Thursday, April 10, 2014

SQL Sentry v8: Baselines from Every Angle

In my last post I covered the exciting new intelligent alerting features in SQL Sentry v8. Next up in the series is another huge and often requested feature: Baselining

Designing this feature proved to be somewhat of a challenge due to the diversity of opinions on this topic. Seems that everyone has a different idea about baselining – what it is, and how it should be used effectively to improve performance. So, as is often the case, we tried to look beyond the term and assess what people truly want and need to accomplish with this feature. We knew that what we built had to satisfy a variety of use cases, be simple to use, and integrate seamlessly with the rest of our software.

To pull it off, we've leveraged both preexisting and new SQL Sentry functionality to produce what I believe is the most comprehensive and intuitive baselining for SQL Server and Windows to date. With the new Performance Advisor baselining you can:

  • Compare the current date range against built-in temporal baselines to quickly ascertain patterns in counter behavior
  • Create baselines for performance metrics using source data from any date range
  • Create any number of baselines with friendly names and easily switch between them
  • Send alerts or take various other actions in response to deviations from baseline values

Built-in Baselines

On the Performance Advisor Dashboard you'll see a new Baseline dropdown in the upper right. It is pre-populated with several temporal baselines:

BaselineDropdown

Select one of these baselines and you'll see a moving line or min/max range overlaid on top of the current charts:

Baseline-PreviousDay-Range
(click to enlarge)

In the shot above I've selected Previous Day with a Range style overlay. You can see patterns emerge on several charts, and it turns out that the spikes in waits, CPU, etc., appear to be normal behavior for that time of day. Of course, normal doesn't necessarily mean acceptable ;-) Fortunately, PA lets you ascertain the root cause of most any spike, whether from SQL Server or some other Windows process, so you quickly can make a determination about acceptability.

Note that the built-in baselines listed will change depending on the size of the active date range. For example, if you are in a 3-day range, Previous Day doesn't make sense, so you won't see it. Also, the Range option is currently only available when viewing detail data (range <= 30 minutes).

Custom Baselines

In addition to the built-in baselines, you can create your own custom baselines! To do so, simply click and drag on any chart to highlight a date range, then select the Create Baseline context menu. Here I'll create a baseline called "Business Hours" which represents normal and acceptable performance during that time:

Baseline-Create

Next, a screen appears which shows the Average, Min, Max and Standard Deviation for each dashboard metric over the selected range. From there you can choose which metric is shown by default on multi-metric charts, as well as manually adjust the baseline value by editing the Average column:

Baseline-Create-Metrics
(click to enlarge)

Once saved, the baseline is added to the Baseline dropdown as selected, and a horizontal line appears on each chart showing the baseline value for each metric. The line provides a reference point so you can easily spot unusual activity. Here we see that at around 10:10AM something started impacting disk waits, CPU, PLE, and page reads, causing them to deviate from the normal business hours level:

Baseline-User
(click to enlarge)

From here you can highlight the range and Jump To other areas like Top SQL, Processes or the Event Manager Calendar to get at the root cause.

There are many use cases like this for custom baselines. Here are a few others:

  • Create a baseline prior to making a configuration change on the server, then use it to immediately monitor how the change impacts performance.
  • Create a baseline for intensive maintenance operations like integrity checks, index rebuilds, or backups, and periodically review the operation against its baseline to ensure it is still performing as expected. I've seen many times where a change to the network or the SAN by some other group can have a dramatic impact on maintenance ops, and this is a great way to catch this!
  • Create periodic date-based baselines, such as "Jan 2014", "Feb 2014", etc., and use them to assess how performance is changing over time.

You can create as many custom baselines as you want, and edit them at any time by clicking the build button to the right of the dropdown. For multi-metric charts, you can change the default metric shown without editing the baseline by right-clicking it in the legend.

Baselines and Alerting

These visualization capabilities are great, but the feature wouldn't be complete without the ability to generate alerts using baseline data. That's where the other new SQL Sentry functionality comes in: when a custom baseline is created at the Windows computer or SQL Server level, it becomes available for use in custom conditions at that level.

Using baselines in a custom condition is easy – instead of setting an explicit threshold value on the right side of a comparison, select Performance Counter Baseline, and its value for the metric is automatically substituted. This way if a baseline value ever changes, you won't need to update any conditions.

In the condition below, for demonstration purposes I've added 3 separate baseline tests with some basic math to control how large of a deviation from the baseline value is required to trigger the condition:

Baseline-CustomCondition
(click to enlarge)

The system knows to use the baseline value for the counter on the left side of the comparison. Early versions required full declaration of the counter on the right, but this took too long to configure and made the comparisons far too wide, so we came up with this context-aware shorthand.

You can select a baseline on the left side, but you'll forego the shorthand when doing so. It generally reads easier to have the counter on the left and threshold on the right anyway.

Baselines vNext

As you can see, we're doing quite a bit with baselines out of the gate... but as I said in my last post on v8, we are just getting started. We're already working on some very cool enhancements to make baselines even more useful. Meantime, I hope you take advantage of these new capabilities, and as always, your feedback is much appreciated!

