generally recommendations say to set this somewhere in the range from 30 to 50 (and then tuning up and down based on your production workload).
There are many articles in the SQL Server community about how the out of the box setting is too low, and asking Microsoft to change it. Here’s a recent one:
Often in tuning a SQL Server instance we will look at wait stats – which tell us what queries have been waiting for when they run. CXPACKET waits are usually associated with parallelism and particularly the case where multi-threaded queries have been stuck waiting for one or more of the threads to complete – i.e. the threads are taking different lengths of time because the load hasn’t been split evenly. Brent Ozar talks about that here:
High CXPACKET waits can be – but aren’t necessarily – a problem. You can cure CXPACKET waits by simply setting MAXDOP to 1 at a server level (thus preventing parallelism) – but this isn’t necessarily the right solution. Though in some cases in can be, SharePoint for instance is best run with MAXDOP set to 1.
What you can definitely deduce from high CXPACKET waits however is that there is a lot of parallelism going on and that it is worth looking at your settings.
To make it easier to identify issues with parallelism, with SQL Server 2017 CU3 Microsoft added a second wait type related to parallelism – CXCONSUMER. This wait type was also added to SQL Server 2016 in SP2.
Waits related to parallelism are now split between CXPACKET and CXCONSUMER.
Here’s the original announcement from Microsoft regarding the change and giving more details:
In brief, moving forward CXPACKET waits are the ones you might want to worry about, and CXCONSUMER waits are generally benign, encountered as a normal part of parallel execution.
In tuning parallelism we need to think about how we want different sized queries to act on our server.
In general we don’t want these to go parallel so we up the Cost Threshold to an appropriate number to avoid this. As discussed above 30 is a good number to start with. You can also query your plan cache and look at the actual costs of queries that have been executed on your SQL Instance to get a more accurate idea of where you want to set this. Grant Fritchey has an example of how to do that here:
Often the answer is going to be simply to set it to 8 – but then experiment with tuning it up and down slightly to see whether that makes things better or worse.
Very Large Queries
If we have a mixed workload on our server which includes some very expensive queries – possibly for reporting purposes – then we may want to look at upping the MAXDOP for these queries to allow them to take advantage of more processors. One thing to consider though is – do we really want these queries running during the day when things are busy? Ideally they should run in quieter times. If they must run during the day, then do we want to avoid them taking over all the server power and blocking our production workload? In which case we might just let them run at the MAXDOP defined above.
If we decide we want to let them have the extra power then we can override the server MAXDOP setting with a query hint OPTION(MAXDOP n):
You will want to experiment to find the “best” value for the given query. As discussed above and as shown in Kendra Little’s article, just setting it to the maximum number of cores available isn’t necessarily going to be the fastest option.
Exceptions to the Rule
Regardless of the size, there are some queries that just don’t benefit from parallelism so you may need to assess them on an individual basis to find the right degree of parallelism to use.
With SQL server you can specify the MAXDOP at the server level, but also override it at the database level using a SCOPED CONFIGURATION or for individual queries using a query hint. There are even other ways you can control this:
If your SQL Server is hosted in the cloud, then most of this still applies. You still need to think about tuning parallelism – it isn’t done for you, and the defaults are the same – so probably not optimal for most workloads.
There are in general two flavours of cloud implementation. The first is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) where you simply have a VM provided by your cloud provider and run an OS with SQL server on top of it in that VM. Regardless of your cloud provider (e.g. Azure, AWS etc.), if you’re using IaaS for SQL Server then the same rules apply, and you go about tuning parallelism in exactly the same way.
The other type of cloud approach is Platform as a Service (PaaS). This is where you use a managed service for SQL Server. This would include Azure SQL Database, Azure SQL Database Managed Instance, and Amazon RDS for SQL Server. In these cases, the rules still apply, but how you manage these settings may differ. Let’s look at that for the three PaaS options mentioned above.
Azure SQL Database
This is a single SQL Server database hosted in Azure. You don’t have access to server level settings, so you can’t change MAXDOP or the cost threshold. You can however specify MAXDOP at the database level e.g.
ALTER DATABASE SCOPED CONFIGURATION SET MAXDOP = 4;
Cost threshold for Parallelism however is unavailable to change in Azure SQL Database.
