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Serverless is the future of PostgreSQL

Serverless is the future of PostgreSQL

To differentiate the many flavors of PostgreSQL, the few truly serverless offerings promise better engineering and faster development.

Credit: Dreamstime

PostgreSQL has been hot for years, but that hotness can also be a challenge for enterprises looking to pick between a host of competing vendors.

As enterprises look to move off expensive, legacy relational database management systems (RDBMS) but still want to stick with an RDBMS, open source PostgreSQL is an attractive, less-expensive alternative. But which PostgreSQL?

AWS was once the obvious default with two managed PostgreSQL services (Aurora and RDS), but now there’s Microsoft, Google, Aiven, TimeScale, Crunchy Data, EDB, Neon, and more.

In an interview with the founder and CEO of Neon Nikita Shamgunov, he stressed that among this crowd of pretenders to the PostgreSQL throne, the key differentiator going forward is serverless.

“We are serverless, and all the other ones except for Aurora, which has a serverless option, are not,” he declares.

If he’s right about the importance of serverless for PostgreSQL adoption, it’s possible the future of commercial PostgreSQL could come down to a serverless battle between Neon and AWS.

Ditch those servers

In some ways, serverless is the fulfillment of cloud’s promise. Almost since the day it started, for example, AWS has pitched the cloud as a way to offload the “undifferentiated heavy lifting” of managing servers, yet even with services like Amazon EC2 or Amazon RDS for PostgreSQL, developers still had to think about servers, even if there was much less work involved.

In a truly serverless world, developers don’t have to think about the underlying infrastructure (servers) at all. They just focus on building their applications while the cloud provider takes care of provisioning servers.

In the world of databases, a truly serverless offering will separate storage and compute, and substitute the database’s storage layer by redistributing data across a cluster of nodes.

Among other benefits of serverless, as Anna Geller, Kestra’s head of developer relations, explains, serverless encourages useful engineering practices.

For example, if we can agree that “it’s beneficial to build individual software components in such a way that they are responsible for only one thing,” she notes, then serverless helps because it “encourages code that is easy to change and stateless.”

Serverless all but forces a developer to build reproducible code. She says, “Serverless doesn’t only force you to make your components small, but it also requires that you define all resources needed for the execution of your function or container.”

The result: better engineering practices and much faster development times, as many companies are discovering. In short, there is a lot to love about serverless.

Shamgunov sees two primary benefits to running PostgreSQL serverless. The first is that developers no longer need to worry about sizing. All the developer needs is a connection string to the database without worrying about size/scale. Neon takes care of that completely.

The second benefit is consumption-based pricing, with the ability to scale down to zero (and pay zero). This ability to scale to zero is something that AWS doesn’t offer, according to Ampt CEO Jeremy Daly. Even when your app is sitting idle, you’re going to pay.

But not with Neon. As Shamgunov stresses in our interview, “In the SQL world, making it truly serverless is very, very hard. There are shades of gray” in terms of how companies try to deliver that serverless promise of scaling to zero, but only Neon currently can do so, he says.

Do people care? The answer is yes, he insists. “What we’ve learned so far is that people really care about manageability, and that’s where serverless is the obvious winner. [It makes] consumption so easy. All you need to manage is a connection stream.”

This becomes increasingly important as companies build ever-bigger systems with “bigger and bigger fleets.” Here, “It’s a lot easier to not worry about how big [your] compute [is] at a point in time.”

In other systems, you end up with runaway costs unless you’re focused on dialing resources up or down, with a constant need to size your workloads. But not in a fully serverless offering like Neon, Shamgunov argues. “Just a connection stream and off you go. People love that.”

Making the most of serverless

Not everything is rosy in serverless land. Take cold starts, for example. The first time you invoke a function, the serverless system must initialise a new container to run your code. This takes time and is called a “cold start.” 

Neon has been “putting in a non-trivial amount of engineering budget to solving the cold-start problem,” Shamgunov says. This follows a host of other performance improvements the company has made, such as speeding up PostgreSQL connections.

Neon also uniquely offers branching. As Shamgunov explains, Neon supports copy-on-write branching, which “allows people to run a dedicated database for every preview or every GitHub commit.

This means developers can branch a database, which creates a full copy of the data and gives developers a separate serverless endpoint to it.

You can run your CI/CD pipeline, you can test it, you can do capacity or all sorts of things, and then bring it back into your main branch. If you don’t use the branch, you spend $0. Because it’s serverless. Truly serverless.

All of which helps Neon deliver on its promise of “being as easy to consume as Stripe,” in Shamgunov’s words. To win the PostgreSQL battle, he continues, “You need to be as developer-friendly as Stripe.” You need, in short, to be serverless.


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