DBaaS pros and cons for solution providers

A DBaaS has feature and other limitations, but it brings shorter sales cycles, reduced startup costs, recurring revenue streams and more customers.

There's Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS) and plenty of other Somethings as a Service. And now there's Database as a Service (DBaaS), a cloud-based approach to storing structured data. But before solution providers start jumping on the DBaaS bandwagon, they better understand what they're actually signing up for.

Typically, DBaaS provides customers with many of the same benefits they'd expect from any cloud service: a flexible, scalable, on-demand platform that's oriented toward self-service and easy management, particularly in terms of provisioning their own environments. Such services also provide enough monitoring capabilities to track performance and usage, be alerted to issues that might arise and generate at least some degree of analytics.

Not surprisingly, the difference between DBaaS and other cloud services is that DBaaS is specific to delivering database functionality similar to what you'd find in relational database management systems (RDBMSes) such as SQL Server, MySQL and Oracle. And the RDBMS has proven to be an effective tool in managing structured data in a variety of circumstances.

Yet RDBMSes are not without their limitations. They can be difficult to scale and can require significant resources to configure and maintain, in terms of time, equipment and personnel. Also, they often follow a peak performance model, which requires a system to be always available at peak capacity, without regard to the typical ebbs and flows of data usage. Add to this the ongoing administrative and support costs of maintaining production and nonproduction environments, and customers end up with significant investments in database resources.

DBaaS advantages

A DBaaS solution can address many of these issues and, in the process, save customers money. For solution providers, however, adopting the DBaaS model can seem a frightening prospect because it can mean lower profits and loss of business compared with solutions that incorporate on-premises software. But DBaaS systems have significant opportunities. Like other cloud services, DBaaS can represent shorter sales cycles, reduced revenue startup costs, recurring revenue streams and, best of all, more customers.

Because DBaaS solutions can reduce entry barrier costs, small businesses that found the costs of in-house database solutions too prohibitive might welcome cloud-based database solutions because of their affordability and flexibility. With DBaaS, they have access to the same technologies that were once limited to large enterprises. And in larger organizations, DBaaS can offer solutions at the departmental level without bringing in IT or procurement, providing a much quicker and easier way to implement small solutions.

By being able to offer customers (and potential customers) a lower cost of IT ownership, solution providers are positioning their companies to provide services to more customers at a time when cost savings are one of their top priorities. Customers can take advantage of all that a DBaaS system has to offer while addressing many of the limitations inherent to a RDBMS. Database cloud services eliminate the need for organizations to dedicate personnel and equipment to on-site database storage. They don't have to install, configure or maintain hardware or software.

In fact, organizations of any size can potentially benefit from being able to outsource and consolidate their database management tasks on a standardized and optimized platform. By its very nature, DBaaS provides agile and efficient database services that can support a variety of needs. Its inherent elasticity makes it easy to scale up to handle increased demand or scale down when that demand has subsided.

But DBaaS doesn't mean that solution providers have to write themselves out of a job. As with any system, when implementing a DBaaS solution, customers will likely need help with such issues as deployment, migration, support, off-site backup, system integration and disaster recovery. Then there are the applications that connect to the database and the databases themselves that need to be designed, developed and deployed. And what about customers that are implementing hybrid systems or need help managing multiple cloud services?

At the same time, database-related processes become standardized and repeatable, allowing solution providers to more easily procure services, deploy applications, plan capacity and manage resources. The DBaaS model can also help reduce data and database redundancy and improve overall Quality of Service.

Above all, solution providers should remember that DBaaS usually represents only part of a solution. Customers stay with their solution providers not only because of the products they've been sold, but also because of the services provided. A DBaaS system by itself does not offer face-to-face visits or personal customer relationships or ongoing support. That's where solution providers come in. They help customers select the right solution, plan integration and migration strategies, and then carry them out.

DBaaS disadvantages

Of course, this all sounds great on paper, and certainly DBaaS offers a number of advantages over the RDBMS without putting the solution provider out of business. Yet DBaaS has limitations. To begin with, customers still need to contend with the limitations inherent in cloud services. When they start putting data in the cloud, they're subject to network performance issues outside of their control. If their Internet service provider, the cloud service supporting their data, or any points in between become clogged or go down, they might experience issues related to data latency or application failure. At least if a problem occurs in-house, the solution provider can troubleshoot its cause.

In addition, features available in the typical RDBMS are not always available in a DBaaS system. For example, Windows Azure SQL Database (formerly SQL Azure) is Microsoft's DBaaS offering that provides a database platform similar to SQL Server. However, Windows Azure SQL Database doesn't support features such as data compression and table partitions, and the Transact-SQL language elements available in SQL Database are only a subset of those available in SQL Server. Plus, solution providers have no control over physical resources, so they can't take such actions as assigning data files and indexes to specific hardware. In fact, with any DBaaS, solution providers have almost no control over how physical resources are managed. Solution providers might find themselves put into the position where customers expect far more than they can offer because of DBaaS limitations.

In addition, the use of DBaaS can translate into revenue loss in other areas, such as software updates and hardware management. And customers that decide to go the DBaaS route might decide to skip the solution provider altogether, no matter how shortsighted a decision that might seem. Plus, DBaaS can result in smaller profit margins on a per-customer basis because cloud services generally rely on high volumes to offset lower margins.

Moving toward DBaaS

Despite the drawbacks of the DBaaS model, DBaaS might prove a good fit for some customers while offering new opportunities for solution providers. And given the proliferation of cloud services, what choice do solution providers have but to embrace these technologies? If they don't, they risk being left behind by other providers. But they can't think simply in terms of how DBaaS profit margins compare with those of on-premises systems. This is, at best, an apples-to-oranges comparison because cloud-based databases offer a different set of opportunities. The key is to adapt to the changing market conditions by wrapping other value-added services around the cloud offerings: in this case, DBaaS.

In the end, the best strategy is likely to be the same one that has carried solution providers along this far: Give customers exactly what they need -- no more, no less. If DBaaS is a good fit for them, they shouldn't be sold something else. True, the cloud industry came out of the gate with self-service in mind, but companies offering these services are starting to recognize the value of solution providers in selling their wares. IBM, for example, recently announced new programs that let channel partners resell SaaS applications. And Microsoft considers its partners an important component in selling its cloud services. Yet even with that trend, DBaaS is a different animal from the on-premises database, and solution providers must think of it this way; otherwise, they risk losing more than just a few customers.

Robert Sheldon is a technical consultant and freelance technology writer.

This was first published in December 2012

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