Azure SQL Database Managed Instance
This presents you with something that looks very much like the SQL Server you are used to, you just can’t access the box behind it. And similar to your regular SQL instance, you can set MAXDOP and the Cost threshold as normal.
Amazon RDS for SQL Server
This is similar to managed instance. It looks and acts like SQL Server but you can’t access the machine or OS. You access your RDS instance through an account that has permissions that are more limited than your usual sa account or sysadmin role allows. And one of the things you can’t do with your limited permissions is to change the parallelism settings.
Amazon have provided a way around this though and you can change both settings using something called a parameter group:
Parallelism is a powerful tool at our disposal, but like all tools it should be used wisely and not thrown at every query to its maximum – and this is often what happens with the out of the box settings on SQL Server. Tuning parallelism is not a knee-jerk reaction to high CXPACKET waits, but something we should be considering carefully in all our SQL Server implementations.
I wanted to update my original article to include the cloud options noted above, but didn’t have access to an Azure SQL Database Managed Instance to check the state of play. Thanks to TravisGarland via Twitter (@RockyTopDBA) and Chrissy LeMaire via the SQL community slack (@cl) for checking this and letting me know!
When I’ve created resources in Azure it’s usually taken from a few minutes and up to quarter of an hour – though sometimes longer.
When you’re new to this stuff, you can be uncertain and wonder, “Is it really creating it?”, “Did I hit the right buttons?”. As a result it can be handy to know where to check to see what’s going on.
Sometimes after creating the resource you are taken to a screen that will show you what’s going on:
And usually you can see something is occurring from the bar at the top:
If you click on the alarm icon you can see more details:
You can then click to see “More events in the activity log” to dig deeper:
This is all fairly intuitive, but earlier I was trying to create a SQL Database Managed Instance for the first time. It showed some activity in the items above for a few minutes, but after that nothing happened. Had it failed? Had I done something wrong? Should I start again and try to create a new one?
The answer was to select resource groups from the blades on the left, and select the resource group that I had created the item in:
On the right hand side I can see an item saying “Deployments” and I can see that one is in the process of deploying. I can click the hyperlink for more details:
The third item in the list was the one I was looking for:
Okay, so it is in the process of being created. There’s no way to tell how long it will take but at least I now know it’s happening.
While searching for it I did notice a warning on the create screen for the resource that I hadn’t seen when I first whizzed through the creation:
If you plan on using Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host your SQL Server based applications in the cloud, then you have a couple of options.
One is just to have an EC2 instance (a VM) and install the versions of the OS and SQL Server you want. There are also images you can use that will have these pre-installed. This is what’s known as the IaaS option (Infrastructure as a Service). If you take this option, then SQL Server is exactly the same as it would be if you had it on-prem.
Or you can go with Amazon RDS (Relational Database Service). This is more of a managed service where Amazon looks after some aspects of your database server for you. In return you give up some of the control you would have with your own server or VM. You can still pick the version of SQL Server you want installed, usually down to which cumulative update you want – though note that RDS normally lags behind the latest box version of SQL by 3 months or so. RDS is what’s known as a PaaS offering (Platform as a Service).
So, what do you give up and what do you gain? Here’s a quick summary of a few things I’ve noticed. This is not intended to be comprehensive and please bear in mind that AWS is a fast-moving beast – changes happen regularly.
What you can access
You can still connect to and manage your instance using SSMS, but you have no direct access to the server hosting it, such as configuration of the OS, or access to the disks. Through SSMS you have an access level slightly below Sa – which limits you to only what is allowed.
In RDS you don’t use Availability Groups, Log Shipping or any of that stuff. Instead, HA is achieved using multiple Availability Zones (AZ). With this enabled, writes are performed synchronously to a replica in a second availability zone (usually a separate physical data centre in the same region). If the primary AZ goes down, then failover will happen automatically. You can also choose to replicate to other regions to be protected again failure of an entire AWS region – though often data protection laws mean that might not be an option for you if you hold personal data and there is only one AWS region in your country.
AWS RDS Multi-AZ promises a monthly up-time of 99.5% (which allows for 22 minutes of downtime per month). Full details of the SLA are here:
RDS performs automated backups of your whole instance, including the equivalent of log backups every 5 minutes. That means that in case of a disaster, where Multi-AZ failover fails, or where someone deletes data they shouldn’t, then the maximum data loss (RPO) is 5 minutes. The built-in functionality allows you to restore your instance to a point in time, which is implemented by restoring to a new instance. It is not possible to recover individual databases. Backup retention can be set up to maximum of 35 days.
