by Craig S. Mullins, president & principal consultant, Mullins Consulting, Inc.

What do we mean by Database Scalability?

Defining Scalability and Elasticity

At a high level, both scalability and elasticity help to improve availability and performance when demand is changing, especially when changes are unpredictable. If the data is not available, applications cannot run. If applications cannot run or run slowly, the company loses business. Therefore, it is important to be able to ensure that databases are kept online and operational.

So how do scalability and elasticity help to improve availability and performance?

scalabiityScalability refers to the capability of a system to handle a growing amount of work, or its potential to perform more total work in the same elapsed time when processing power is expanded to accommodate growth. A system is said to be scalable if it can increase its workload and throughput when additional resources are added.

A related aspect of scalability is availability and the ability of the DBMS to undergo administration (e.g. schema changes) and servicing (e.g. upgrades and maintenance) without impacting applications and end user accessibility. A scalable system can be changed to adapt to changing workloads without impacting its accessibility, thereby assuring continuing availability even as modifications are made.

A scalable system can react to evolving needs with adjustable resources to serve a changing workload without requiring downtime.

scalabiityElasticity is the degree to which a system can adapt to workload changes by provisioning and deprovisioning resources in an on-demand manner, such that at each point in time the available resources match the current demand as closely as possible.

The goal of elasticity is to match the amount of resources allocated to a service with the amount of resources it actually requires. This means that both over-provisioning and under-provisioning can be avoided. Over-provisioning occurs when more resources are allocated than required, and it should be avoided in a cloud model because the service provider must pay for all allocated resources, which can increase the cost to cloud customers. With under-provisioning fewer resources are allocated than required, and this is to be avoided because it typically results in performance problems; severe cases can look like downtime to the end user, resulting in customers abandoning the application, which has a financial impact.

From a database perspective, elasticity infers a flexible data model and clustering capabilities. The greater the number of changes that can be tolerated, and the ease with which clustering can be managed, the more elastic the DBMS.


Types of Database Scalability

First, let’s look at the ways that databases can be scaled and examine the benefits and drawbacks of each method. There are two broad categories for scaling database systems: vertical scaling and horizontal scaling.

vertical scalingVertical scaling, also known as scaling up, is the process of adding resources, such as memory or more powerful CPUs to an existing server. Removing memory or changing to a less powerful CPU is known as scaling down.

Adding or replacing resources to a system typically results in performance gains, but realizing such gains often requires reconfiguration and downtime. Furthermore, there are limitations to the amount of additional resources that can be applied to a single system, as well as to the software that uses the system.

Vertical scaling has been a standard method of scaling for traditional RDBMSs that are architected on a single-server type model. Nevertheless, every piece of hardware has limitations that, when met, cause further vertical scaling to be impossible. For example, if your system only supports 256 GB of memory, when you need more memory you must migrate to a bigger box, which is a costly and risky procedure requiring database and application downtime.

horizontal scalingHorizontal scaling, sometimes referred to as scaling out, is the process of adding more hardware to a system. This typically means adding nodes (new servers) to an existing system. Doing the opposite, that is removing hardware, is known as scaling in.

With the cost of hardware declining, it makes more sense to adopt horizontal scaling using low-cost "commodity" systems for tasks that previously required larger computers, such as mainframes. Of course, horizontal scaling can be limited by the capability of software to exploit networked computer resources and other technology constraints. And keep in mind that traditional database servers cannot run on more than a few machines. In such cases, scaling is limited, in that you are scaling to several machines, not to 100x or more.

Horizontal and vertical scaling can be combined, with resources added to existing servers to scale vertically and additional servers added to scale horizontally when required. It is wise to consider the tradeoffs between horizontal and vertical scaling as you consider each approach.

Horizontal scaling results in more computers networked together and that will cause increased management complexity. It can also result in latency between nodes and complicate programming efforts if not properly managed by either the database system or the application. That said, depending on your database system’s hardware requirements, you can often buy several commodity boxes for the price of a single, expensive, and often custom-built server that vertical scaling requires.

On the other hand, depending on your requirements, vertical scaling actually can be less costly if you’ve already invested in the hardware; it typically costs less to reconfigure existing hardware than to procure and configure new hardware. Of course, vertical scaling can lead to over-provisioning which can be quite costly. At any rate, virtualization perhaps can help to alleviate the costs of scaling.

Next week on our TechBlog, Craig will describe the traditional database scalability methods including shared-desk, shared-nothing, database sharding, and replication.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a larger white paper written by Craig Mullins that explores database scaling options. Download the database scaling white paper now.


Craig MullinsCraig is president & principal consultant of Mullins Consulting, Inc., a consultant for datAvail, and the publisher/editor of The Database Site. His experience spans multiple industries (banking, utilities, software dev, research and consulting).

Craig writes for many computer/IT publications, having authored articles for popular IT and database journals and web sites including Database Trends and Applications, TDANTechTarget and others.