Serverless Caching with Momento and MongoDB

A lot has changed in the 8 years since I started building serverless applications. What used to be a great tool for a limited set of use cases has turned into an extremely powerful ecosystem filled with products, services, and frameworks that not only negate nearly every objection, but allows developers to build native cloud applications very quickly. Recently there have been numerous investments in “serverless databases” to bring familiar RDBMS offerings to the growing number of serverless workloads. I’ve seen some very promising progress in this area, but for me, I’m still a big fan of using NoSQL solutions with my serverless applications.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the capabilities of MySQL and Postgres, but NoSQL databases have a combination of flexibility, scalability, and connection methods that highly complement a serverless approach. I have a lot of experience with Amazon DynamoDB and Cassandra, both excellent solutions for the right use cases, but I’ve always loved MongoDB and the flexibility of its query language. About a year ago, MongoDB made a serverless version of their MongoDB Atlas service generally available, which prompted me to take another look. I’ve been impressed so far, and I look forward to even more progress.

Even though MongoDB is widely appreciated for its flexibility and versatility, like any database system, when you scale up and usage increases, performance will likely take a hit. That’s where caching comes in. Traditionally, the problem with caching in serverless applications, at least in the AWS ecosystem, is that you had to both run your Lambda functions in a VPC (which limits access to the Internet without a Managed NAT Gateway) and you had to provision an ElastiCache cluster and manage it yourself. Then late last year, I discovered Momento, a serverless cache that was truly serverless. You only pay for what you use and it instantly scales to meet your workloads. Serverless had been missing a great caching solution, but now with Momento in hand, we can do some pretty amazing things without adding all that extra overhead.

In this post, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of adding a serverless cache like Momento in front of your MongoDB cluster, as well as some real world examples where caching can supercharge your serverless application backed by MongoDB.

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Serverless take the wheel

More control is a good thing, right? I mean, who doesn’t want the ability to twist every knob and tweak every settings to your heart’s desire so that each minute detail of your infrastructure is artisanally handcrafted? I’ll tell you who: this guy! Why? Because I have neither the time, energy, nor expertise to even begin to understand the impact of most of those configuration changes. Not only that, but I likely don’t even have the information needed to understand which optimizations are required, let alone a way to prioritize them.

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The side effect of increasing developer responsibility

It wasn’t that long ago that the vast majority of developers didn’t worry much about infrastructure. Sure, there were plenty of us configuring Linux servers and setting up the occasional MySQL database, but that certainly wasn’t the norm. For those that worked in larger organizations, your code was likely checked into perforce or subversion, and then magically ended up in production (some days, weeks, or even months later). For many, this is probably still how they ship code.

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Not so serverless Neptune

Several years ago I wrote a post asking people to¬†stop calling everything serverless. I even gave a keynote at Serverless Days Milan the following year pleading the same message. My contention was quite simple: “when everything’s serverless, nothing will be.”

Back then, “serverless” was still relatively new, and the possibilities were seemingly endless. Sure, there were a few people starting to mislabel things, and of course, haters were gonna hate, but for the most part, the argument was less about the nuances of the technology and more about the “nature” of serverless and the serverless-first mindset. But then something changed.

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Cloud Native versus Native Cloud apps

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the next evolution of the cloud, and more importantly, what the developer experience looks like. A few years ago, I think that most of us in the serverless ecosystem thought that the path forward seemed quite clear. Serverless-first was obviously “the way.” Small, discrete, single-purpose functions interconnected through a series of planet-scale, self-upgrading, managed services with built-in redundancy was the holy grail of cloud development.

Of course there were some gotchas in there, and not every use case was a perfect fit, but over time we figured these would be addressed as the technology evolved. For the most part, that has come to pass. Even if AWS hasn’t quite yet solved some of these issues, other cloud providers and startups have certainly tried. But while serverless was slowly preparing to cross the chasm, another already widely accepted technology was gaining traction in the cloud: containers.

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The Unfulfilled Potential of Serverless

Corey Quinn, Cloud Economist (and perpetual thorn in AWS’s side), recently published a post titled The Unfulfilled Promise of Serverless. Twitter reacted as we would expect, with plenty of folks feeling vindicated, others professing their staunch disagreement, and perhaps even a few now questioning their life (and technology) choices. My take is that he’s not wrong, but he’s also not entirely right.

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