Buy, Lease or Borrow? What is Serverless Database Technology?

Serverless database technology offers a viable new alternative to cloud-based virtual machines and on-premise data centres. But how does 'going serverless' compare on cost and effort?

Stephen Dowell
09 September 2020

Serverless is the latest major development in database technology. It gives IT and marketing teams a new option for how to deploy data projects. As a data solutions provider, we’ve got some strong opinions on serverless and whether it is or isn’t the answer to all of a business’s data needs. In this article, we’ll start by looking at what serverless database technology is and how it compares to other types of database.

What is serverless database technology?

As the name suggests, a serverless database doesn’t require a server. Or at least, it doesn’t require you to pay to host a server, just to use it.

A simple analogy can be drawn between databases and the various forms of car ownership.

Option 1 – Buy a Car

The most traditional way of housing your data is in an on-premise data centre. This is the equivalent of buying a car. You decide up-front what you need – model, size, engine etc – and then you purchase the physical hardware. You receive your database and all responsibility passes to you, the owner. You have to service it, maintain it, and ultimately replace it when it comes to the end of its lifespan. Just like a car, the older it gets, the more you have to service it, and the more expensive it can be to keep it running. It requires a big up-front investment, and the right knowledge and skills to maintain it for the long-term.

Option 2 – Lease a Car

The second option for storing data is a cloud-based virtual machine. This is the equivalent of taking out a lease on a car. You never actually own the hardware, but you do get all the benefits, just at a price premium. Your data is stored in a massive data centre owned by Microsoft, Amazon or whoever, in an enormous secure enclosure, a Fort Knox-style data centre. Like leasing a car, cloud-based virtual machines are popular because you get a highly performant database but don’t need to pay for the hardware up-front. Rather, before you commit you decide how many miles you’re planning to do per year (how much data you’re going to store and how much computing power you need), and then agree a monthly licence fee based on your expected usage. You need to service the car (maintain the database and the server) but you don’t need to worry about the hardware coming to the end of its lifespan. The main drawback with this arrangement is that you still pay the full monthly cost, even if you end up only using it for a short commute each day.* So depending on what you need to do with your data, it can work out to be an expensive way to store it. And that’s where the third option comes in…

* Worth noting that there are clever things you can do with virtual machines to reduce cost, like power them down when you’re not using them, but this isn’t a standard feature. Setting this up requires effort and automation and it may not be a suitable solution in every case.

Option 3 – Join a Car Club

The newest option for managing data is a serverless database. In this analogy, it’s akin to becoming a member of a Car Club (like Enterprise Car Club, for example). You pay a small ongoing membership fee (data storage costs), and for that you have continual access to a vehicle as and when you need it. Then when you need a car, you just pay for what you actually use. So if you only need a car to get to work, you only pay for the time you’re driving. And it’s all self-serve. There’s no big up-front cost, and you don’t need to worry about servicing the car. What you do get is a high-performance vehicle that’s ready and waiting whenever you need it, and your costs are directly proportional to your usage. In terms of a database, serverless gives you access to a fully hosted data environment with no need to set up a server, or do any of the maintenance you would with a virtual machine. Serverless databases give enormous flexibility and you only pay for the time you’re using your database. When the database is idle, you’re only paying the negligible storage costs. We should point out that this analogy isn’t perfect, as with a Car Club you’re sharing the vehicle with other members… and of course, that’s not the case with serverless databases. Your data is secure and no-one else will have access to it or your code. But the notion of a pay-as-you-go database with none of the maintenance considerations is extremely similar.

Choosing the best option

So, what’s the right database solution for you? Do you want to buy, lease or ‘borrow’ computing power for your database? Well just like the options for car ownership, that all depends on what you need it for. If you’re a long-distance courier the best option will likely be different than if you’re a Sunday driver or if you only need a car for commuting into the office a couple of days per week.

In our next article we’ll look at a range of database use cases and go into more detail around the pros and cons of each.

If you're considering using a serverless database and want the opinion of an experienced data engineer before you commit, get in touch now.
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