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Serverless Databases - Are They the Right Choice for Your Business?

Tim Davidson
10 min read

Serverless databases have seen a spiked adoption by many businesses due to their ability to handle dynamic workloads. These databases are based on an on-demand model and are provided by third-party service providers.

They are best suited for enterprise solutions that need to handle fluctuating traffic without the hustle of managing the underlying infrastructure. This allows the business to focus more on important operations that increase their productivity.

But before we look into other advantages of serverless databases, let’s unpack what they are and how they work.

Serverless

What are serverless databases?

A serverless database is an elastic database that’s optimized to meet the irregular workload of applications. Traditionally, a business will spin up a server where the database lives and pay for it. This model follows a flat cost because even if the database isn’t being actively used, the business still pays for the server.

Server activity

Serverless databases asked the question “can we act as the server and offer the database as pay-per-use?”. Their main unique feature is that it eliminates the need for businesses to manage in-house servers, hence the name serverless.

Serverless database pricing model

The concept of serverless databases is based on the cloud computing execution model. With the serverless architecture model, you only pay for the amount of time and memory an application’s code takes to perform a task. Most providers measure this process by gigabyte-second.

Note that this pricing model separates storage and processing power costs; meaning you will only pay for storage when there are no tasks to be executed.

server map

Traditional vs serverless databases

To truly appreciate serverless databases, we need to take a step back and look into traditional databases.

Traditional databases refer to the physical servers maintained by a business in-house. They use a single-tenant architecture - meaning they’re designed to serve one dedicated user, which improves data security and reliability.

Traditionally hosted databases require manual provisioning, capacity planning, and sometimes heavy maintenance. These processes cost money and take time, and can slow down your development team’s efficiency. Especially for developers whose efforts are split between server maintenance and application development. A lot of devs, especially mobile devs, don’t need to be familiar with spinning up and maintaining a database on something like EC2 or Heroku.

With serverless databases, you don’t have to purchase or lease any server. You only pay for the computing resources used on a workload basis. They are managed by the service provider, allowing your team to focus more on building your app and less on keeping the infrastructure working.

How do serverless databases work?

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Applications on a serverless database run on managed stateless containers. When a request is initiated, it goes through an API that routes to the provider’s backend resources. An instance or pod is then allocated to handle the request. Upon completion, the allocated resources are returned to the pool and you’re then billed on CPU capacity, RAM, and time active.

While resource allocation takes place almost instantly, in some cases you may experience latency in request handling. This happens when there aren’t sufficiently sized pods in the resource’s pool. To avoid this latency, you may consider paying to keep some instances “pre-warmed” and ready to handle your requests instantly.

That said, serverless databases are referred to as Function-as-a-Service (FaaS) platforms. This is because they allow the deployment of parts of business logic or individual pieces of code known as functions.

They are ephemeral, meaning you can’t store the code on the platform, which explains why providers separate storage and processing services. Once a function is executed, the instance handling it vanishes automatically and another one is created on request when your application sends another function. Very cool stuff!

It's common for serverless database providers to incorporate Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) in their offering, for example, AWS Lambda. Generally, BaaS offers authentication and data storage services, allowing developers to focus on the front end. A combination of the two, FaaS and Baas, therefore allows businesses to run their applications in event-driven containers while providing the entire backend as a managed service.

Features of a serverless database

Let’s look at some of the most defining features of serverless databases:

  1. Automated elasticity

Serverless databases are inherently elastic. This means that you don’t have to worry about scaling your application since the database can scale automatically to accommodate sudden rise and fall in traffic. In addition to eliminating resource allocation challenges, elasticity ensures you only pay for the resources used, which helps you lower overhead costs.

  1. Geo distribution

Serverless databases feature protocols that allow businesses to replicate multiple datasets across the world without using any extra tools. This helps minimize latency consequently improving the user experience. Additionally, with evenly distributed datasets across the world, businesses can expand their global reach and tap into new markets. 

  1. Multi-tenant architecture

A multi-tenant architecture in cloud computing means that a vendor’s customers can share computing resources. However, the customers aren’t aware of each other nor is their data mixed. Serverless databases utilize the multi-tenant architecture, meaning that computing resources exist in a pool and can be shared by multiple projects on an on-demand basis.

In a single-tenant architecture, a vendor allocates businesses/customers a dedicated server to handle their workload. As such, the customers pay for the server's entire resources, even if you only use a fraction of it. Contrastingly, a multi-tenant architecture allows you to share a server’s resources with other businesses while storing your data in silos. This enables you to pay only for the storage and processing capabilities you use, which is cheaper than single-tenant architecture.

Further, the multi-tenant architecture leads to faster deployment since it eliminates the need to build siloed datasets for different projects. All projects within the same organization can utilize the same database cluster.

  1. ACID compliant

The ACID in database systems refers to a set of principles - atomicity, consistency, isolation, and durability – that guarantee data validity and reliability. Serverless databases are ACID compliant especially if they utilize a structured data schema. This way, all requests from the end user are managed as a single logical operation.

Pros and Cons of serverless databases

Having gained a clear understanding of serverless databases, let’s look into their benefits and drawbacks.

Advantages of using a serverless database:

Cost-efficient

One of the most significant benefits of using a serverless database is its cost efficiency. This is because it's charged based on a runtime model that ensures you only pay for the resources used. When your app is idle, you only pay for storage thus lowering operational costs in the long haul. With in-house servers, you pay a fixed amount of computing resources, which in most cases might end up being underutilized, yet you have to pay for it in its entirety.

