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 ;-)

Friday, September 6, 2013

PASS Summiteers Guide to Charlotte, Part 1: The SQL Sentry Shuttle!

I'm extremely excited to announce a first for this, or any, PASS Summit:

SQL Sentry is providing a fleet of trolleys to take Summit attendees
to popular destinations in and around downtown Charlotte!

trolley

Why are we doing this?

  • If it's your first visit to Charlotte, you may not know where to go or what to do after the conference ends each day. We don't think you should have to worry about such things after a long day of technical sessions. Just hop on the SQL Sentry Shuttle, and we'll take care of the rest!
  • Even if you do know where you are going, you still have to get there. Charlotte is a little different than Seattle and other cities in that some of the best areas are only a mile or two outside of downtown (aka, "uptown"), but not walkable. We wanted to make getting there as easy and as enjoyable as possible. Plus you'll save a few bucks on cab fare!

Rest assured, we are not doing this because there just isn't enough to do in downtown Charlotte. Quite the contrary, IMO there is plenty to keep one busy for the week, and I'll cover this in an upcoming post. However, downtown is only one aspect of Charlotte. We want you to experience more of what our hometown has to offer, with hopes that you'll depart with nothing but happy thoughts ;-)

The Details

The trolleys will be running in a continuous circuit each evening to two three of the most popular nearby destinations: The NC Music Factory, Historic Brevard Court, and the NoDa (North Davidson) area.

UPDATE: The circuit is now a "figure 8" versus a straight loop, which will enable you to get to NoDa quicker if desired, versus having to go by EpiCentre and Music Factory first. There will be trolley stops on both sides of Martin Luther King Blvd. adjacent to the Convention Center. To visit the Music Factory first, simply board on the east side of the street. To visit NoDa first, board on the west side. Since all trolleys follow the same route, it's no problem if you board the wrong one, it just may take a little longer to get to your desired destination ;-) There will also be signs and people directing.

More Info

You'll be hearing more about the SQL Sentry Shuttle on the Summit website, in the Guidebook App, and in other conference materials. I'll also be going into more detail about each destination area in some upcoming posts, so stay tuned!

Friday, July 12, 2013

SQL Sentry v7.5: A Better AlwaysOn

When we released SQL Sentry v7.2 with dedicated Windows monitoring last October, we were already hard at work on the AlwaysOn-oriented features that would become v7.5. We wanted to be the first to market with integrated, visual AlwaysOn monitoring and management, and I'm happy to say that we've achieved this goal – v7.5 RTM is now available for download!

Download SQL Sentry v7.5 here: New Users | Existing Users

I've been continually surprised at how quickly SQL Server's AlwaysOn features, availability groups in particular, have gained acceptance. I don't have any hard numbers, but the rate at which we are seeing them considered for use in production systems seems to be far outpacing adoption of other major new features from past SQL Server releases, including database mirroring in SQL Server 2005. Mirroring established a beachhead for SQL Server in the HA/DR space, and led to significant demand for more, effectively priming the market for AlwaysOn. As you probably already realize, AlwaysOn technologies (as opposed to tools) delivers big on the more.

The tools? Well, that's another story, and that's why I'm here today ;-) If you've spent any time managing more than a couple of availability groups with SSMS, you know that making sense of the environment can be quite a challenge. Some of the questions SSMS may leave you asking:

  1. How are my Availability Groups (AGs) and Failover Cluster Instances (FCIs) distributed across the Windows Server Failover Cluster (WSFC) nodes?
  2. Where is the primary replica for this AG?
  3. To which AG, if any, does my database belong?
  4. Is the AlwaysOn Dashboard showing me "the truth" about replica health?
  5. If a replica fails over, how will I know?

You may note a common theme here: a need for better visibility. These questions and many others result from the instance-level and generally static, disconnected view of the world provided by SSMS. SSMS is great at many things, but since it has no active collection or intelligence, it's just not well-suited for this particular task.