Download SQL Sentry v8 here: New Users | Existing Users

Friday, March 14, 2014

SQL Sentry v8: Intelligent Alerting Redefined

It's tempting to insert some clever reference to everyone's favorite vegetable juice medley here, but I will refrain, for fear of diminishing what is perhaps the most significant SQL Sentry release to date! In v8 we've addressed the three most frequent requests from our users – performance alerting, baselining, and cloud access – and we've done so in typical SQL Sentry fashion. In other words, we haven't been content to tick a box – we've gone all out to ensure that each feature has been constructed thoughtfully and thoroughly, and integrates seamlessly with the rest of our software, ultimately providing a superior user experience.

Download SQL Sentry v8 here: New Users | Existing Users

I normally review all major new features in a single post, but this one got so long I had to split it up. First up in the series on v8: Performance Alerting (aka, Custom Conditions)

Pre-v8 Performance Alerting

There are only a couple of feature areas where heretofore a few in our space have been able to legitimately claim superiority, the big one being performance alerting. You've been able to do it via our Event Manager product for some time, but it was not the most elegant of systems for general purpose performance alerting, since it was initially designed around performance related to jobs.

SQL Sentry v8 changes all of this – the new Performance Advisor delivers performance alerting in a big way, and much more. Yes, we've leapfrogged the competition once again. Leapfrog may not be the right term though, as that could imply that at some point they may jump back over us. Knowing what went into building this feature, IMO there is little chance of this happening. (Let's just say it's about as likely as them building a better tool for plan analysis ;-)

Enter Custom Conditions

The name custom conditions isn't glamorous... but it does accurately describe the whole feature in a way that advanced performance alerting, enhanced change detection, advisory rule builder, or similar flashier but narrower terms don't. You can do all of these things and more with custom conditions, but ultimately they are just that – a condition that you define on which you want to be alerted and/or take some action. A custom condition can:

  • Detect and alert on threshold excursions for:
    • Windows performance counters (including SQL Server, SSAS, etc., counters)
    • Virtual performance counters (those auto-calc'd by SQL Sentry from DMVs or other sources)
  • Detect and alert on changes to values from:
    • SQL queries against user databases
    • SQL queries against the SQLSentry database
    • DMV/DMF queries
    • WMI queries
  • Compare multiple values from the same or different subsystems, using any combination of ANDs and ORs, and any number of nest levels
  • Apply math (multiply, divide, add, subtract) to values from any subsystem, and use the results in comparison operations
  • Combine multiple conditions together to create compound conditions
  • Detect when any SQL query against a target exceeds a specific duration threshold
  • Test any performance counter against a baseline value, or a percentage of a baseline value
  • Fire any combination of 11 different actions (Send Email, Send SNMP Trap, Execute SQL, etc.)
  • Show event markers on the Performance Advisor Dashboard charts, including enhanced tooltips with supplemental information
  • Write to the new Events Log, where a historical record of the event with a snapshot of all associated metrics is maintained
  • Easily be applied to all monitored servers, groups of servers, or individual servers

Whew! I know this sounds like a lot, but one of the best parts is how easy custom conditions are to configure. Everything is point and click, and even complex conditions can be configured quickly.

To get started, open the top-level Custom Conditions > Conditions List node in the Navigator pane:

ConditionsListNode

When you open this node for the first time, you will be prompted to download a base set of conditions created by SQL Sentry. You can also do this any time from the Tools menu. These will give you a good starting point for monitoring, and can also serve as a reference when creating your own conditions.

First I'll cover a simple example of what you can do with custom conditions using one from the included pack: High Compiles. Here's how it looks in the condition designer – you can specify a name, rich text description, definition, and various other parameters which control when the condition is triggered (evaluates to true):

CC-HighCompiles
(click to enlarge)

This definition contains two comparisons: the first ensures that batches/sec is >100 before even trying the second, which tests to see if compiles/sec is >15% of batches/sec. This is called short-circuiting, and it serves to both eliminate false positives, and minimize the amount of processing the custom condition engine must perform. We can see this in action here:

CC-HighCompiles-ShortCircuit
(click to enlarge)

The above is the view presented in the Evaluation Status grid and the Events Log after a condition has been evaluated against a target, and it embeds the results for each comparison, expression, and operation. This info is invaluable for testing and troubleshooting.

Speaking of, you will typically want to test any new condition you create against monitored servers before assigning actions to it, to ensure you aren't bombarded with alerts due to inappropriate thresholds. To do this, simply click either Evaluate button in the upper right:

CC-HighCompiles-EvalButtons
(click to enlarge)

The condition selected in the Conditions grid on the left will immediately be queued for evaluation by the SQL Sentry Monitoring Service, and results will show up in the Evaluation Status grid on the right within a few seconds... even when testing against hundreds of servers!

How is this possible? Check out SQL Sentry dev lead Brooke Philpott's (b|t) excellent post on how we are leveraging new .NET 4.5 features to pull this off without causing thread starvation or other performance issues.

Next up is a more advanced condition which uses Jonathan Kehayias' adaptable Page Life Expectancy (PLE) formula:

CC-LowPLE
(click to enlarge)

This condition has performance counters on both sides of the comparison, along with some math to dynamically calculate PLE based on the buffer size. It also takes advantage of short-circuiting – the first comparison ensures that the buffer size is greater than 2GB (131,072 is the number of pages per GB) before testing the second comparison. You can see in the example above, it has scaled the standard PLE > 300 seconds rule up to 588 due to the larger buffer on this server.

