PostgreSQL is becoming the relational database of choice for web development for a whole host of good reasons. That means that development teams have to make a decision on whether to host their own or use a database as a service provider.
Heroku was the first big provider to make a push for PostgreSQL instead of MySQL for application development. They launched their Heroku PostgreSQL platform back in 2007. Amazon Web Services first announced their RDS for PostgreSQL service in November 2013 during the AWS re:Invent conference to an overwhelming ovation by the programmers in attendance.
Before I get too far into the features, let’s cover the pricing differences up front. Of course, both services have areas with different value propositions for productivity and maintenance that go beyond these direct costs. However, it's worth it to understand the basic costs so you can weigh those values against your needs later.
Heroku PostgreSQL has the simplest pricing. The rates and what you get for them are very clearly set at a simple per-month rate that includes the database, storage, data transfer, I/O, backups, SLA, and any other features built into the pricing tier.
With RDS for PostgreSQL, pricing is broken down into smaller units of individual resource usage. That means there are more factors involved in estimating the price, so it’s a little tougher to draw an exact comparison to Heroku PostgreSQL.
You have the price per hour for the instance type, higher if it's a multiple availability zone instance, cheaper if you pay an upfront cost to reserve the instance for one to three years; storage cost and storage class (both single and multi AZ); provisioned IOPs rate; backup storage, and data transfer… then there are a whole lot of special cases to consider. Also, keep in mind that you get one year free of the cheapest plan when you sign up.
Here is a comparison of an RDS plan to the Heroku Premium 4 plan:
Heroku Premium 4
$1,200 / Month
15 GB RAM
512 GB storage
Max 15 minutes downtime/month
1 week rollback
Point in time recovery
Encryption at rest
Continuous protection (offsite Write-Ahead-Log)
RDS for PostgreSQL
$1,156/month on demand or $756/month 1 year reserved
db.m3.xlarge Multi-AZ at $0.780/hr ($580)
4 vCPU, 15GB RAM
Encryption at rest
512 GB provisioned (SSD) at $0.250/GB ($128)
2000 provisioned IOPS at $0.20/IOPS ($400)
Estimated backup storage in excess of free for 1 week rollback, 512 GB at $0.095/GB ($48)
Data transfer estimated at $0 for most use cases
22 minutes downtime/month (based on AWS RDS SLA 99.95% uptime)
Now, here are the caveats with such a comparison:
Heroku isn't disclosing the number of CPUs associated with their plans.
Heroku’s High Availability is equivalent to AWS RDS Multi-AZ. In both setups, a read replica is maintained in a different geographic region specifically for the purpose of automatic failover in the event of an outage.
With Heroku, your storage is fully allocated, and you do not pay for IOPS. As such, we don't know what the limits are for IOPS, but they are very high performance databases. I allocated the minimum IOPS that AWS would allow for 512 GB, which was 2,000. We could go as high as 5,000 IOPS which would increase the price by $600/month.
The AWS RDS backups may cost nothing depending on how much of the provisioned storage is actually being used. Backup storage is free up to the level of provisioned storage, and backups are generally smaller, incremental, and do not include the significant space used by indexes. This estimate was based on the seven days of storage needed to allow for one week rollback.
AWS RDS storage can be scaled up on the fly, so your specific needs for RAM versus storage could create a wildly different pricing pattern. This comparison is aiming to draw an equivalent.
AWS only charges for data transfers out of your availability zone (not including multi-AZ transfers), so transfer rates will not apply in most cases.
Clear as mud.
Heroku PostgreSQL setup is dead simple.
Whenever you create a PostgreSQL project, a free dev plan is already created with it with a connection waiting. Upgrading the database simply gives you a new connection string with a set username, password, hostname, and database identifier that are all randomly generated by their system. The database connection must be secure but is accessible anywhere on the internet, including directly from your home computer. You can also choose whether to deploy it in the US East region or in the European region.
RDS for PostgreSQL setup is slightly more involved; you must select the various options outlined in the pricing section, including the instance type, whether or not it should be Multi-AZ, whether to enable encryption at rest, type of storage, how much to provision, IOPs to provision (if any), backup retention period, whether or not to enable automatic minor version upgrades, selection of backup and maintenance windows, database identifier, name, port, controller user and password, which availability zone you want it to be created in and the selection of your VPC group and subnet group, and your database configuration.
Obviously, RDS gives you significantly more control over the details. Depending on your point of view, that could be good or bad.