Our ultimate objective with this release of SQL Sentry Performance Advisor was to increase visibility and manageability around AlwaysOn in dramatic fashion, thereby enabling it to reach its full potential. This new functionality is so powerful, some of our clients are even using it for resource management across commodity servers, something I'm not sure the AlwaysOn creators ever envisioned. I'll delve into that in a future post.

The Truth

One of the biggest shortcomings of the native tools for managing AlwaysOn is that, depending on which replica you are viewing, you will see different information about the status and health of an AG. This is because secondary replicas aren't aware of any other replicas – only the primary knows the true status of all replicas in the AG.

So when you are looking at a replica in SSMS, you need to be sure you are on the primary before giving any weight to what you are seeing. If you have a 5-node AG, there can be be a lot of clicking around in order to ascertain accurate status and health info for all replicas.

SQL Sentry actively collects data from the primaries and secondaries as appropriate to present a seamless view of the world. No clicking around, no guessing, just the truth.

If you open AlwaysOn Management from the top level Shared Groups (Global) node in the Navigator Pane, you will see all WSFCs, WSFC nodes, and AG replicas across the entire environment monitored by SQL Sentry:

AOMgmtContextMenu

If you open it from a site or group node, you'll see the nodes in that group, plus any nodes outside of the group that are hosting any related replicas. If you open Performance Advisor and any SQL Server instances on the computer have availability group databases, you will see an integrated AlwaysOn tab that contains a topology for all related replicas.

So, how much of the topology you'll see is dependent on the level at which you are viewing the AlwaysOn interface, making it easy to organize and manage your AlwaysOn assets in a way that works best for you.

Multiple AlwaysOn Views

One thing we learned quickly is that no single view represents all AlwaysOn topologies well. So we ended up with several ;-) All are easily selectable from the Layout Style dropdown at top left.

This shot is the Groups/Replicas layout, zoomed in to a single AG:

GroupsReplicas

The next shot is of the WSFC Members layout, which gives you a high level perspective of the topology, including file share or disk witnesses, as well as aggregated data flow between the WSFC nodes:

WSFCMembers

Perhaps the most powerful layout is the WSFC Node/Group Matrix, which is the default. It provides a grid-style presentation of the entire WSFC, by node and AG:

NodeGroupMatrix3

Here you are looking at a 5-node WSFC with eight AGs and two FCIs, distributed unevenly across the nodes. You can change sorting instantly by clicking a column (node) or row (AG) header. This allows you to quickly bring into view all AGs on a node, or all nodes hosting an AG's replicas, regardless of the size of the environment.

NOTE: This is a test environment designed to stress the application, and this is is no way a recommended configuration. (If you look closely you can probably detect which of our resident MVPs helped to build it)

There are several other layout styles representing variations of those shown above, each designed to give you a different "angle" on AlwaysOn. I encourage you to try all of them, and let me know which you find most helpful for your environment.

Data Volume and Rate

On all views, the connector pipes and inner flow lines on the diagram provide a visual indicator of both data volume and rate between nodes or replicas. You can get a better look at the connectors by clicking any of the images above. Current Performance Advisor users will immediately note the similarity to our patent-pending Disk Activity screen.

In case you are wondering what it all means, here's a quick overview:

  • When in realtime mode (the default) dashed lines move in the direction of flow, and grow wider as the volume increases.
  • The lines change color from green to red as the rate of data flow between replicas/nodes slows down.
  • Entering a custom date range on the toolbar automatically switches to historical mode – the lines become solid and represent the "average" volume and rate over the range.

This makes it easy to see at a glance where bottlenecks may exist in the environment, over any date range!

Charts

The tab to the right of the diagram presents historical data for the range showing data flow to/from replicas as well as send/recovery queue sizes. The charts are context sensitive, so the data shown will change depending on the diagram element or grid row selected. When in realtime mode, they will auto-scroll to show the last 10 minutes of activity.

Synchronized Grids

The bottom area is comprised of several tabs broken out by AlwaysOn element, providing a rich and easily navigable version of the AlwaysOn schema:

ReplicasGrid

Note that as you click elements on the diagram, the tab and row for the specific element will be auto-selected, and vice versa. You can then expand the row for more details – for example, expanding a replica row gives you all of its databases and associated info. Minor features, but ones that can provide huge efficiency gains over time.

