Cloud database services reduce complexity, skills needed

Database-as-a-service shields companies from having to worry about low-level management tasks and need for skilled database workers, although common cloud challenges apply, insiders note.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Database-as-a-service offerings provide similar benefits and challenges that are common to software-as-a-service (SaaS), but it also reduces companies' dependence on the need for specialized database administration skills, market players pointed out.

According to Steve McWhirter, senior vice president of enterprise sales for Asia-Pacific at Salesforce.com, traditional on-premise database systems have grown overly complex, difficult to manage and do not scale easily in response to varying application workloads since their inception in the 1970s.

Furthermore, such systems are inherently single-tenant systems that require each organization to set up and manage multiple databases, sometimes for each application, which is time-consuming to configure and maintain, he added in his e-mail.

By comparison, cloud database services provide benefits such as ease of use, as users need not perform low-level management such as patching, backups and configuration. It is also cost efficient, as there is no upfront cost for software licenses or hardware and can be transparently scaled according to the application workload, he said.

"Taking full advantage of cloud computing technology, database-as-a-service provides businesses easy access to scalable, on-demand database resources while avoiding the costs and complexity associated with the purchase, installation and maintenance of a traditional on-premise database system," McWhirter stated.

Itamar Haber, associate vice president of evangelism and product marketer from U.S.-based cloud database service provider Xeround agreed with McWhirter, adding that with database-as-a-service, companies no longer need to worry over the challenges of managing databases, which he said is "notoriously more complex" to operate than any other software.

Without the need for database software installation, short deployment time, global availability and ongoing maintenance by the service provider, developers can now focus on creating apps and reduce the dependency they have on expert database administration skills, the spokesperson claimed.

Mitigating user concerns
That said, database on-demand offerings suffer the same adoption challenges and negative perceptions that SaaS products have, namely reliability, security and availability, the Xeround executive noted.

With regard to availability, he said: "Given the public outages of cloud platforms and their less-than-stable reputation, the concern is that the database will not be available and would thus prevent the application from operating."

Public cloud provider Amazon Web Services (AWS), for one, suffered several high profile service disruptions last year, while consumer electronics giant Sony's online sites also experienced downtime after its networks were hacked into.

Acknowledging that such concerns are valid, the spokesperson noted that this hurdle can be cleared by designing highly available setups that can withstand different types of failures and interruptions without being affected too much,

As for security concerns, these can be allayed by relying on standard and proven security practices as well as using a reliable infrastructure-as-a-service offering that have their own security measures, he added.

Matt Soldo, product manager at Heroku, took the argument one step further by saying that database-as-a-service products keep data safer and make information more readily available than on-premise systems. Heroku was bought over by Salesforce in October 2010.

He added that on-demand database services are managed by organizations that are "completely focused" on managing and administering databases, which means the vendor is able to hire experts and continually invest in improving the reliability, safety and robustness of their services.

Another issue that might hold back adoption is the compatibility of legacy apps, Xeround's Haber pointed out. He said that since cloud computing is perceived as a new approach, customers are reluctant to move to a cloud-based database because of need to reconfigure their existing software.

These companies can solve the problem by moving onto cloud databases that are standard and require no adaptations to their software though, he noted.

Picking right database provider
As for picking the right provider, the spokesperson said companies must first understand their database requirements before moving to a cloud-based offering. Identifying relevant service providers, mapping the benefits of the service against the company's needs, and benchmarking the performance of apps running on the cloud service are all recommended steps, he stated.

Soldo added that when choosing a service provider, customers need to evaluate the vendor's operational record and ask questions such as how long it has been running the service, at what scale, its uptime record and whether it had ever lost its customers' data.

He also warned against simply using service level agreements (SLAs) as an indicator of the service provider's operational record, as it can be misleading.

Additionally, businesses will need to determine which administrative tasks, such as database creation, backup, replication, monitoring or failure recovery, are handled by the vendor and which are settled internally, Soldo said.

"The more administration tasks that are outsourced, the more productivity gains the customer will realize from moving to database-as-a-service," he added.

McWhirter added that organizations will need to look for a cloud database that is open and accessible for use with any language, platform and device.

The service should also be optimized for mobility and social so developers can build mobile apps without worrying about the infrastructure and users can get the "right data to the right people, at the right time".

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