Another very cool enhancement in use here is the Any instance. When Any is used, all instances for a counter are automatically tested independently – NUMA nodes 000, 001, 002, and 004 here – and they are automatically synchronized inside each comparison. In other words, pages from instance 001 are only compared with PLE from instance 001, and so on. This way you don't have to configure a bunch of identical conditions for each counter instance, one for each NUMA node in this case.

Creating Custom Conditions

To create your own, click the Create Custom Condition button at upper left. All conditions have access to Windows metrics, but you may want to access SQL Server or SSAS metrics as well, so select one of the sub-items as appropriate:

createcustomcondition

Next, select the data type of the first comparison (numeric, string, or date/time), then the value source type:

CreateCC-Type

You have a variety of source types to choose from, and this is one of the aspects that makes this new feature so powerful. For the first time you can easily integrate any combination of values from any source to produce an intelligent "rule".

As you go through the dropdowns, the subsequent elements change based upon your prior selections, guiding you in the right direction:

CreateCC-Cat

In the shot above, the performance categories listed first (without the colon) are virtual counter categories exclusive to SQL Sentry. Just as in our performance reporting, we expose all data we collect. After all, why collect it if we aren't going to let you use it? A great example is wait stats. We eliminate innocuous waits and group them into friendly categories (Disk, CPU, etc.) and classes (Transaction Log, Parallelism, AlwaysOn, etc.), any of which you can now use for alerting purposes:

CreateCC-DiskWaits

So in a few clicks you can have a condition which triggers if total disk waits goes over 500ms for more than 30 seconds... on any server. Further, response rulesets can easily be applied to control exactly when you are alerted.

Compound Conditions

Conditions can easily be embedded within other conditions. Here's an example of one that picks up high CPU, but only when a process other than SQL Server is involved:

CC-HighCPU-NonSQL (click to enlarge)

It leverages the simple High CPU condition to short-circuit if CPU isn't greater than 90%. If it passes, it then it calculates the CPU % not associated with sqlservr.exe, and triggers only if it is greater than 25% of the total.

Alerting

Whenever you save a condition, if no actions have been defined you'll be prompted to add them:

CustomConditionsActionsPrompt

If Yes, you'll see the Actions Selector where you can choose from any of the 11 different actions which can be taken in response to the condition:

CustomConditionsActionsSelector

The new Send to Alerting Channels action (the default) allows you to control how/where the alerts are presented throughout the client app. The different channels can be individually selected from the Condition Settings tab once the action has been added. Just like all other conditions/actions in SQL Sentry, these can be set globally where they will apply to all servers in the environment, and easily overridden at the group or server level as needed.

Once enabled, all custom condition/action combinations show up in the newly redesigned Conditions pane at right, where alert settings, rulesets, and windows can easily be adjusted:

ConditionsPane
(click to enlarge)

The initial alerting channel is for the Performance Advisor Dashboard (see below for how this works), and more are on the way.

Events Log

When Send to Alerting Channels is selected, events will always be logged to the new Events Log:

EventsLog
(click to enlarge)

This is the place to go to see status for all condition events, active or completed. The grid lists all events for the selected date range, but can be easily filtered via the column headers or pre-loaded filters. If you click on any row you will see the stateful condition definition at bottom, and a richly formatted description of the issue at right. Notes can easily be added, users assigned, severity changed, and events can be snoozed or closed from here. If you click an End Time cell you will see the metrics which caused the condition to evaluate to false again, thus ending the event.

Events on the Dashboard

From the Events Log you can quickly jump to the Performance Advisor Dashboard by right-clicking an event to see what was happening on the server at the time. You will see event markers on all associated dashboard charts:

DashboardEventMarkers
(click to enlarge)

In this case, the condition references both waits and disk latency counters, so the system recognizes this and overlays event markers on the appropriate charts, along with a warning glyph which, when clicked, shows the full details for the events in range. These event markers are on by default whenever using the dashboard, but can be toggled off using the toolbar.

Sharing Conditions

To share your conditions, simply right-click any condition and select Export. A .condition file will be created which can be imported into any other SQL Sentry v8 environment. Soon you will have the ability to share your creations in a more integrated fashion via our new cloud portal, with your other SQL Sentry environments as well as the community at large.

We're Just Getting Started

With SQL Sentry v8 we've taken intelligent alerting to an entirely new level, and we've done so in a way that is simple for anyone to understand and use. We're going to continue to enhance this feature, and to release new conditions, so be sure to download them when prompted. I'm excited about the possibilities there, but even more excited to see the kinds of conditions that you are going to dream up!

Coming up I'll be covering the other major features in v8: Baselining and the SQL Sentry Cloud Portal. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 14, 2013

PASS Summiteers Guide to Charlotte, Part 6: Shuttle Destinations

In this series I've covered the SQL Sentry Shuttle, the Top 10 Things to Do Before and After the Summit, Uptown After Hours, the Craft Beer Scene, and the Summit Map & Area Guide. Noticeably absent have been any details about the shuttle destination areas. Since the shuttle will be running starting tomorrow (Tuesday) evening, I'll try to remedy that now!

