How to find a Database in 2021

January 14, 2021

I haven’t been around as long as some, but I’ve been around web development to remember the days where everyone had a cpanel and managed their own personal site on super cheap shared hosting. The days of clicking a few buttons and spinning up a new mysql database, maybe your hosting company even gave you ssh access to your shared environment and allowed you to create some of your own resources. But we for sure didn’t have cloud infrastructure to manage these things or keep them in separate environments from each other, on separate apps with separate security keys and service accounts. It definitely wasn’t the best thing but most of the time we would host many websites, usually php applications, and many databases all on the same linux box. We had our share of security scares but honestly it was just a simpler time for working on the bare bones infrastructure. I even spent some time at a company where our entire stack was in a closet I could see from my desk. Barracuda load balancers and nightly tape backups our CTO would literally just take home to his house. I’m not saying those were better days, not at all, just different.

Now we have access to 3 major cloud providers (Google, AWS, and Azure) who pretty much offer the same set of competing services. Not to mention all the independent services that live on top of this infrastructure like Netlify and the literally countless others. And these are really great for almost everything we do but it’s interesting how some things have become slightly more difficult or expensive for demo and dev work.

For example, the other day I was creating a Next.js app and wanted to try out Prisma for connecting to a database and having a nice way to define schema, handle migrations, and work with auth. For this I needed an external database. Mongo and Firebase have always been really nice dev resources for me when testing out app ideas, but again I really wanted to try out this Prisma thing which required a relational db. In the old days I would have just spun up a db on my shared hosting service and connected to it but I don’t have any shared hosting anymore with how easy and free things like Netlify and Vercel are. I really just wanted somewhere where I could spin up a hosted database for very cheap or free. I turned to our old friend Heroku and spun up a postgres database there on the free tier. This seemed like exactly what I needed. Free and easy to set up. But with the way Next.js connects to the database with serverless functions, I was running into the max-connection limit heroic puts on free databases just when testing myself. I was hoping to at least be able to test this with a few other people and I knew this couldn’t be a viable option. I didn’t want to create many rows in the database and didn’t need much storage but I definitely needed the concurrent connections for the functions.

I ended up spending about 4 hours researching across AWS and GCP for managed database and compute pricing. I tried looking for databases that could spin down to 0 when not in use to save money, cheap small databases, and cheap hosting where I could add my own container-based database. Everything seemed to be about $15/mo. which was just too much for this little hobby project I wanted to try out. Why aren’t there any services where I can try out a database with a little more heft for free? Is it really that expensive to host a database for testing purposes?

Alright, so I’ve ranted enough. If you’re still reading I hope you found this at least a semi-fun story to read through. And you’re probably curious, what did I end up choosing? I eventually landed on a Google Compute Engine free tier f1-tiny box with a postgres VM installed for about $4/mo. It isn’t free but it works and I’m not running into the connection error anymore. By the way, I did also try mysql on Heroku thinking I could avoid the connection issue but ran into the same limitation. Maybe Heroku dbs don’t release connections very fast? Who knows. I also set up an AWS RDS serverless db that can spin down to 0 when not in use. I plan on trying that out for a little bit in production to compare costs. It’s expensive if it’s used all the time but “should” be cheap if it’s off a lot.

Thanks for reading. Be peaceful to one another.

Written by Matt Gregg, a UI engineer who lives and works in Minneapolis, MN

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