When hosting data on Amazon turns bloodsport

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There’s a strong trend to automation across the cloud. That’s a great thing for startups because it reduces operational headaches & lets them focus on building products.

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But as that trend begins to touch the database tier, all sorts of complications emerge. Let’s take a look at some of the tradeoffs.

1. Database as a service trend

I was recently reading Baron Schwartz’s article on the trend to database as a service.

I work with a lot of venture backed startups & pay close attention to what’s happening in New York & SF. From where I’m standing I see a similar trend. As automation simplifies management across the application stack, from load balancers to web & search servers, the same advantages are moving to database management.

Also: How to automate MySQL analysis on Amazon RDS

2. How Amazon RDS helps

Amazon’s RDS offers firms a data solution for Oracle & SQL Server as well as MySQL. For those just starting, it offers a long list of advantages.

o quick push-button deployment in minutes
o standardized parameters settings that just work
o ability to scale up or down from the dashboard
o automated backups
o multi-az so you can sleep at night

This brings a huge advantage to startups. Many have a team of developers but aren’t large enough to need an operations team and can’t afford a dedicated database administrator.

Amazon is obviously helping these firms raise the bar. And that’s a good thing.

Related: RDS or MySQL 10 use cases

3. How Amazon RDS hurts

As you get bigger, your needs will grow too. You’ll have tens of millions of customers, and with more customers comes an even higher bar. Zero downtime becomes critical. It’s then that Amazon’s solution starts to become frustrating.

Unpredictable upgrades

MySQL upgrades on RDS are a messy activity. Amazon will restart the instance, backup the instance, perform the upgrade then restart again. Each of these restarts takes a few minutes. The whole operation may have you down for ten minutes. This becomes more frustrating when your hands are completely tied. You don’t know when or what will happen!

When you roll-your-own instance, an upgrade can be performed in a matter of seconds. No instance restarts are necessary and you can monitor the process to know exactly where you are. This is the kind of control you’re going to want if you have millions of customers relying on your site & uptime.

Unnecessary slow restarts

When you apply parameter changes on RDS, some require a MySQL restart. Amazon forces the whole server to restart, increasing this downtime from a few seconds (when you roll your own) to many minutes. And while some parameters can be changed online, Amazon can provoke some strange behavior that is not always predictable.

With the frequency of these types of changes, you’ll quickly grow tired and frustrated with RDS.

EBS Snapshots are not portable

As mentioned above Amazon uses it’s standard filesystem snapshot technology to perform backups. While this works well, it can be slow & unpredictable in a multi-tenant environment.

When you roll your own, you can take advantage of xtrabackup, and perform hot backups against your database with zero downtime. This is a real godsend. What’s more they are portable, and can be moved to any other server even ones not hosted in Amazon’s cloud!

Promoting a read-replica is slow too!

One feature that Amazon touts is creating copies or “read replicas” of your data. These are great and can facilitate easy copying of data. However promoting these again brings unnecessary restarts which are slow.

When you roll your own, you can promote a read-replica or read-only slave in seconds. A few seconds can seem invisible to end users, while minutes will be perceived as a real outage or downtime.

Read: Is zero downtime even possible with RDS?

4. Is migration an option?

So what to do? As I mentioned above, there are real advantages to startups deploying their first database. It really does help. I would argue for many it can be a good place to start.

If you’re starting to outgrow RDS and frustrated with the limitations, performance tuning headaches & unneeded downtime, luckily you have options.

Migrating off of RDS onto a physical server can be done in a number of ways.

o slave off of the master

Here you build a MySQL slave on a standard EC2 instance, with your RDS instance as the master. When you’re caught up, bring your site down temporarily. Reset the slave & set to read-write mode. Then point your webservers at your new EC2 instance and bring the site back up. If done carefully 10 to 20 seconds of downtime should be plenty.

Don’t forget to run through the process with a firedrill first!

o dump & import

Another way to move your data may be MySQLdump. This option would be slower & bring a lot more downtime, but possibly necessary in some cases.

Also: 5 Reasons to move data to Amazon Redshift

5. Speed: It’s the database

Fred Wilson says speed is the number one feature of a web application. If customers are frustrated & waiting, they may leave & not come back. On the web it can be everything.

Many firms are rushing to database as a service to simplify administration. While that’s wonderful at the beginning, as you grow performance will become more of a day-to-day concern. And when it does, the database is going to be big on your list of headaches.

Web application performance inevitably involves the database and while it does, your decision to choose database as a service may come into question. Don’t be afraid to bite the bullet and manage things yourself when that time comes.

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

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