Relational Databases on AWS: Comparing RDS and Aurora

Relational Databases on AWS: Comparing RDS and Aurora

There are two managed relational database services in AWS: Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS) and Amazon Aurora. Both provide the benefits of a fully managed database solution, but they have distinct features and use cases.

In this article, we'll explore the key features and capabilities of RDS and Aurora, compare their differences, and provide guidance on choosing the right service for your application.

Understanding Amazon RDS (Relational Database Service)

Let's start by taking a closer look at Amazon RDS, AWS's fully managed relational database service. RDS makes it easy to set up, operate, and scale a relational database in the cloud, supporting a wide range of database engines.

RDS Key Features:

  • Fully managed database service

  • Supports multiple database engines: MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle, SQL Server, MariaDB

  • Automatic backups and point-in-time recovery

  • Multi-AZ deployments for high availability

  • Read replicas for read scalability

  • Vertical and horizontal scaling options

RDS Instance Types and Storage:

RDS offers a variety of instance types optimized for different workloads and performance requirements. Instance types range from small burstable instances to large memory-optimized instances.

For storage, RDS provides three options:

  • General Purpose (SSD): Balanced performance for a wide range of workloads

  • Provisioned IOPS (SSD): High-performance storage for I/O-intensive workloads

  • Magnetic: Cost-effective storage for infrequently accessed data


With RDS, you pay for the database instance hours, storage, I/O requests, and data transfer. RDS pricing varies based on the database engine, instance type, storage type, and region.

RDS Backup and Restore

One of the key benefits of using RDS is the automated backup and restore capabilities. RDS provides two types of backups:

  • Automated Backups: RDS automatically takes daily snapshots of your database, allowing you to restore to any point in time within the retention period (up to 35 days).

  • Manual Snapshots: You can manually create database snapshots at any time, which are stored until you explicitly delete them.

To restore a database from a backup, you simply create a new RDS instance and specify the backup to use. RDS handles the rest, creating a new instance with the restored data.

Point-in-time recovery (PITR) is another powerful feature of RDS. With PITR, you can restore your database to any point in time within the backup retention period, down to the second. This is particularly useful for recovering from accidental data modifications or deletions.

RDS High Availability and Failover

High availability is crucial for many applications, and RDS provides several options to ensure your database remains available in the event of a failure.

Multi-AZ Deployments:

With a Multi-AZ deployment, RDS automatically provisions and maintains a synchronous standby replica in a different Availability Zone (AZ). If the primary instance fails, RDS automatically fails over to the standby, minimizing downtime.

Multi-AZ deployments provide enhanced durability and fault tolerance, with failover typically completing within a minute or two. This is ideal for production workloads that require high availability.

Read Replicas:

Read replicas are separate database instances that are asynchronously replicated from the primary instance. They are used to offload read traffic from the primary instance and improve read scalability.

You can create up to 5 read replicas per primary instance, within the same region or across different regions. Read replicas can be promoted to standalone instances if needed, providing a way to create independent databases for specific use cases.

Understanding Amazon Aurora

Amazon Aurora is a fully managed relational database service that is compatible with MySQL and PostgreSQL. It offers the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of open-source databases with the performance and availability of commercial databases.

Aurora Key Features:

  • MySQL and PostgreSQL compatible

  • High-performance storage and caching

  • Auto-scaling of read replicas

  • Serverless option for automatic scaling

  • Global database for multi-region deployments

  • Continuous backups and point-in-time restore

Aurora Storage and Replication:

Aurora uses a distributed, fault-tolerant, and self-healing storage system that automatically scales up to 128 TB per database instance. It replicates data across multiple AZs, providing high durability and availability.

Aurora's storage is designed for fast, consistent performance. It uses a multi-tier caching architecture that includes an in-memory cache, a buffer pool, and a storage cache, reducing the need for disk I/O and improving performance.


With Aurora, you pay for the database instance hours, storage, I/O requests, and data transfer. Aurora pricing varies based on the database engine (MySQL or PostgreSQL), instance type, and region.

Aurora Performance and Scalability

One of the key advantages of Aurora is its high-performance storage and caching architecture. Aurora can deliver up to 5X the throughput of standard MySQL and 3X the throughput of standard PostgreSQL, without requiring any changes to your application code.

Auto-scaling Read Replicas:

Aurora automatically scales read replicas based on the workload, ensuring your database can handle read-heavy traffic patterns. As the read traffic increases, Aurora seamlessly adds new read replicas to the cluster, distributing the load across multiple instances.

Aurora Serverless:

For applications with unpredictable or intermittent workloads, Aurora Serverless provides a fully managed, auto-scaling configuration for Aurora MySQL and PostgreSQL. With Aurora Serverless, your database automatically starts up, shuts down, and scales capacity based on your application's needs.

This is particularly useful for development and testing environments, or applications with variable traffic patterns, as it eliminates the need to manage database capacity manually.

Aurora Backup and Restore

Like RDS, Aurora provides automated continuous backups and point-in-time restore capabilities. However, Aurora takes it a step further with some additional features.

Continuous Backups:

Aurora automatically takes incremental backups of your database, continuously and transparently, with no impact on performance. These backups are stored in Amazon S3, providing 11 9's of durability.

Backup Retention:

Aurora backups are retained for a default period of 1 day, but you can configure this up to 35 days. Backups are automatically deleted when the retention period expires, or when the DB cluster is deleted.

