A First Glance at Amazon Aurora Serverless RDS

Amazon Aurora Serverless

Amazon Aurora ServerlessIf you often deploy services in the cloud, you certainly, at least once, forgot to stop a test instance. I am like you and I forgot my share of these. Another mistake I do once in a while is to provision a bigger instance than needed, just in case, and forget to downsize it. While this is true for compute instances, it is especially true for database instances. Over time, this situation ends up adding a cost premium. In this post, we’ll discuss a solution to mitigate these extra costs, the use of the RDS Aurora Serverless service.

What is Amazon Aurora Serverless?

Since last spring, Amazon unveiled a new database related product: RDS Aurora Serverless. The aim of this new product is to simplify the management around Aurora clusters. It brings a likely benefit for the end users, better control over cost. Here are some of the benefits we can expect from this product:

  • Automatic scaling up
  • Automatic scaling down
  • Automatic shutdown after a period of inactivity
  • Automatic startup

The database is constantly monitored and if the load grows beyond a given threshold, a bigger Aurora instance is added to the cluster, the connections are moved and the old instance is dropped. The opposite steps happen when a low load is detected. Also, if the database is completely inactive for some time, it is automatically stopped and restarted when needed. The RDS Aurora Serverless cluster type is available for MySQL (5.6 and 5.7) and PostgreSQL (10.12).


The RDS Aurora Serverless architecture is similar to the regular RDS Aurora one.  There are three main components; a proxy layer handling the endpoints, the servers processing the queries, and the storage.  The proxy layer and the storage are about the same. As the name implies, what is dynamic with the Aurora Serverless type are the servers.

There are not many details available as to how things are actually implemented but likely but the proxy layer is able to transfer a connection from one server to another when there is a scale up or down event. Essentially, we can assume that when the cluster is modified, the steps are the following:

  1. A new Aurora server instance is created with the new size
  2. The new instance is added to the Aurora cluster
  3. The writer role is transferred to the new instance
  4. The existing connections are moved
  5. The old instance is removed


How To Configure It

The configuration of an RDS Aurora Serverless cluster is very similar to a regular Aurora cluster, there are just a few additional steps.  First, of course, you need to choose the serverless type:

RDS Aurora Serverless cluster

And then you have to specify the limits of your cluster in “Capacity”. The capacity unit is ACU which stands for Aurora Capacity Unit. I couldn’t find the exact meaning for the ACU, the documentation has: “Each ACU is a combination of processing and memory capacity.”. An ACU seems to provide about 2GB of RAM and the range of possible values is 1 to 256. You set the minimum and maximum ACU you want for the cluster in the following dialog box:

Aurora Capacity Unit

The last step is to specify the inactivity timeout after which the database is paused:

specify the inactivity timeout

How It Works


If the Aurora Serverless cluster has no running server instances, an attempt to connect to the database will trigger the creation of a new instance.  This process takes some time.  I used a simple script to measure the connection time after an inactivity timeout and found the following statistics:

Min = 31s
Max = 54s
average = 42s
StdDev = 7.1s
Count = 17

You’ll need to make sure the application is aware of a new connection, as the database can take close to a minute to complete.  I got caught a few times with sysbench timing out after 30s. It is important to remember the initial capacity used is the same as the one when the Aurora Serverless instance stopped, unless you enabled the “Force scaling the capacity…” parameter in the configuration.


If an Aurora Serverless cluster is idle for more than its defined inactivity time, it will be automatically paused.  The inactivity here is defined in terms of active connections, not queries. An idle connection doing nothing will prevent the Aurora Serverless instance from stopping. If you intend to use the automatic pause feature, I recommend setting the “wait_timeout” and “interactive_timeout” to values in line with the cluster inactivity time.

Scale Up

A process monitors the Aurora Serverless instance and if it sees a performance issue that could be solved by the use of a larger instance type, it triggers a scale up event.  When there is an ongoing scale up (or down) event, you’ll see a process like this one in the MySQL process list:

call action start_seamless_scaling('AQEAAEgBh893wRScvsaFbDguqAqinNK7...

Bear in mind a scale up event can take some time, especially if the server is very busy. While doing some benchmarks, I witness more than 200s on a few occasions. The queries load is affected for a few seconds when the instances are swapped.

To illustrate the scale up behavior, I ran a modified sysbench benchmark to force some CPU load. Here’s a 32 threads benchmarks scanning a table on an Aurora Serverless cluster having an initial capacity of 1.

Aurora Serverless sysbench benchmark

The first scale up happened a little after 600s while the second one occurred around 1100s. The second event didn’t improve much the load but that is likely an artifact of the benchmark. It took a long time to increase the capacity from 1 to 2, it could be related to the high CPU usage on the instance. There is usually a small disruption of the query load when the instances are swapped but nothing too bad.

Scale Down

While scale up events happen when needed, scale down events are throttled to about once per 5 minutes except if the previous scaling event was a “scale up”, then the delay is 15 minutes.

Pros and Cons of Aurora Serverless

The RDS Aurora Serverless offering is very compelling for many use cases. It reduces the cost and simplifies the management. However, you must accept the inherent limitations like the long start up time when the instance was on pause and the small hiccups when the capacity is modified. If you cannot cope with the start up time, you can just configure the instance so it doesn’t pause, it will scale down to a capacity of 1 which seems to map to a t3.small instance type.

Of course, such an architecture imposes some drawbacks. Here’s a list of a few cons:

  • As we have seen, the scale up time is affected by the database load
  • Failover can also take more time than normally expected, especially if the ACU value is high
  • You are limited to one node although, at an ACU of 256, it means a db.r4.16xlarge
  • No public IP but you can set up a Data API
  • The application must be robust in the way it deals with database connections because of possible delays and reconnections

Cost Savings

The cost of an RDS Aurora cluster has three components: the instance costs, the IO costs, and the storage costs. The Aurora Serverless offering affects only the instance costs. The cost is a flat rate per capacity unit per hour. Like for the normal instances, the costs are region-dependent.  The lowest is found in the us-east at $0.06 USD per Capacity unit per hour.

If we consider a database used by web developers during the day and which can be paused out of the normal work hours and during the weekends, the saving can be above $240/month if the daily average capacity is only eight hours.

by Yves Trudeau via Percona Database Performance Blog


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