As you can probably surmise from my previous posts and the map, uptown Charlotte has a lot going on. You could spend the entire week in the uptown area and still not see it all by the time you depart. So the shuttle is certainly not mandatory to have fun here after hours – it's more of a nice option for those who want to see a little bit more of what makes Charlotte such a great place. If you spend one night at each of the two outlying shuttle destinations, the NC Music Factory and NoDa, and the rest of your time uptown, you'll be in fine shape!

Below is a brief overview of each area. I've ordered them by personal preference. In other words, if I only had one night to ride the trolley, I'd hit NoDa... which is why I'm covering it first even though it's last in stop order.

NoDa (area D, stops 9 & 10)

inset-nodaNoDa is the largest and most diverse shuttle destination. It's an eclectic arts-oriented community with many bars and restaurants. To go directly to NoDa, simply board the trolleys on the side of MLK Blvd closest to the Convention Center. It's about a 10 minute ride.

The standout restaurants are the Crepe Cellar Kitchen & Pub, Cabo Fish Taco, Heist Brewery, and Revolution Pizza & Ale House. As you can tell by the names, most are just as concerned with drink. Revolution in particular has one of the largest tap selections around, along with excellent gourmet-style pizzas.

There are also two pure breweries one stop south (#10), NoDa Brewing and Birdsong Brewing, both of which have agreed to stay open later for Summit attendees, as needed. I'd get there early to be safe. See my post on craft beer for more details on them, as well as Heist Brewery and Growler's Pourhouse.

There are several other bars and music venues here. The Neighborhood Theatre has They Might Be Giants on Tues night and Robert Cray on Weds, and the Chop Shop has Beats Antique on Tues.

The NC Music Factory (area B, stops 4 & 5)

The Music Factory has something for just about everyone in a very small area. For me, the two highlights are VBGB, a haven for beer lovers that I covered in my craft beer post, and Osso, a fantastic nouveau Italian restaurant. Note that there is a separate stop for VBGB (#5) after the main Music Factory stop (#4). It's a short walk, but I was afraid people might miss it otherwise since it's behind the main complex.

inset-musicfactorySmall Bar is officially the smallest bar in Charlotte, with one of the friendliest bartenders, and a decent beer and drink list. It's right in between Osso and VBGB. Mattie's Diner is a very cool authentic diner built in 1948 and transported here from NJ. They serve a great breakfast all day and night. More history here. Saloon is a sports tavern type place. Wet Willie's has lots of frozen drinks and some pub food.

The Fillmore (music venue) has Australian alternative rock band Atlas Genius playing Weds night. The Comedy Zone has Killer Baez on Tues night, and a Fight Night Comedy Competition on Weds. There are some thrash metal bands playing at Saloon on Thurs, so if you aren't into that kind of thing you might want to steer clear.

Historic Brevard Court (area C, stop 7)

inset-brevardcourtIf you're not ready to hit the sack after the Music Factory, be sure to stop at Brevard Court. This area is actually uptown and easily walkable, but it was just too convenient for the shuttle to stop here on the way back to the Convention Center ;-) There are five highly rated pubs in the same courtyard, so it's a perfect place for a mini-crawl. Two of the pubs serve food, Valhalla Pub & Eatery and Nefelie's, as does The French Quarter, which is more of a restaurant than a pub IMO. If you are in the mood for a late night bite, I'd recommend Valhalla. They serve breakfast all day, and the salmon benedict is amazing! The other standouts here are Courtyard Hooligans and The Belfast Mill, both drinking-only establishments.

EpiCentre (area A, stop 2)

The EpiCentre is the central entertainment hub uptown. I think this stop will end up being more of a pickup point for those going to the Music Factory than a drop-off from the Convention Center, since it's closer to many of the hotels. I spent a little time on the EpiCentre in my After Hours post, but I'm not going to give it much more coverage here since you can easily explore it. Great place, but it's not the real reason for the shuttle.

More Info

  • Steve Wright (blog | @SQL_Steve) has written an excellent post on SQL Pub Crawls, including one you can do on the shuttle!
  • You should have received a Summit Map in your attendee bag, so be sure to bring it along.
  • We will have people stationed at each destination stop, and on many of the trolleys. They are there to offer directions and answer any questions you may have about what to do at each stop.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the trolley ride!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

PASS Summiteers Guide to Charlotte, Part 5: Summit Map & Area Guide

The PASS Summit has been held in Seattle for the past 5 years, so if you're a previous attendee you may know that city like the back of your hand. We realize that this will be the first time in Charlotte for many of you, however, so we are doing what we can to help you get acclimated to your new surroundings as quickly and painlessly as possible. The SQL Sentry Shuttle is a big part of this, and the Summit Map & Area Guide is another.

The guide was produced from the deep local knowledge of our adventurous team, and support from the great folks at PASS and the CRVA. (I wish I'd had something like this my first few Summits in Seattle, it could have saved a lot of aimless wandering ;-) It covers pubs, museums, and everything in between... not just in uptown Charlotte, but in all destination areas served by the shuttle.

