GuideApr 17, 2024

What is a Serverless Database: A Comprehensive Guide

A serverless database is a fully managed database-as-a-service (DBaaS) that allocates and scales compute and storage resources automatically and elastically with demand.

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What is a Serverless Database: A Comprehensive Guide

Serverless databases defined

A serverless database allows developers to fully focus on architecting and building applications, while outsourcing operations like provisioning, managing, and scaling resources needed to run those applications to cloud providers.

Servers are still needed in serverless, but developers don’t need to worry about their management. Serverless databases use a pay-as-you-go pricing model. Instead of paying for servers and their capacity, customers only pay for the resources their applications use, such as function execution time, persistent storage space, or number of read and write operations.

Let’s look at the defining characteristics of a serverless database.


A serverless database is a cloud-based database service that can be used by an application via well-defined APIs. For example, serverless database DataStax Astra DB is available as a cloud service that runs in multiple clouds, including AWS, GCP, and Azure, and is accessible via multiple APIs, including Stargate REST, GraphQL, and Document APIs.

Fully managed

Serverless databases are fully managed. This means a cloud service provider manages normal database maintenance and operations, including backup and restore, security and encryption, monitoring and performance tuning, and more. For example, DataStax Astra DB automatically deals with data replication and server failures, supporting applications that require high availability.

Built-in auto scaling

Compute and storage resources are allocated and automatically and transparently scaled up or down to meet continuously changing demand. DataStax Astra DB can quickly scale up to accommodate demand spikes for applications requiring high throughput. It can also automatically scale down to save resources and costs when demand declines.

Billed based on data usage

A serverless database does not expose any information about backend servers to database service users. Instead, users see database usage information, such as how many read and write requests were executed and how much storage was consumed. Serverless database users are billed based on usage, not the number and type of servers. Astra DB bills customers based on data movement and storage, as well as the number of read and write request executions.

A quick explanation of serverless architecture

Broadly, serverless is a cloud-native development and execution model that enables developers to run their own code or use third-party services without the need to manage servers or any other infrastructure units. Serverless architecture refers to applications that use either serverless functions, serverless backends, or both. For example, an application that relies on a serverless database, to store and retrieve data is said to have a serverless architecture.

Serverless offerings typically come in two flavors:

While serverless architecture may seem like a new term today, cloud-native applications are increasingly relying on serverless design to benefit from improved developer productivity, faster time to market, and lower operational costs. Serverless architecture is the next evolutionary step in cloud-native application development.

Based on supported data models, serverless databases can be classified into two broad categories:

  • Serverless relational databases, such as Amazon Aurora Serverless and Azure SQL Database Serverless.
  • Serverless NoSQL databases, such as DataStax Astra DB, Google Firestore, Azure Cosmos DB, and Fauna DB.

Serverless relational databases use the relational data model and SQL to manage and query data. Amazon Aurora Serverless is perhaps the most well-known example of a serverless relational database.

Serverless NoSQL databases can be further divided into key-value, tabular, document, and graph databases. However, many serverless NoSQL databases support multiple models.

The main benefits of serverless databases

Serverless databases have a variety of benefits, including:

Higher productivity and simpler operations

With no infrastructure management, no capacity planning, and no manual scaling, operations are greatly simplified. Developers can spend the time saved on application design, business logic, and coding. The result? Higher productivity and faster time to market.

Reduced operational costs

Serverless databases can significantly reduce operational costs. There is no need to pay for data centers, servers, networks, power, cooling, or human resources. Cloud service providers are able to accommodate multiple tenants sharing the same infrastructure and services, resulting in lower costs for each individual tenant. Furthermore, a serverless database user only pays for usage, such as space consumed and requests executed. As an example, Astra DB is able to use and share resources very efficiently, making it possible to reduce the total cost of ownership by 75 percent compared to a self-managed database.

Elasticity and auto scaling.

Automatic scaling, up and down with demand, is an exceptionally important feature of serverless databases. It reduces costs by scaling down when demand is low, and increases availability and throughput by scaling up when demand is high. Elasticity and auto scaling are at the core of any serverless database design.