The database configuration, for example, has a set of defaults for each database version for each instance type. You can take these defaults and make modifications to them with your own custom settings and then save those as your own parameter group to assign to this and any future databases that you may choose to create. The initial setup time can be slightly more involved because of the various factors like VPC, subnet groups, and public accessibility. However, once these have been defined the first time for your account, everything gets much closer to a point-and-click experience.
Host Locations, Regional Restrictions
Heroku operates with the AWS US East Region (us-east-1) and Europe (eu-west-1). This also means that your database will be restricted to these regions. Availability Zones are managed internally.
If you choose to use Heroku PostgreSQL with something hosted in a different AWS region than those two, you should expect more latency between database requests and transfer rates may apply. Likewise, if you wish to use AWS RDS for PostgreSQL with a Heroku application, just ensure that it is set up in the appropriate region.
Security and Access Considerations
Within Heroku PostgreSQL, you're given a randomized username with a randomized password and a randomized database name that must be connected to over SSL. Their network (as well as Amazon’s) have built-in protections against scanners that could potentially brute-force access such a database. That is fairly secure.
The downside is that anybody who needs access to the database and has the connection information can do so from anywhere in the world. This is more of a Human Resources-level risk from departed programmers on a project than anything else, but it is something to be aware of nonetheless. Swapping out the database credentials after having a programmer leave the team will generally alleviate this concern.
On the other hand, AWS RDS for PostgreSQL has a much more comprehensive security policy. The ability to set and define a VPC and private subnet groups will allow you to restrict database access to only the servers and people who need it. You have the ability to create as many database users with various permission levels as you like in order to more easily manage multiple users or applications accessing the database with different permission levels, while providing a log trail. Thanks to VPC, even if somebody did have the connection information, they still couldn't access the database without being able to get inside the VPC.
For stricter (although more complex) security, RDS wins hands down. Depending on complexity, team, and the development state of your application, this level of security paranoia may not yet make sense and could be more of a headache than you want to manage. You can also configure it with the same access rules used by Heroku PostgreSQL.
Both platforms offer very similar options for backup and restore. Both have scheduled backups, point-in-time recovery, restoration to a new copy, and the ability to create snapshots.
Upgrades are more involved. On both platforms, major version upgrades will involve some downtime, which can't be avoided.
Heroku provided three options that all involve some manual steps to complete: copying data, promoting an upgraded follower, or using the pg:upgrade command for an in-place upgrade of larger databases. The pg:upgrade most closely resembles the upgrade process on RDS.
With RDS, you select the Modify option for your instance and change the version. It will create pre- and post-snapshots around the in-place upgrade while maintaining the exact same connection string.
RDS will allow you to schedule the database upgrade automatically within your set maintenance window. Heroku PostgreSQL will automatically apply minor upgrades and security patches, while RDS allows you to choose whether or not you want them to do that automatically within your maintenance window.
Both are fairly straightforward processes, although the RDS process is a little more hands-off in this case.
As of this writing, AWS RDS for PostgreSQL has version 9.3.1–9.3.6 and 9.4.1, while Heroku PostgreSQL has 9.1, 9.2, 9.3, and 9.4.
Minor version upgrades are automatic with Heroku, so the point releases are unnecessary. Heroku PostgreSQL has been around longer and because of that has more legacy versions available for their existing users. RDS launched with 9.3 and does not appear to have any intention to support older versions.
In addition to all of the functionality built into PostgreSQL, there’s a constantly growing set of extensions.
Both platforms have these extensions in common:
Available on Heroku PostgreSQL:
Available on AWS RDS for PostgreSQL:
"Scaling" is a tricky word with databases because it means different things depending on the needs of your application. Scaling for writes vs. reads is based on low intensity and high volume (web traffic) compared to low volume and high intensity (analytics).
The most common scaling case on the web is scaling for read traffic. Both Heroku and RDS address this need with the ability to create read replicas. RDS calls them read replicas and Heroku calls them followers, but they're essentially the same thing: a copy of the database, receiving live updates via the write-ahead-log over the wire to allow you to spread read traffic over multiple servers. This is commonly referred to as horizontal scaling. To create read replicas on either platform is a point-and-click operation.
Vertical scaling refers to increasing or decreasing the power of the hardware of your database in place. AWS and Heroku each handle this scenario differently.
Heroku instructs users to create a follower of the newly desired database class and then promote it to the primary database once it's caught up, destroying the original afterwards. Your application will need to update its database connection information to use the new database.