You can grab the PDF using the link above or images below, and there will also be a hard copy in your attendee bag. When you open it, you'll see a large map of uptown Charlotte in the center, with insets for the major destination areas on the left and right:

2013 PASS Summit Map

There are numbered POI markers color-coded by type on the maps, and an index on the back:

2013 PASS Summit Map

We've also included the shuttle stops, the start/finish point for #SQLRun on Weds, the #SQLKaraoke location on Tues, uptown parks, major venues, and Lynx light rail stops.

I'm hopeful that at the 2013 Summit, any aimless wandering will be kept to a minimum. Enjoy!

Friday, October 4, 2013

PASS Summiteers Guide to Charlotte, Part 4: The Craft Beer Scene

In this post I'll be covering Charlotte's burgeoning craft beer scene. Having been to several Summits, I realize that this is a primary area of interest for many of you ;-) I'm confident that beer-lovers from around the world will be pleasantly surprised by what they find here.

First, a little history. In 2003, the Pop the Cap bill became law in North Carolina, increasing the 70-year-old ABV cap from 6% to 15%. For the first time it became possible "to brew or sell one-third of the world’s beer styles, including gourmet Belgian ales, hoppy IPAs, and intensely malty dopplebocks." Several other laws have been passed since, rapidly making North Carolina into one of the friendliest states for craft brewing. This why Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues have all chosen to build their second ever breweries here!

Charlotte Breweries

There are currently seven craft breweries in Charlotte, with more on the way. Six are close enough to uptown to visit without having to drive, easily accessible via the SQL Sentry Shuttle or the Lynx light rail Blue Line. Four are listed on our Summit 2013 Map & Area Guide. I'll spin through them now in no particular order, along with the best places to enjoy craft beer, and a couple of beer destinations just outside of the area.

The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery (South End)
A little more history... Charlotte is located in Mecklenburg county, and both were named for Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Germany) to commemorate her marriage to King George III. So I guess it's no surprise that Charlotte is home to the top German brewhaus in the USA. OMB is Charlotte's oldest craft brewery, which isn't saying much considering it opened in 2009, however, it is quite distinctive for another reason...

OMBbiergartenIf you've ever attended the European PASS Summit in Dusseldorf, you are probably familiar with altbier. It's ingrained in the culture there – there is nothing quite like enjoying a fresh altbier on the banks of the Rhine. Altbier is effectively lagered ale, and is served fresh from the cask in small glasses at Uerige and a handful of other breweries in Dusseldorf. Since unpasteurized beer doesn't transport well, Dusseldorf is one of the only places in the world where you can drink fresh altbier... one of the others is right here in Charlotte. That's right, OMB brews altbier served in traditional glassware that rivals the altbier at Uerige – it's called "OMB Copper". It's not identical, for sure, but IMO it's equally as good, if not better. BeerAdvocate reviewers seem to agree, as it's ranked 3rd in the world in traditional altbiers!

Don't believe me? Head on over to the brewery and give it a try. It's not on the banks of the Rhine, but they do have a great biergarten and festhalle in which to sample their fine beers. From the convention center area, it's 8 minutes by light rail, plus a 5-10 minute walk.

NoDa Brewing (NoDa: area D, stop 10, marker 36)
NoDaSecond on the scene was Noda Brewing, which opened it's doors in 2011. They make a fantastic IPA, "Hop, Drop 'n Roll", and their "Coco Loco" porter won silver at last years Great American Beer Festival. They've recently introduced a sessionable pale called "Jam Session" which comes in at a modest 5.1% ABV. This has been my standby lately, as sometimes I do like to enjoy more than one beer at a sitting.

The brewery and taproom is located just south of the NoDa area (short for North Davidson, the street which is its namesake). They don't serve food, but there is frequently a food truck outside.

Birdsong Brewing (NoDa: area D, stop 10, marker 35)
Another fantastic local brewer, Birdsong is a stone's throw across the parking lot from NoDa Brewing... so you can easily kill two birds with one stone at this stop. Sorry ;-) They have some great standbys like their "Free Will Pale" and "Lazy Bird Brown", along with some more creative brews like their "Jalapeno Pale", which is quite tasty and not at all hot.

Heist Brewing (NoDa: area D, stop 9, marker 30)
HeistBrewingA longer stone's throw from NoDa Brewing and Birdsong is Heist. This place is unique in that, aside from some great, mostly traditional American-style beers, they have some terrific food. Ever had "cotton candy shrimp" or "chicken and waffle sushi"? I hadn't either. Chef Rob Masone is renowned for his unique creations, and I encourage you eat at least one of your dinners here during the week of the Summit.

Here is a shot of the SQL Sentry crew with head brewer, Zach Hart, at a Heist tasting last year, before the brewery opened up. There's a funny beer story that goes along with this photo... buy me a pint and I'll share.

Yep, you guessed it – the SQL Sentry Shuttle will stop only a block or two away, in the heart of NoDa. Follow the directional arrows on the sidewalk south down to Heist.

Triple C Brewing Co. (South End)

TripleCcrewOn the way down the light rail to OMB you'll find one of the newest breweries in town, Triple C. They too have a nice taproom, and some fine American-style beers. That's me and the wild SQL Sentry crew above – I can only assume we were waiting for our beers. If you feel up to it (I haven't in some time), try their "Baby Maker DIPA". Enough said.