Download our free whitepaper to learn more — Astra DB: Designing a Serverless Cloud-Native DBaaS

Disadvantages of building on a serverless database

Serverless databases inherit some disadvantages associated with managed cloud services. These include vendor lock-in, multi-tenancy, and data privacy concerns. Any serverless solution may naturally reduce control over configuration, monitoring, and debugging.

Some of these disadvantages can be mitigated. For example, DataStax Astra DB can run in multiple clouds, including AWS, GCP, and Azure. It’s also based on open-source Apache Cassandra and supports open-source Stargate APIs. So, vendor lock-in shouldn’t be an issue. To mitigate multi-tenancy concerns, Astra DB uses shuffle sharding for performance and fault isolation. And, whether at rest or in motion, data is always encrypted and isolated for each individual tenant.

Industries adopting serverless databases

Any business that requires ultra-responsive apps and websites, easy and automatic scalability, and always-on availability can benefit from the adoption of serverless databases. That means they can help organizations in just about every industry. That’s especially true for cloud-native companies or those that have made the move to the cloud. Serverless databases also allow a shift in focus from IT infrastructure and maintenance to spending the saved time and resources crafting the best experiences, products, websites, and applications possible for customers. And, these days, extremely high customer expectations is a common trait across all organizations, whether they are B2B, B2C, or B2B2C.

So, it’s no surprise that a wide range of companies are using serverless databases. Let’s take a closer look at three industries where the technology is proving its value.

Financial services and banking

When it comes to something as important as their savings and investments, customers expect immediate, always-on financial and banking services. But, more than any other industry, that has to be balanced with ensuring security, privacy, and compliance regulations. These firms need a technology platform that is as secure as possible while also being flexible and agile. With highly variable workloads, financial services companies need a database solution that automatically scales, so they can use resources efficiently and cost-effectively.

Serverless databases are a perfect fit for these needs. They are highly secure and allow financial services organizations to easily distribute and replicate data across data centers, providing built-in availability and resilience. Being geographically close to customers also boosts response time. Laws and regulatory standards are complex and vary around the world, but this responsibility is absorbed by third-party cloud service providers. Serverless databases provision server space dynamically and only charge for what is used. This reduces costs and moves companies away from the inefficiency and guessing game of attempting to plan and purchase capacity ahead of time.

Shedding IT infrastructure, operational, and maintenance concerns allows financial services developers to focus on pleasing their customers. Serverless platforms are built for fast and agile development, and, using them, development teams can dramatically increase their speed of innovation.


Telecommunications is all about connections. Are you familiar with that old 70s Bell System jingle, “reach out and touch someone”? Well, think about how much more connected we are now. With the web, mobile devices, social media, remote work, and video conferencing, we are all a click of a mouse or a tap of a screen away from one another. Being connected is more important and central to our lives than ever before, both at home and at work. This puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the telcos. It’s their responsibility to ensure the seamless, immediate communication we all expect comes together each and every time without a glitch.

All these connections require a mind-boggling number of digital data transmissions and exchanges behind the scenes. That requires servers, data centers, and a massive amount of computing power. Strain on these systems is highly variable. Serverless databases remove these burdens from telcos and enhance connectivity, reliability, and speed for their services. They’re built to handle the real-time exchanges and sudden jumps in traffic, while providing the foundation to develop innovative, responsive new offerings that can add real value to customers and differentiate telcos from their competitors.

E-commerce and retail

Customers expect speed and convenience when shopping on any device, whether that be their computer, phone, or tablet. They want consistent, high-quality experiences across all the channels they use to engage with a brand. And if the service lags or goes down, they likely won’t remain a customer for long. Imagine what would happen if a major retailer’s online store crashed on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Previously loyal customers would likely lose trust and leave in droves, along with potentially millions in lost revenue. E-commerce companies and online retailers can’t afford to let that happen. They need a database solution that can meet huge swings in demand without any snags, while providing customers with the snappy, responsive experience they demand.

