Head in the clouds: Examining the Database-as-a-Service promise

After several challenging years, organisations’ digital efforts are starting to bear fruit. Most now report they’ve started to see significant improvements to the end-user experience through digital transformation. While this is great news for organisations and their customers, it hasn’t been without its challenges. Every new digital project relies on data, and lots of it. According to one estimate, we’ll collectively be creating a massive 463bn gigabytes of data every single day by 2025 — all of which has to be aggregated and made usable. Having the right database infrastructure in place to make use of this data, and produce the innovative new applications and services that end-users increasingly demand, is critical. This need has given rise to the ‘Database-as-a-Service’ (DBaaS) trend.

Like any other cloud offering, DBaaS can provide huge benefits, but also pain points – from pricing inflexibility through to vendor lock-in. While demand for DBaaS continues to rise, with research suggesting the DBaaS market will grow by as much as 69% within the next five years, organisations will struggle to realise the full benefits of database services unless they can address these issues.

The right solution?

At face value, it’s clear to see why organisations have looked to the cloud to find a solution to their database issues. DBaaS solutions are highly scalable; able to automatically provision or decommission database instances as needed, and to ensure the organisation always has the right resources for its needs. With management responsibilities handled by the DBaaS provider, in-house IT teams can also concentrate on what they do best – transforming the business.

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Perhaps most importantly, DBaaS solutions offer a much greater level of agility than self-managed databases. When the organisation needs the ability to support new services or applications, they can provision new databases on-demand in a matter of minutes, rather than the weeks or even months it might take otherwise. This is especially true for organisations that need to balance a database infrastructure that relies on legacy databases, where adding newer technology could be a complex, costly and time-consuming task – DBaaS can offer a welcome alternative.

Why the grass isn’t always greener

Despite the abundance of factors spurring demand for DBaaS, some early adopters have struggled to realise the benefits they might have expected from their deployments. To start with, many organisations face cloud vendor lock-in with native offerings from cloud service providers that are available on the provider’s platform. As a result, organisations will have to use that provider’s underlying infrastructure, even if there are more suitable or cost-effective cloud options available elsewhere. In addition, if an organisation wants to use a different cloud service provider, it will also need to change its underlying database, which will require application changes.

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More importantly, the ‘bundle’ approach that many DBaaS providers offer is typically more expensive. While bundling together the database technology alongside management functionality and the underlying infrastructure can be beneficial from a simplicity perspective — since there’s only one bill to pay — the costs involved are typically quite high, and organisations may find this model to be inflexible, and unsuited to their needs.

Because the database technology, management, and underlying infrastructure are offered as part of a single package, organisations are restricted from being able to procure the infrastructure directly from the CSP without an intermediary. As such, there’s no option to leverage the multiple pricing models offered by CSPs: organisations must pay the price that the DBaaS provider stipulates.

Taking back control

While these issues alone aren’t likely to dampen the momentum behind the growth of DBaaS, there is still a sense of ongoing frustration at this inflexibility, alongside a lack of control over their data. The latter is particularly crucial; most DBaaS solutions are architected in such a way that the ‘data plane’ — the area where data requests are processed — rests within the DBaaS provider’s cloud, rather than the organisation’s. Organisations often find they don’t have as much control over their data as they need, all while relying on the DBaaS provider to guarantee service.

Organisations could be forgiven for expecting more from the DBaaS solutions on offer. They should expect a DBaaS that allows them to provision the underlying cloud infrastructure from whichever cloud provider they want. And they should expect a more flexible approach, where they’re able to procure the database technology, management functionality, and cloud infrastructure separately, allowing them the freedom to find the best possible price. Importantly, they should expect full control over the data plane, rather than entrusting it to the DBaaS provider, putting an end to a reliance on the DBaaS provider to guarantee performance, low latency, and strong security.

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As organisations work towards ‘digital maturity’, the challenges they have faced with their DBaaS deployments will become increasingly visible. Unless users approach DBaaS implementations with this ‘bill of rights’ in mind, the DBaaS concept will never live up to its vast potential.

Written by Scott Anderson, senior vice-president, product management & business operations at Couchbase

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