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (Uptown: stop 3, marker 63)
RockBottomWhen I mentioned that OMB was the oldest brewery in town, I wasn't including Rock Bottom, which has actually been here for much longer... at least 10 years I'd say. You see, although they have some nice locally brewed beers, they are a chain, so I don't consider them a local craft brewery in the same sense as the others. Rock Bottom is, however, distinguished as being the only brewery uptown, and therefore the only brewery within walking distance of the PASS Summit. They also have a cool patio with fountains out back. Definitely worth a visit.

Best Places to Enjoy Craft Beer

You can't go far in any direction in Charlotte without running into places that serve a mix of local, national, and international craft beers. That said, I'm only going to cover one of the best in each of the 3 major areas along the SQL Sentry Shuttle route:

Queen City Q (Uptown: stop 3, marker 61)
Nothing beats a cold beer and BBQ, and if you haven't tried North Carolina BBQ, this is the place to do it uptown. They also happen to have an extensive draft and bottled beer selection, and two bars. As a bonus, Brixx Pizza is right next door, and they also have a great selection.

VBGB (The NC Music Factory: area B, stop 5, marker 17)
VBGBfrostrailVBGB is short for "Very Big German Beer", and this is one of the top places in Charlotte to enjoy a craft beer. Excellent draft selection, beer hall, patio, and beer food. They also have one of the most interesting and functional beer features you will ever see: a frost rail which runs the entire length of the bar, keeping your beer as icy cold as you want it to be.

Growlers Pourhouse (NoDa: area D, stop 9, marker 29)
Voted one of "America's 100 best beer bars" the past two years running, Growlers has 14 rotating taps, including a refurbished 1936 beer engine for serving hand pulled cask ales. You will also not find a more beer-friendly menu in Charlotte. The SQL Sentry Shuttle will stop right here, and only a couple of minutes walk south is Heist Brewing (see above).

Outside of Charlotte

Asheville, NC
If you are a craft beer fan, you are probably already familiar with Asheville, as it was voted "Beer City USA" for four consecutive years from 2009-2012 (#3 in 2013). I'm not going to go through all of the fantastic breweries in Asheville, but if you like craft beer and have a day or two pre/post Summit, it's definitely worth the easy 2 hour drive. Plus, there are many other things to see and do in the area – check out our own Scott Fallen's post on visiting Asheville during the Summit for lots of great ideas.

Oskar Blues (Brevard, NC)
On your way to Asheville you'll be tempted to stop at Oskar Blues. This is the first national brewer to open their doors in NC, as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are still under construction. Oskar Blues beers don't need any introduction – they started the whole craft-beer-in-a-can movement a few years back, and have won tons of awards. I haven't been yet, but I know a few people who have, and the reports have been glowing.

Wrap Up

I hope you find this guide helpful during your visit. Remember, the SQL Sentry Shuttle, the Lynx light rail Blue Line, and your feet will get you to all of the local establishments covered here, so no driving required!

Cheers!

Friday, September 27, 2013

PASS Summiteers Guide to Charlotte, Part 3: Uptown After Hours

One of the first things to know about Charlotte's city center is that it's not "downtown", it's "uptown". If you'd like the details behind why, check out this article. A milestone date was in 1987 when The Charlotte Observer started using "uptown" exclusively, "as a way to help civic leaders promote the upbeat, positive attitude of the Queen City." Bottom line is that if you refer to it as "downtown", you will immediately identify yourself as "not from around here" ;-) That's not bad though, since you'll find Charlotte people and establishments to be warm and welcoming to visitors.

Even in 1987, there honestly wasn't much going on uptown. Charlotte has always been a big banking town (it's the 2nd largest banking center in the US after New York), and when the bankers went home at 5pm, everything shut down. I moved here in 1981, and I clearly remember uptown being a ghost town at night and on weekends... the streets were empty, literally.

Romare Bearden ParkWhen I walk down Trade Street now, I can't help but marvel at the transformation. Pretty much any time of day or night it is bustling and vibrant, from one end to the other. Some of the changes may have started in the late 80's, but if you had to attribute it to one specific event, it would be the arrival of the Carolina Panthers football team in the mid-90's. Putting the stadium uptown changed everything. It led to dramatically increased investment in dining, museums, performance arts, and residential development in and around uptown, and it continues to this day.

SQL Sentry is providing free trolleys after hours (see Part 1) to take Summit attendees to venues around and just outside of uptown, so that you can easily see more of Charlotte if you so desire. If you don't feel like venturing out, you'll find that uptown alone has a lot going on... at least as much, if not more than any previous Summit location, and waaaay too much to try and cover in a couple of posts. Read on for some of the highlights...

The EpiCentre

The EpiCentre complex will likely be one of the first areas you experience uptown. It's hard to miss, since as its name implies, it is central to just about everything, including the Summit hotels and the Charlotte Convention Center. It is home to some great dining and various other nightlife options, but it will be easy enough for you to explore them on your own, so I won't go through them here. I will mention a couple of unique attractions though:

Studio Movie Grill
An awesome movie theater, one of the best places in Charlotte to take in a flick... and have a nice dinner! This video covers it better than I ever could.

StrikeCity Bowling
A very unique and high tech bowling alley. We've had the SQL Sentry Holiday Party here the past 2 years, that's how cool this place is!

