Is a serverless database right for your workload?

The serverless database continues to gain traction across the industry, generating a lot of hype along the way. And why not?

The idea that an application developer starting on a new project can provision a database, not worry about sizing compute and storage, or fine-tuning database configurations, and really only needs a general sense of workload pattern and transaction volume to approximate cost is a very enticing proposition. Plus, some might even see very strong potential to reduce the TCO of the database system.

As the theme around cloud cost management continues to percolate, the elastic pay-as-you-go model makes serverless even more attractive—if the app and customers behave.

A one-size-fits-some model

The serverless database model can be a great solution for unpredictable, spiky workloads. It can even be a fit for predictable, but not constant workloads, e.g., ecommerce on holiday weekends. It’s ideal for the application development team that may not have deep database tuning expertise, or may not quite understand their app usage patterns yet. Or, for teams that may prioritize availability and performance and care less about control of their database system and aggressive margin optimization.

I do not mean to suggest that serveless is a runaway budget-burning machine. Paying strictly for what you consume has huge potential to keep costs down and avoid waste, but it also requires you to understand how your application behaves and how users interact with it. Huge spikes in workload, especially those that the application should have been more efficient with, can also be very costly. You’re paying for what you use, but you may not always use what you expected to.

Regulatory considerations and limitations

As you consider a serverless database option, you will also want to consider where your organization or company policy lies in a shared responsibility model. For example, serverless is not going to be entirely suitable for highly regulated workloads with strong governance policies over database configuration changes.

To really reap the benefits of a serverless database means accepting that you are relinquishing even more control of your database to the provider than you would with even a traditional database-as-a-service (DBaaS) solution, which those highly regulated industries would not necessarily accommodate without the same strict governance policies they have in place today.

Tuning for workloads and cost management

Serverless is not just about scaling system resources instantaneously. It’s also about ensuring the database is properly tuned for the type of workloads it is processing to honor those guarantees to the customer, while also optimizing utilization rates of the system resources it is consuming.

While the consumer may not have to worry about managing the cost of cloud infrastructure in a serverless model, the provider still does, and it is in their best interest to ensure that the database system is optimally tuned for their customer’s workloads, and that the underlying systems are at optimal utilization rates.

It also means the provider is going to leverage multi-tenancy models wherever possible to pack as many database clusters on their servers as possible. This maximizes utilization rates and optimizes margins—for the provider. In a multi-tenant architecture, you must be sure that your provider will have the level of predictability in your workload, along with any number of other customers on those same servers. This would ensure there’s enough idle resources available to meet any increases in workload, especially the unpredictable ones. 

Ultimately, serverless databases are a great technology, but one that is still in its infancy and that presents challenges for both the consumer and the provider. A serverless database should not be viewed as the end all be all. It is a very powerful option that app teams should consider when selecting their database solutions among numerous other options.

Jozef de Vries is chief product engineering officer at EDB.

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