Is upgrading RDS like a shit-storm that will not end?

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Can RDS worsen an outage ?? That’s another way to think about this question. In my experience, it very clearly increases outages, by tying one or both hands behind your back. Believe me when I say, that is terribly frustrating when you’re putting out fires!

1. Changing Parameters

An everyday occurance, is the need to change database parameters. Want to enable a login, great no problem. Except in RDS it becomes a problem! Ok, you’re thinking, why is that?

In regular MySQL, you login with the shell & issue SET GLOBAL parameter = value; Nice, easy, straightforward. No servers restarting, no nonsense. If the parameter requires a reboot, MySQL will tell you.

In RDS, the process is waay more complex. First you edit a parameter group. You can copy an existing one, or change the one you’re using. If that parameter group applies to many servers, be careful!

Ok, what next? Now you APPLY that new parameter group. You can do so immediately, or during the next maintenance window. Here’s the tricky part. Is Amazon going to restart my instance? That’s something your boss or manager will surely ask you. Well you might think it would only do so if the parameter in question required it. But I tried to enable the general log recently and Amazon tells me the status of “pending-reboot”. This change shouldn’t require that! I’m sitting there scared Amazon might suddenly decide to reboot a production server for no reason!

This is where you feel you’ve lost control. You can dig through docs all you want, but you can’t ever say for sure if a managed service will behave predictably. There’s already more layers of software between you and your relational database. Not what you want.

Also: Did MySQL & Mongo have a beautiful baby called Aurora?

2. How much longer?

Another question you’ll ask yourself is, how long will this maintenance take? With MySQL at the command line, you can run through test after test & time the process. When you go to perform tasks offhours, you already have a clear picture.

With RDS, things can’t be predicted. Servers are restarted when they needn’t be. Rebuilds take forever, and you have no progress bar. EBS performance has a hiccup and your snapshot time doubles. The troubles go on and on.

Related: Is automation killing old-school operations?

3. Why did Amazon just force an OS upgrade?

Here’s another surprise I ran into. Again we have a managed solution, so Amazon must take opportunities when they can. But you pay for it in unpredictability.

Going to perform a MySQL 5.1 to 5.5 upgrade, and I’d run through test after test in advance. Timed the process to about 45 minutes. Then went to do it in production. Amazon decided to throw in the OS upgrade too, adding 40 minutes of surprise time. What’s worse? No progress bar on that either.

Upgrades are nerve wracking enough, without this kind of stuff scaring the daylights out of you.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. What’s happening on my server?

All of the questions about progress are opaque on RDS because you lack command line. You can’t watch processes, disk I/O or any of the granular stuff. In my surgery analogy below, it’s as though you can’t touch the patient, find their pulse or guage if their skin is cold, clammy or pale.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

5. Surgery with blunt instruments

At the end of the day, RDS feels like surgery with blunt instruments. If command line were your scalpel, windows & GUI tools may be your remote video surgery. And worse still, RDS would be like doing surgery on the Opportunity Mars rover, after it’s landed & stuck in a valley. Everything is delayed, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, and the worst environment to work in when you have an emergency with your database.

If you have any operations experience, deploy your own MySQL on an EC2 instance. You’ll thank yourself later.

Also: Is zero downtime even possible on RDS?

Upside to RDS

Is there any upside? Why do people use it? Push-button replication. Check. Push-button multi-az, check. Those are great if you have no DBA. Automated backups so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot, check.

I guess there is *something* to love.

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  • Cassiel

    Thanks for the great article, but doesn’t all the possible downsides you are mentioning only appear without multi-az? If you have multi-az it should never have any downtime while Amazon is upgrading your instance.

    • Sean Hull

      *never* is a very long time. 🙂