Top Bars & Pubs

Connolly's on Fifth
Our friends from the UK should feel right at home here. This is as close to an authentic English pub as you will find in Charlotte, from the beers to the bartenders.

RiRa Irish Pub
Likewise, our friends from Ireland should be comfortable here, as much of the interior was imported from Ireland. You may have seen a RiRa in other cities, but this is the original.

Prohibition
This is a neat place. It's on the same block as RiRa's, and right above Town Tavern. They have a long bar with many local craft beer options, and a dark, underground tavern feel, in keeping with the theme.

Alexander Michael's Restaurant and Tavern
Located in historic Fourth Ward, since the 80's this has been the perennial "Best Neighborhood Bar" in Charlotte. It's a short walk from uptown center (5-10 minutes), but well worth the trip. Great atmosphere, food, and drink. Highly recommended.

The Carolina Ale House
I have a feeling this will be one of the most popular hangouts at the Summit, as it's uptown Charlotte's version of Seattle's Tap House Grill, or rather the closest thing you will find to it here. Although it sounds like a local spot, it's actually a chain... they even have locations in Florida!? Still, it's a cool place, and they have a great outdoor patio, something Tap House doesn't. Extensive beer selection with many local brews, and a prime spot near the Convention Center and most hotels. The food is a big step above most similar establishments – the wings are terrific!

Urban Sip Wine Bar
If you like nice wine, but don't like spending $200 for a bottle, this is your place. I've never seen a by-the-glass list quite like this one – many high end wines that you won't see anywhere else (Opus One, Caymus, Silver Oak, etc.). It's hidden away on the 15th floor of The Ritz-Carlton, and has fantastic views of uptown.

Top Restaurants

Dandelion Market
Great food, atmosphere, and service, and lots of craft brews on tap. Highly recommended.

Halcyon: Flavors of the Earth
Located on the 2nd floor of the Levine Center for the Arts, overlooking The Green, the scenic park across from the Convention Center. The atmosphere is on the reserved side, but it's a great all around dining experience, especially if the weather is nice and you're able to grab a seat on the patio.

e2 emeril's eatery
Yes, that Emeril. Also in the Levine Center, right around the corner from Halcyon, but a bit more relaxed environment. Excellent food and friendly, professional service.

Rooster's Kitchen
One of the more unique dining experiences uptown, Rooster's is the brainchild of well-known chef Jim Noble. This place is right on College St., past BLT Steak @ The Ritz, but if you blink you'll miss it. I'm not going to attempt to describe it, just go!

Bentley's on 27
Located on the 27th floor of the Charlotte Plaza building on College St, this place has probably the best restaurant view of uptown. Pricey but if you are looking for a unique fine dining experience, you can't go wrong here.

Queen City Q
The best BBQ uptown, maybe in all of Charlotte. Great craft brew selection as well, and not one, but two bars!

The Arts

Tarzan: The Stage Musical
This is the latest from the Charlotte Children's Theater at ImaginOn, an incredible organization and venue. (SQL Sentry is proud to be a corporate sponsor!) Not to worry, these are not kid's shows – they rival any main stage production anywhere, and Tarzan is no exception (I saw it last week). There are shows on the weekends before and after the Summit.

POTTED POTTER – The Unauthorized Harry Experience
I haven't been, but Potter fans have been raving about this show. It's playing all week of the Summit, but if you want to attend, I'd get your tickets now as they are going fast.

Levine Center for the Arts
Located a block over from the Convention Center, this is one of the best places to get your art fix uptown. Even if you don't like art, hopefully you'll appreciate the architecture of the complex, which is quite impressive IMO. It's also home to some great dining (see above).

IMAX: The Charlotte Observer IMAX Dome Theatre
This is Charlotte's only dome theater and is part of the Discovery Place complex on Trade St., a short walk from anywhere uptown. Note that most of the shows are during the day, so this may be best as a before/after Summit experience. If you go, the best seats are towards the top, in the middle.

Additional Resources

Check out CharlotteCenterCity.org for comprehensive info on all things uptown, and CharlottesGotAlot.com (mobile site) for coverage of the entire city, and some great maps. There is also an uptown map app for IOS.

There are shared bike stations located all over uptown, so if you want to get around quickly this is a fun way to do so and burn a few calories in the process. This is obviously not exclusively an after hours thing. If you return a bike to another station within 30 minutes, there are no usage charges.

There are many more things to do uptown that I haven't covered, so I encourage you to explore. Charlotte is a very safe city at night, but as with most big cities, it's best not to walk around alone if you don't know the area.

And remember, although uptown is awesome, there is much more to Charlotte and the surrounding area. So be sure to take advantage of the SQL Sentry Shuttle, and check out my Top 10 Things to Do Before and After the Summit post.

Friday, September 20, 2013

PASS Summiteers Guide to Charlotte, Part 2: Top 10 Things to Do Before and After

It's hard to believe that it's been over two years since PASS announced that the Summit would be coming to Charlotte (I blogged about it here), and in a few short weeks 5,000 of you will be converging on our fair city! As a SQL Server ISV based in Charlotte, we feel a special responsibility to ensure that everyone feels welcome and makes the most of their time here, both in and out of the conference sessions. We've been working on various initiatives towards this end for many months. In Part 1 I covered one of those, the SQL Sentry Shuttle, which will be whisking people to exciting places in and around downtown (aka, "uptown") during the Summit.

