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What is a serverless database?

By Franck Pachot

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After reading the https://cloudwars.co/oracle/oracle-deal-8×8-larry-ellison-picks-amazons-pocket-again/ paper, I am writing some thoughts about how a database can be serverless and elastic. Of course, a database needs a server to process its data. Serverless doesn’t mean that there are no servers.

Serverless as not waiting for server provisioning

The first idea of “serverless” is about provisioning. In the past when a developer required a new database to start a new project she had to wait that a server is installed. In 1996 my first development on Oracle Database started like this: we asked Sun for a server and OS and asked Oracle for the database software, all for free for a few months, in order to start our prototype. Today this would be a Cloud Free Tier access. At that time we had to wait to receive, unbox, and install all this. I learned a lot there about Installing an OS, configuring the network, setting up disk mirroring… This was an awesome experience for a junior starting in IT. Interestingly, I think that today a junior can learn the same concepts with a Cloud Foundation training and certification. This has not really changed except the unboxing and cabling. The big difference is that today we do not have to wait weeks for it and can setup the same infrastructure in 10 minutes.

That was my first DevOps experience: we wanted to develop our application without waiting for the IT department. But it was not serverless at all.

A few years later I was starting a new datawarehouse for a mobile telco in Africa. Again, weeks to months were required to order and install a server for it. And we didn’t wait. We started the first version of the datawarehouse on a spare PC we had. This was maybe my first serverless experience: the server provisioning is out of the critical path in the project planning. Of course, a PC is not a server and reliability and performance were not there. But we were lucky and when the server arrived we already had good feedback from this first version.

We need serverless, but we need real servers behind it. Today, this is possible: you don’t need to wait and you can provision a new database in the public or private cloud, or simply on a VM, without waiting. And all security, reliability and performance are there. With Oracle, it is a bit more difficult if you can’t do it in their public cloud because licensing do not count vCPUs and you often need specific hardware for it like in the old days. Appliances like ODA can help. Public Cloud or Cloud@Customer definitely helps.

Serverless as not taking responsibility for server administration

Serverless is not only about running on virtual servers with easy provisioning. If you are serverless, you don’t want to manage those virtual machines. You start and connect to a compute instance. You define its shape (CPU, RAM) but you don’t want to know where it runs physically. Of course, you want to define the region for legal, performance or cost reasons, but not which data center, which rack,… That’s the second step of serverless: you don’t manage the physical servers. In Oracle Cloud, you run a Compute Instance where you can install a database. In AWS this is an EC2 instance where you can install a database.

But, even if you don’t own the responsibility of the servers, this is not yet “serverless”. Because you pay for them. If your CFO still sees a bill for compute instance, you are not serverless.

Serverless as not paying for the server

AWS has a true serverless and elastic database offer: Amazon Aurora Serverless. You don’t have to start or stop the servers. This is done automatically when you connect. More activity adds more servers. No connection stops it. And you pay only for what the application is using. You don’t pay for the database servers running. You really pay for what the application is using.

Azure has also a Serverless SQL Server: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/sql-database/sql-database-serverless

Those are, as far as I know, the only true serverless databases yet. If we need to stop and start the compute services ourselves, even with some level of auto-scaling, we can call that on-demand but not serverless.

All AWS RDS services including Aurora can be started and stopped on demand. They can scale up or down with minimal downtime, especially in Multi-AZ because the standby can be scaled and activated. Redshift cannot be stopped because it uses local storage. But you can take a snapshot and terminate the instance, and restore it later.

On Oracle side, the Autonomous Database can be stopped and started. Then again, we can say that we don’t pay when we don’t use the database but cannot say that we don’t pay when we don’t use the application. Because the database is up even if the application is not used. However, you can scale without the need to stop and start. And there’s also some level of auto-scaling where the additional application usage is really billed on CPU usage metrics: you pay for n OCPUs when the ATP or ADB is up and you can use up to n*3 sessions on CPU, with true serverless billing for what is above the provisioned OCPUs. Maybe the future will go further. The technology allows it: multitenant allows PDB level CPU caging where the capacity can be changed online (setting CPU_COUNT) and AWR gathers the CPU load with many metrics that can be used for billing.

Serverless

The name is funny because serverless programs run on servers. And the crush for running without servers is paradoxical. When I started programming, it was on very small computers (ZX-81, Apple //e, IBM PC-XT) and I was really proud when I started to do real stuff running on real servers, with a schema on *the* company database. Actually, what is called serverless today is, in my opinion, showing the full power of servers: don’t need to buy a computer for a project but use some mutualized compute power.

The cloud wars use strange marketing terms, but really good technology and concepts are coming.

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