Error and State Change Logs

Adjacent to the charts are two tabs which show all error or state changes for the active date range. Just like the charts, these are context-sensitive, so as you click on a different node or replica, the data will be auto-filtered. Unlike the "Health Events" view in SSMS, errors and state changes are listed separately, making it much easier to scan and process the information. In addition, "Message" and other important columns are shown by default, you don't have to manually add them every time.

Other Goodies

  • Integrated quorum details are shown on the WSFC Node/Group Matrix layout (above):

    quorumstatus

    If a file share or disk witness is configured, it will appear in the upper left on this grid, as well as on the WSFC Members layout.
  • A variety of health and configuration details are shown for each replica element on the diagram, so you truly have all of the information you need at a glance:

    AlwaysOnNodeSpecific

    See our Online User Guide for a full explanation of these and other elements.
  • Alerts and other actions are simple to configure for failover and replica health events:

    AlwaysOnAlerting

Wrap-up

There is more, but I think I've exceeded my daily screenshot quota, so I'll wrap it up here.

"Wow, looks expensive," you may be thinking. "How much does all of this cost?"

Believe it or not, this new functionality is included in the base Performance Advisor for SQL Server license at no additional charge! We did try to come up with a simple and easy way to license it, but were unsuccessful ;-) We also thought, what better way to reward existing customers and incent new customers than by providing for free what we believe will become the new standard for AlwaysOn management and monitoring.

I wanted to thank all of those who gave us valuable feedback along the way, in particular our friends Allan (twitter | blog) and Ben (twitter) over at SQLHA, two of the world's foremost experts on this topic.

Please take it for a test drive, and let me know what you think!

Download SQL Sentry v7.5 here:  New Users | Existing Users

Friday, March 8, 2013

Plan Explorer PRO 2.5: Query plans your way

Have you ever worked with a query plan that was so large and unwieldy that it was next to impossible to make any sense of it? It can be a frustrating endeavor, for sure. Plan Explorer has always done some things that can help with these plans, such as color-scaling costs and vertically compressing subtrees. Even so, when you're zoomed out to 10% and still only fitting a quarter of the plan on screen, color-scaling won't buy you much.

The new version of Plan Explorer PRO 2.5 is focused on making these big plans easier to manage, and it does so using a variety of techniques that you have been asking for, which I will cover below. All of these new features are managed by this new toolbar at bottom of the plan diagram:

LayoutEditor

Operation Filtering

The quickest way to shrink most plans is to apply a cost filter using the Filter slider. This is just as it sounds – if an operator's (aka, iterator's) cost is less than the specified filter value, it will disappear from view. There is a caveat: any operators "upstream" in the same subtree as an unfiltered operator (one that exceeds the filter value) will still be shown, in an effort to avoid changing the meaning of the plan too dramatically. The net effect is that as you increase the filter value, op nodes will start dropping off at the leaf levels, working up towards the root node.

Here's a nice example using a plan Jonathan Kehayias (blog | twitter) shared with me a while back, aptly named "ReallyBadPlan.sqlplan":

Here is the original, with no filter:

BigPlan-Unfiltered2

... and with a .1% filter applied:

BigPlan-Point1Pct

...and with a 2.3% filter applied:

BigPlan-2Point3

As you can see, with big plans a little filtering can go a long way. The zoom level is reduced significantly, and the whole (filtered) plan is in view. The more op nodes, the lower the average cost per node, so this makes sense.

Collapsible Subtrees

Another way to quickly reduce a plan is by collapsing subtrees that aren't of interest. You do this via the new expander element on the head node of each subtree:

Expander

The expander's primary function here is to collapse, but "collapser" just doesn't have the same ring to it ;-)

Multiple Layout Modes

Some plan types simply don't fit well on screen, and this is where using a different layout mode can be helpful. It'll be easiest to illustrate this with a couple of common examples.