Many of you are arriving the weekend before or departing the weekend after the Summit, and have been asking about fun things to do in the area, so in Part 2 I wanted to share some local knowledge. If you are still finalizing your travel dates, be sure to leave room on either end, as there is certainly no shortage of interesting and unique activities to be found here.

Here are my Top 10 things to do before and after the Summit:

1) The US National Whitewater Center
riverjam-670x325The world's largest man-made whitewater river is located only a few miles outside of uptown, not far from the airport. This is where the Olympic athletes train, and it is a sight to behold. Aside from numerous water activities including kayaking and rafting, there is rock climbing, zip lining, and miles of trails. Or, if you just want to kick back and relax, there is a fantastic restaurant and patio from which to and take in all of the action. Craft beer fans will not be disappointed, with 20 brews on tap!

2) The Carolina Renaissance Festival – Huntersville – Saturdays & Sundays
This is one of my favorite things to do each year. About 20 minutes north of Charlotte (barring traffic), it's one of the largest festivals of its kind in the country. It's quite unique in that it's not out in a field like many similar festivals – it's an authentic, permanent village in the middle of rolling woods, so it has that medieval feel in spades. There are countless live shows and activities for all ages, as well as shops, food, and craft beer. You can't go wrong with this one... just get there early, as close to opening as possible!

3) Wine Country
Yes, North Carolina has a wine country! It is a certified AVA called the Yadkin Valley. There are over 100 wineries, most within an hour or two of Charlotte, and many rival the best estate wineries in the world. Here are my top 7, in route map order:

  1. Childress Vineyards
  2. RayLen Vineyards
  3. Sanders Ridge Winery & Restaurant (and Zip Line!)
  4. Shelton Vineyards
  5. Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery
  6. Shadow Springs Vineyard
  7. Daveste Vineyards

There are many wineries I am skipping, as you can only see so many in a day... but I believe these to have the best combination of an impressive setting and good wine. You could easily shorten or otherwise modify this route to hit some of the others on the map. Regardless of which you choose, you will not be disappointed, as they all have their own special character. All are open on weekends, but the hours vary, so be sure to check before you head out.

Since this is harvest season, there are two festivals where you can try wines from several area wineries:

4) NASCAR: Bank of America 500 – Charlotte Motor Speedway – Saturday, October 12th
Although Charlotte is the official home of NASCAR, and I'm a long-time Charlottean, I honestly know next to nothing about the sport. I do, however, know that this is one of the biggest races of the year – all of my NASCAR friends get super excited for it, so it seems like a golden opportunity for those interested!

5) Scarowinds Halloween Haunt – Carowinds Amusement Park – Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays
About 15 minutes south of uptown, Carowinds is the "Thrill Capital of the Southeast", with countless rides, coasters and other attractions. This time of the year the park opens at night and "transforms into a horror-filled nightmare" called Scarowinds. If you are a fan of Halloween, or just want see what it's like to ride a coaster in pitch darkness, this is not to be missed.

6) NFL Football: Carolina Panthers vs. St. Louis Rams – Bank of America Stadium – Sunday, October 20th
Ok, so the Panthers haven't exactly been on a roll of late... but if you are from outside of the US, and want to see what American football is all about, here is a great chance to do so. The stadium is only a short walk from all of the uptown hotels.

7) The Amaizing Maize Maze – Huntersville – Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays
This is one of those huge corn mazes that you think is going to be super easy. I tried it one year (it changes every year – here is 2012), and what I remember most was trying not to look completely lost after ending up in some part of the maze that had never been explored. Definitely a fun way to spend a couple of hours if you're ok with leaving your pride at the door. It's at historic Rural Hill Farm, which is not far from the Renaissance Festival (#2), so you might consider bundling the two in a day trip.

8) AHL Hockey: The Charlotte Checkers, Time Warner Cable Arena – Sat & Sun, Oct 19th & 20th
Hockey fans, the Checkers play a double-header against the Iowa Wild this weekend. TWC arena is conveniently located in the middle of uptown, right across from the EPICENTRE.

9) SouthPark Mall
This upscale mall is the largest in the Carolinas, and about 15 minutes south of uptown. Located in the exclusive "Southeast Charlotte" area, it is where many go to see and be seen. Nordstrom, Nieman Marcus, Crate & Barrel – they are all here.

10) Concord Mills Mall
Not quite as upscale and slightly smaller than SouthPark, this is still a massive mall. It's claim to fame is that it's the largest tourist attraction in North Carolina in terms of total visitors – over 17 million per year – due in no small part to its location down the street from the Charlotte Motor Speedway. That said, if you aren't interested in NASCAR, you would do well to avoid this area the weekend of the BofA 500 (#4)!


11) SQL Sentry
If you can't find anything in the top 10 that strikes your fancy, you are always welcome to visit our offices! (during business hours, please) We're in the Newell-Rubbermaid business park in Huntersville, about 15 minutes north of uptown. Our new office in the next building over will be well underway by the Summit, and we'll be glad to give you a tour. And if that isn't exciting enough, Birkdale Village is only a short walk away ;-)