Point-in-time Restore:

With Aurora, you can restore your database to any point in time within the backup retention period, down to the second. This is similar to RDS PITR, but with the added benefit of Aurora's distributed storage architecture, which enables faster restores.

Database Cloning:

Aurora allows you to create a new database cluster from an existing one, effectively "cloning" the database. This is useful for creating test or development environments, or for performing analytics on a copy of your production data without impacting the live database.

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RDS vs Aurora: Key Differences and Use Cases

Now that we've explored the key features and capabilities of RDS and Aurora, let's compare them side by side.

Database EnginesMySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle, SQL Server, MariaDBMySQL, PostgreSQL
PerformanceGood performance for general-purpose workloadsHigh-performance storage and caching, optimized for read-heavy workloads
ScalabilityVertical and horizontal scaling, read replicasAuto-scaling read replicas, Aurora Serverless for automatic scaling
AvailabilityMulti-AZ deployments for high availabilityMulti-AZ storage, Global Database for multi-region deployments
Backup and RestoreAutomated backups, manual snapshots, point-in-time recoveryContinuous incremental backups, point-in-time restore, database cloning
CompatibilityWide range of database engines, easy migrationMySQL and PostgreSQL compatible, requires migration effort
CostCost-effective for general-purpose workloadsHigher cost, but better performance and scalability for demanding workloads

Use Cases for RDS:

  • Applications with moderate performance and scalability requirements

  • Workloads that require a specific database engine (e.g., Oracle, SQL Server)

  • Migrating existing on-premises databases to the cloud

  • Development and testing environments

Use Cases for Aurora:

  • Applications with high-performance and high-scalability requirements

  • Read-heavy workloads that can benefit from Aurora's caching and auto-scaling capabilities

  • Applications with unpredictable or variable traffic patterns (using Aurora Serverless)

  • Global applications that require multi-region database deployments

Choosing the Right Relational Database Service

Choosing between RDS and Aurora depends on your specific application requirements and workload characteristics. Here are some key factors to consider:

Performance and Scalability:

If your application demands high performance and scalability, particularly for read-heavy workloads, Aurora is the better choice. Its high-performance storage and caching architecture, along with auto-scaling read replicas, make it well-suited for demanding applications.

Database Engine Compatibility:

If your application requires a specific database engine, such as Oracle or SQL Server, RDS is the way to go. RDS supports a wide range of database engines, making it easier to migrate existing applications to the cloud.

Cost Considerations:

For general-purpose workloads with moderate performance requirements, RDS is more cost-effective than Aurora. However, if your application requires the high performance and scalability of Aurora, the additional cost may be justified.

Existing Skills and Expertise:

If your team is already familiar with MySQL or PostgreSQL, both RDS and Aurora are good choices. However, if you have expertise with a specific database engine supported by RDS, such as Oracle or SQL Server, that may be a deciding factor.

When to Use RDS

  • Migrating an existing on-premises database to the cloud

  • Applications with moderate performance and scalability requirements

  • Workloads that require a specific database engine not supported by Aurora

  • Development and testing environments

Example: A web application with a backend database that requires SQL Server compatibility and has moderate traffic and performance requirements.

When to Use Aurora

  • Building a new, high-performance application from scratch

  • Applications with demanding read-heavy workloads

  • Serverless applications with unpredictable traffic patterns

  • Global applications that require multi-region database deployments

Example: A large-scale e-commerce platform with millions of daily users, requiring high throughput and low latency for product catalog searches and user profile management.

Best Practices for Running Relational Databases on AWS

Regardless of whether you choose RDS or Aurora, here are some best practices to keep in mind when running relational databases on AWS:

Performance Optimization

  • Choose the appropriate instance type and size based on your workload requirements

  • Monitor CPU, memory, and I/O utilization to identify bottlenecks and optimize performance

  • Use caching solutions like ElastiCache to offload read traffic and improve performance

Security Best Practices

  • Use IAM roles and policies to control access to your database instances

  • Enable encryption at rest and in transit to protect sensitive data

  • Regularly apply security patches and updates to your database engine

  • Use VPC security groups to control network access to your database instances

Monitoring and Logging

  • Enable and configure Amazon CloudWatch for monitoring database metrics and setting alarms

  • Use AWS CloudTrail to log and audit API activity related to your database instances

  • Enable database engine-specific logging, such as MySQL slow query logs or PostgreSQL query planner statistics

Scaling and High Availability

  • Use read replicas to scale read traffic and improve performance

  • Enable Multi-AZ deployments for high availability and automatic failover

  • Monitor replication lag and ensure it stays within acceptable limits

  • Test failover scenarios regularly to ensure your application can handle database failures gracefully


AWS provides two powerful managed services for running them in the cloud: Amazon RDS and Amazon Aurora. RDS is a fully managed service that supports a wide range of database engines, making it a good choice for general-purpose workloads and migrating existing applications to the cloud. Aurora, on the other hand, is a high-performance, MySQL and PostgreSQL-compatible database service that is well-suited for demanding, read-heavy workloads.

When choosing between RDS and Aurora, it's important to consider your application's specific requirements, including performance, scalability, compatibility, and cost. However, in cases where MySQL or PostgreSQL are suitable, Aurora is generally my preferred choice due to its advanced architecture and auto-scaling capabilities.

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