For these reasons, more companies are moving to serverless databases. It allows them to outsource areas where it’s tough to differentiate and, therefore, shouldn’t be spending their time, such as operations, scalability, and security. That way, they can turn their attention to where they can actually separate themselves—the front-end and enhancing the brand experience. To support those efforts, serverless databases provide the real-time prowess needed to power personalized content, recommendation engines, and tailored promotions. Serverless also provides the sophisticated communication backbone needed to support the numerous and growing options customers have today, such as in-store pickups, home delivery, product bundling options, and many more.

Serverless databases provide a platform for innovation and agility. They’re built for rapid application prototyping and can dramatically decrease time to market. E-commerce and retail developers flourish in this environment while focusing on crafting the most engaging and beneficial apps possible for their customers.

However, the ability to scale automatically and effortlessly to meet any change in traffic is perhaps the biggest benefit serverless databases provide e-commerce companies. Once a serverless database is in place, the days of worrying about meeting the taxing demands of peak periods are permanently in the rear-view mirror. Scaling up and down to only use the resources needed at any given time is also much more efficient and cost-effective. Teams that implement serverless databases have maintenance and operational concerns removed, along with associated headcount and hardware costs. Instead, they only pay for what they use and only when the servers are running. Serverless databases also guarantee always-on availability, even on the biggest shopping days of the year.

IoT: An industry-spanning serverless use case

There are many applications of serverless databases that span industries, including customer relationship management, data analytics, business intelligence, HR applications, enterprise resource planning, and more. Let’s explore one such use case in more detail, the Internet of Things (IoT)—billions of physical devices connected to the internet, often embedded with sensors and software. Data collected from these devices is used to gain insights and make informed decisions at a wide range of organizations. Let’s briefly explore some of the advantages serverless databases provide companies implementing IoT.

IoT is used around the world to gather data from all kinds of devices, vehicles, sensors, video cameras, and appliances to track things like weather, driving data, inventory items, maintenance concerns, security monitoring, and much, much more. The same serverless database benefits covered above also apply to IoT. Those include automatic scalability, always-on availability, reliability, reduced costs, and security, along with outsourcing the skills and resources needed to implement and maintain operations anywhere in the world, while ensuring all local regulations are met.

IoT requires real-time responsiveness and the agility to support sudden spikes in device growth and ultra-high volumes of data. If the system goes down at any time, valuable data will be lost. As we’ve seen, serverless databases are a natural fit to meet these speed, scalability, and availability needs. Each IoT device will have different load requirements and those will continuously change on a moment-to-moment basis. Serverless provides the flexibility to seamlessly expand or reduce the resources needed for each device on an ongoing basis. The speed advantage of serverless databases doesn’t stop with real-time responsiveness and scalability. Their architecture also enables development teams to get to market fast, deploying in minutes, using only needed computing resources.

Moving to a serverless database to support IoT initiatives, allows companies to offload all the backend work and data storage necessary to ensure constant, uninterrupted connectivity. It also alleviates the costs of physical servers and the skilled staff that would be needed to make it happen. Instead, capital expenditures can be made on increasing the number of devices in the IoT arsenal. Going serverless also opens up a whole new world of SaaS tools and cloud services to aid IoT development, connectivity, and security.

Can serverless databases help your team?

By removing operational responsibilities, serverless databases can help your team focus on your company’s core competencies—areas where differentiation and advantages over your competition can be pursued—and on providing value to your customers. Serverless technology helps boost those advantages by providing a platform for agile and rapid development, automatic scaling, and always-on availability. And, since you only pay for what you use, it all comes at a lower price tag than a traditional IT infrastructure where your own physical servers and the skilled staff to run them is required. It’s no wonder serverless databases are being adopted in a wide range of industries for a broad array of applications.

We hope this overview of serverless databases, along with top providers to keep an eye on and industries taking advantage of the technology, has been helpful.

Learn more about DataStax Astra DB serverless architecture.

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