If you need more than that then you can still take native SQL backups, but this has to be enabled specifically and because you can’t access the underlying disks you have to use a stored procedure specific to RDS:
There are also other options – such as taking extra snapshots and storing them in a separate region.
AWS handles patching of minor versions to your instance for you. You can choose for this to be done automatically or triggered by manual intervention through the AWS console.
RDS has its own at-rest encryption similar to TDE. This is available for all instances hosted on RDS so unlike TDE you don’t need to be on an Enterprise Edition of SQL Server.
All SQL Server instances on RDS are set up with a server collation of SQL_Latin1_General_CP1_CI_AS and you can’t change this. You can specify a different collation for your databases but this might mean you run into collation issues if you use temporary tables and compare string based columns with those in your databases – as temp tables are created with the collation of the instance.
In an on-premise version of SQL Server we would carefully provision a proportion of the overall server memory for SQL Server. On RDS this is not an available setting, the amount of memory is fixed with our general instance sizing, however Amazon do make recommendations for tuning the amount of memory given to an RDS instance – which would mean resizing the instance if necessary.
The recommendation is that there should be enough memory that the “working set” of data is retained in memory. Memory should be tuned so that the ReadIOPS metric is “small and stable”.
This is worth mentioning even though it is not entirely configurable in RDS. If you have backup retention set to longer than 0 days (i.e. take backups) then the recovery model will be set to FULL. If you set backup retention to zero (which disables backups) then recovery model will be set to SIMPLE. If you manually change the recovery model, RDS will automatically change it back within 5 minutes. This applies to all databases.
MAXDOP and parallelism
In RDS you cannot change the instance level MAXDOP, or the “Cost Threshold for Parallelism” through SQL. Instead these must be configured through a parameter group:
If you’re starting to use cloud services, the number of options available can be confusing. Particularly when they may seem to do the same thing.
If you’re on AWS, and you want to create a SQL Server instance on RDS (Relational Database Service), then you potentially have a couple of different options for enabling encryption at rest.
If you’re deploying an Enterprise Edition SQL Server instance then you could use TDE (Transparent Database Encryption), the technology most of us in the SQL Server world already have some awareness of.
RDS also has its own at-rest encryption though, so what’s the difference?
The answer is that (at least in terms of what they protect) they are pretty much equivalent. RDS encryption can be used with whichever database platform you choose to use – Aurora, MySQL, MariaDB, PostgreSQL, Oracle or SQL Server. As many people want this functionality it made sense for Amazon to provide it.
Only Oracle and SQL Server have their own built-in equivalent – TDE – so in these cases you have a choice of which want you want to use. You may prefer to use the one you are familiar with from your on-premise deployments, or you may prefer to go with the RDS one.
A key difference is going to be database backups. RDS handles backups for you, and of course these backups will be encrypted whichever option you choose. However, you would be wise to also take your own set of backups which you store outside the RDS instance. With RDS encryption these backups would not be encrypted, however with TDE they would be.
Even this though is not a killer point, with SQL Server (from 2014 onward) you have backup encryption, so even if you were using RDS, you could use this to make sure that externally stored backups were also encrypted.
A big reason you might want to use the RS encryption is price. TDE is only available on SQL Server Enterprise Edition, whereas you can use RDS encryption on Standard Edition also.
UPDATE (03/12/2019): From SQL Server 2019 TDE is available in standard edition, so price is no longer a factor.
The difference in cost for SQL Server Standard vs Enterprise licences is significant. Last time I checked the standard price was around $2,000 dollars per CPU core for Standard, but $7,000 with Enterprise.
The price difference in RDS is also large. If I look at a “db.m4.xlarge” instance which is 4 virtual CPUs and 16GB RAM, then the price quoted is roughly $750 dollars a month for SQL Server Standard Edition, $1,650 for Enterprise.
Of course, there are differences between each technology in terms of how you set it up and manage it, how and where the keys are stored etc. But if you’re confronted with the choice, then mostly, you can just pick the one you prefer, it doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that if you prefer not to pay for Enterprise Edition, then you still have the option of at-rest encryption. Which is great news.