First, let me say that these "non-standard" plan layouts may be unsettling for some. If for whatever reason you are only willing or able to process plans using the traditional layout, my recommendation is this: don't use this feature, and skip to the next section now, lest you may have these images permanently seared into your brain!

Stair Step Plans

First up is a fairly extreme example of a "stair step" type plan, which I see most often with data warehouse queries against star schemas:

StairStep

The plan is so vertically intensive that there is no way to get the entire thing in view and still have it be usable. By usable I mean in a state where I can clearly see the costs, colorization, line widths, operator glyphs, and other visual cues necessary for troubleshooting.

By changing to Alt-1 mode we can vertically compress this plan in dramatic fashion:

StairStep-Alt1

I haven't applied any filters, or changed any other settings, and as you can see it's already much more usable. The trick is being able to do a little neural rewiring such that the non-standard orientation of some of the nodes with respect to each other doesn't interfere too much with your interpreting the plan.

UNION Query Plans

With UNION queries you effectively have multiple individual plans in all their glory stacked on top of each other. This can make them quite tall due to the potentially large subtrees off of the concatenation operators, as in this plan:

Union

Bus mode can sometimes help with this, like so:

Union-Bus

With Bus, subtrees can be centered and staggered, taking better advantage of the horizontal screen real estate, typically a less precious commodity on modern displays.

Be warned, not every layout mode will work well with every plan. For example, Bus mode applied to the "Really Bad Plan" above will create something far nastier and far less usable than the original. Every plan is different, so you may need to experiment to find which layout works best.

Rotation

As Paul White (blog | twitter) describes in his post Iterators, Query Plans, and Why They Run Backwards, plan execution order flows left-to-right, which is likely why Microsoft decided to put the root node on the left. He also covers how data flows in the opposite direction, right-to-left. So if you are concerned about IOs, you may commonly start on the right, as I do. Since this is opposite of normal reading direction for many of us, a mirrored view may be easier to process. This can be accomplished by clicking either rotate arrow twice to get to 180 degrees:

Mirrored

If you change to Centered mode and click the right rotation arrow once to 90 degrees, the plan starts to look like an org chart, which may work better for those who read top-to-bottom (or work in HR):

OrgChart

Dynamic Auto-fit

Your wrist will appreciate this feature – it automatically resizes new layouts to fit the screen, so you don't have to continually change the zoom level after applying filters or otherwise changing the plan layout. (Astute readers may notice that this checkbox is shown in some of the shots and not others – that's because it was added while I was writing this, and I didn't feel like redoing a bunch of shots ;-)

Persisting and Sharing Custom Layouts

Custom layouts are automatically persisted when saving a plan with Plan Explorer as a .queryanalysis or .pesession file, and these files can be easily shared by clicking the Post to SQLPerformance.com toolbar button, emailing, etc. Note that manually repositioned nodes are not currently persisted, but we're working on that.

Did I mention that you can now easily upload your plans to Answers.SQLPerformance.com from all versions of Plan Explorer, and receive input from some of the world's foremost experts on query plans, including Paul White (blog | twitter)? Aaron Bertand (blog | twitter) covers this feature in detail here.

Plan Explorer PRO users who don't want to use the custom layout in a shared plan can hit the Defaults button to reset everything. Plan Explorer FREE users can view, but cannot modify, Plan Explorer PRO custom layouts via the Apply Embedded Layout Options checkbox at bottom left of the diagram:

ApplyLayoutOptions

Closing

There are probably as many different optimal layouts as there are big plans. Our goal with this release was to provide more control over how plans are presented, so you can view them in ways that work best for you. You'll need to experiment to see which combinations of modes and settings work best for each plan. I've personally had a lot of fun playing around... even the really bad layouts can provide some entertainment value ;-)

Kudos to the dev team led by Brooke Philpott (blog | twitter) and QA team lead by Steve Wright (blog | twitter) for their great work here. Thanks also to those of you who have shared your ideas with us... this release is a direct result of that feedback.

Oh, and if you find settings that work particularly well for certain plan shapes, please do let me know: ggonzalez at sqlsentry.net. Enjoy!