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Jonathan Hickford is a product manager at Red Gate, working on creating tools to support automation of the database delivery process. Before he joined Red Gate he worked running the web technology team of an international broadcaster, who provided new features and the operational management for the consumer facing TV network websites.

How to Automate your Database Documentation

Published 30 May 2014 11:26 am

In my previous post, “Automating Deployments with SQL Compare command line” I looked at how teams can automate the deployment and post deployment validation of SQL Server databases using the command line versions of Red Gate tools. In this post I’m looking at another use for the command line tools, namely using them to generate up-to-date documentation with every database change.

There are many reasons why up-to-date documentation is valuable. For example when somebody new has to work on or administer a database for the first time, or when a new database comes into service. Having database documentation reduces the risks of making incorrect decisions when making changes. Documentation is very useful to business intelligence analysts when writing reports, for example in SSRS. There are a couple of great examples talking about why up to date documentation is valuable on this site:  Database Documentation – Lands of Trolls: Why and How? and Database Documentation Using SQL Doc. The short answer is that it can save you time and reduce risk when you need that most!

SQL Doc is a fast simple tool that automatically generates database documentation. It can create documents in HTML, Word or pdf files. The documentation contains information about object definitions and dependencies, along with any other information you want to associate with each object.

The SQL Doc GUI, which is included in Red Gate’s SQL Developer Suite and SQL Toolbelt, allows you to add additional notes to objects, and customise which objects are shown in the docs.  These settings can be saved as a .sqldoc project file. The SQL Doc command line can use this project file to automatically update the documentation every time the database is changed, ensuring that documentation that is always up to date.

The simplest way to keep documentation up to date is probably to use a scheduled task to run a script every day. However if you have a source controlled database, or are using a Continuous Integration (CI) server or a build server, it may make more sense to use that instead.

If  you’re using SQL Source Control or SSDT Database Projects to help version control your database, you can automatically update the documentation after each change is made to the source control repository that contains your database. To get this automation in place,  you can use the functionality of a Continuous Integration (CI) server, which can trigger commands to run when a source control repository has changed. A CI server will also capture and save the documentation that is created as an artifact, so you can always find the exact documentation for a specific version of the database. This forms an always up to date data dictionary.

If you don’t already have a CI server in place there are several you can use, such as the free open source Jenkins or the free starter editions of TeamCity. I won’t cover setting these up in this article, but there is information about using CI servers for automating database tasks on the Red Gate Database Delivery webpage. You may be interested in Red Gate’s SQL CI utility (part of the SQL Automation Suite) which is an easy way to update a database with the latest changes from source control.

The PowerShell example below shows how to create the documentation from a database. That database might be your integration database or a shared development database that is always up to date with the latest changes.

$serverName = "server\instance"
$databaseName = "databaseName" # If you want to document multiple databases use a comma separated list 
$userName = "username"
$password = "password"

# Path to SQLDoc.exe
$SQLDocPath = "C:\Program Files (x86)\Red Gate\SQL Doc 3\SQLDoc.exe"

$arguments = @( 
  "/server:$($serverName)", 
  "/database:$($databaseName)",   
  "/username:$($userName)", 
  "/password:$($password)", 
  "/filetype:html", 
  "/outputfolder:.",
# "/project:$args[0]",  # If you already have a .sqldoc project file you can pass it as an argument to this script.  Values in the project will be overridden with any options set on the command line
  "/name:$databaseName Report", 
  "/copyrightauthor:$([Environment]::UserName)"
)

write-host $arguments
& $SQLDocPath $arguments

There are several options you can set on the command line to vary how your documentation is created. For example, you can document multiple databases or exclude certain types of objects. In the example above, we set the name of the report to match the database name, and use the current Windows user as the documentation author. For more examples of how you can customise the report from the command line please see the SQL Doc command line documentation

If you already have a .sqldoc project file, or wish to further customise the report by including or excluding specific objects, you can use this project on the command line. Any settings you specify on the command line will override the defaults in the project. For details of what you can customise in the project please see the SQL Doc project documentation.

In the example above, the line to use a project is commented out, but you can uncomment this line and then pass a path to a .sqldoc project file as an argument to this script.

 Conclusion

Keeping documentation about your databases up to date is very easy to set up using SQL Doc and PowerShell. By using a CI server to run this process you can trigger the documentation to be run on every change to a source controlled database, and keep historic documentation available.

If you are considering more advanced database automation, e.g. database unit testing, change script generation, deploying to large numbers of targets and backup/verification, please email me at Jonathan.Hickford@red-gate.com for further script samples or if you have any questions.

2 Responses to “How to Automate your Database Documentation”

  1. muline says:

    We are heavy users of SQL Doc and look forward to more improvements to a great tool. Love the ease.

    In addition to using SQL Doc for development work, we also use the tool for supporting tables and views that are used to extract data in text and CSV formats that is delivered to our clients.

    The fields and definitions are used for a table extract and provided to our clients, but seems that is falls just short in creating a data dictionary that includes a fixed width definition. (i.e. data element name, description, starting position, ending position, field length, field type)

  2. Jonathan Hickford says:

    One other useful command line option is:

    /alldbs

    This will document all databases on an instance.

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