If your RDS database is a multi-AZ database, then the failover database will be upgraded first. Once ready, the connection will automatically failover to that instance while the primary is then upgraded, switching back to the primary afterwards. Without a Multi-AZ, you can do the upgrade in place, but downtime will vary depending on the size of the database. Your other option is to create a read replica with the newly desired stats and then promote it to primary when it is ready, just as Heroku recommends.
To scale beyond the standard vertical and horizontal options for something that can handle distributed write scaling, neither option is a particularly good fit. It will probably be necessary to either manage your own Postgres-XC installation or restructure your application to isolate the write-heavy traffic into a more use-case specific data source.
AWS RDS for PostgreSQL comes with all of the standard AWS monitoring options via Cloudwatch.
Cloudwatch provides extensive metrics that you can track history with a granular ability to set up alerts via email or SNS notifications (basically webhooks). These are great for integrating with tools like PagerDuty.
Heroku PostgreSQL monitoring relies more on logs and command line tools. Their pgextras command line tool will show current information about what's going on in the database, including bloat, blocking queries, cache and index hit ratios, identification of unused indexes, and the ability to kill specific queries.
These tools, while not involving the stat tracking over time that you get from Cloudwatch, provide extremely valuable insights into what's going on with your database that you don't come close to getting from RDS. You can see more examples of pg-extras on GitHub. These type of insights are invaluable in tuning your application and database to avoid the problems you'd need a monitor to catch in the first place.
Other historical data is available in the logs, although Heroku recommends trying out Librato (which can work with any PostgreSQL database but has a Heroku plugin available for automatic configuration). Additionally, free New Relic plans will provide a wealth of insight into what's going on with your application and database.
While Cloudwatch provides more detailed insight as to what's going on within the machine, Heroku uses the metrics seen within pg-extras to monitor and notify you of the various problems they see that require correction on your end. If data corruption happens, Heroku identifies and fixes it. Security problems, they'll handle it. A DBA or a DevOps position will care significantly more about the Cloudwatch metrics. Heroku PostgreSQL tries to focus on making sure you don't have to worry about it.
One bonus feature that you get from Heroku PostgreSQL is Dataclips. Dataclips are basically a method for storing and sharing read-only queries among your team for the sake of reporting without having to grant access to every person who may need to see them. Just type in a query and view the results right there on the page. The queries are version controlled; if your team is passing them around and tweaking them, you'll be able to see the changes over time.
In my personal experience, I've found dataclips to be a lifesaver, specifically for working with non-programmer teams.
When business or support staff need information on sales, fraud, user behavior, account activity, or anything else we happen to have in there, I've always had the ability to write up a query to get at the information. Before dataclips, this meant that I needed to write up the query, save it somewhere, usually export the result set to a CSV or spreadsheet, and then email it to whomever was requesting it. Eventually, this becomes a routine activity that you're having to handle at every request.
Enter dataclips. Now I can take that query and just send the random hashed link over to whoever requested the information. If they want more up-to-date information the next day, week, or month, they need only refresh the page. I write the query, then never hear that request again. That is a developer time-saver right there. You can save them and name them, as well as manage more strict access if need be.
Summary and Recommendation
Overall, AWS RDS for PostgreSQL will usually be cheaper and more tightly tailorable to exactly what your application’s needs are. You'll have much more granular control over access, security, monitoring, alerts, geographic location, and maintenance plans.
With Heroku PostgreSQL, you'll pay a little bit more on a simplified pricing structure, although all of your development databases will be free. You won't be able to control a lot of the details that RDS gives you access to, but that's partially by design so that you don't have to deal with managing those details. With Heroku, you'll get insights directly into how your database is performing and using the internal resources to help you catch, tune, and improve your setup before it becomes a problem.
If I had to choose, I'd probably go with Heroku and Heroku PostgreSQL as a startup while I focused on actually getting my application developed and getting customers in the door. The value proposition of saving time to focus on business goals so we can build a revenue stream would be of the greatest importance. Then when things grew to a point that the database was no longer changing as much, it might make sense to start migrating things over to RDS as we focus on locking things down to focus on stability, long-term maintenance, and security.
In the end, it really boils down to what costs you more: time or infrastructure. If time costs you more, go with Heroku PostgreSQL. If infrastructure costs you more, go with RDS. Having both platforms living within the AWS datacenters makes switching between the two a lot easier as your needs change.
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