Boosts productivity

Unlike traditional/in-house servers, serverless databases don’t require installation, provision, or any other type of maintenance. The service providers handle all the maintenance which leaves businesses to focus on building their applications. This leads to fast application development and deployment since development teams aren’t bogged down by the stressful server management operations. It also means that businesses don’t have to hire extra talent to manage their infrastructure, consequently saving them money and time.

Efficient scalability

Thanks to its inherent elasticity, a serverless database can grow with your business needs over time. As such, you don't need to switch to a powerful server when your app's traffic grows. This helps future-proof your application since it can adapt to unprecedented workloads. Also, due to its automated scaling, a serverless database eliminates the chances of server overload resulting in application downtime. In-house servers have limited resources making them experience overload when there’s a spike in traffic. As such, serverless databases guarantee a smoother user experience than traditional servers.

Improved resilience and availability

A serverless database allows you to create multiple datasets across a vast region. This way, if one node fails all functions are diverted to the nearby functional nodes until the faulty one is fixed. This makes your application more resilient to failures while improving availability. Functions are executed based on the closest dataset to the user thereby reducing latency.

Simplicity

Serverless databases reduce the complexity of working with databases to a simple API. Users can create functions and computational logic which are executed by the provider through an API. These databases empower developers to create clusters and manage operations with a press of a button which ultimately streamlines business operations. Also, thanks to its simplicity teams without system administration experience can get started with production quicker without hiring dedicated experts to manage their infrastructure.  

Here are the disadvantages of using serverless databases:

Response latency

When a database isn’t being actively used, it goes into “idle mode” to save on resources. As such, when the app restarts it may experience response latency as the database takes time to relaunch the underlying resources. This problem is commonly known as a "cold start", and can potentially impair user experience. If your application is performance-sensitive, serverless databases may not be an ideal choice for you. To solve this problem, you’ll have to pay to keep some resources pre-warmed for your application. Cumulatively, these expenses can exceed the cost of configuring in-house servers with a fixed throughput.

Difficulty in testing and debugging applications

A serverless database makes it almost impossible to monitor and diagnose an app’s performance. This is because it’s difficult to replicate a serverless architecture environment since most serverless databases aren’t open-source. However, you can use some third-party serverless tools to monitor your app’s performance.

Security

Serverless databases are often considered safe since the vendors are responsible for securing the system's vulnerabilities. However, it's a business's responsibility to configure its app's logic, data, and security-related layers that determine how an app interacts with the serverless database ecosystem. This introduces room vulnerabilities where every element can be an entry point for a hacker.

Vendor lock-in

It's easy for a business to be tied to a vendor's serverless database solution. This makes it difficult to switch to other alternatives since each vendor offers unique features and additional perks.

Serverless databases use cases

Ideally, serverless databases are best suited for small businesses as they don’t require regular maintenance. Other cases where you might consider using a serverless database include:

Prototypes

Prototype projects are usually designed for short-time usage to test a solution and collect user feedback. As such, they can benefit from pay-per-use billing of serverless databases which is more economical than paying for an entire server.

New applications

When launching a new application, you're unsure of how the user base will scale. Using a serverless database in such cases allows you to create room to accommodate variable workloads. The database will scale automatically based on users’ growth.

Ecommerce

Online stores process payments from third parties. Instead of creating a dedicated server to store users' payment information, a serverless database offers you an alternative to process payments using cloud APIs that collect payment information and pass it to your database.

How to choose a serverless database solution

There is a wide variety of serverless database solutions available in the market. As such, it can be daunting to choose a suitable one for your business. Some of the popular choices include Amazon DB, CockroachDB, Amazon S3, Google Firestore, Fauna, and Amazon Aurora serverless.

Some of the factors you should consider when choosing an ideal serverless database include:

Data model needs

Your choice of a serverless database should be based on your data model. For organized data with predefined relationships between data points, a relational serverless database works for you. Some of the best examples of relational serverless databases are Cockroach DB and Amazon Aurora. These databases prioritize query flexibility over performance. NoSQL serverless databases are designed to optimize read-time queries. Some of the best examples include Amazon DynamoDB and Google FireStore. Some databases such as Fauna are versatile in that they integrate both relational and non-relation schemas.

Pricing model

When choosing a serverless database solution you need to consider the vendor’s pricing. Most of them use pay-as-you-go, AWS Lambda in particular charges only for the component you use regardless of the traffic. This model is more affordable than hourly charges.

Frequently asked questions

What is meant by serverless?

Although the name implies a lack of servers, it's not necessarily true. Serverless means that developers don't have to deal with server management; instead, this process is left to the database service provider.

Is Amazon S3 serverless?

Yes, Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) is a scalable infrastructure offered through Amazon Web Service.

Does serverless mean no database?

No. Serverless databases do have databases that are based in the cloud.

Conclusion

Serverless databases are an investment to any business. They are more cost-efficient and more scalable than traditional servers. If you have any questions about serverless databases we didn’t answer, please leave them in the comments section below and our team will respond in a day or two.

Tim Davidson
Tim Davidson
Tim is the face of the company. When you want to kick off a new project, or an update on your existing project, Tim is your man. With a background in project management, Tim specialises in managing the chaos around the company.

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