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ScyllaDB as a DynamoDB Alternative: Frequently Asked Questions

A look at the top questions engineers are asking about moving from DynamoDB to ScyllaDB to reduce cost, avoid throttling, and avoid cloud vendor lockin

A great thing about working closely with our community is that I get a chance to hear a lot about their needs and – most importantly – listen to and take in their feedback. Lately, we’ve seen a growing interest from organizations considering ScyllaDB as a means to replace their existing DynamoDB deployments and, as happens with any new tech stack, some frequently recurring questions. 🙂

ScyllaDB provides you with multiple ways to get started: you can choose from its CQL protocol or ScyllaDB Alternator. CQL refers to the Cassandra Query Language, a NoSQL interface that is intentionally similar to SQL. ScyllaDB Alternator is ScyllaDB’s DynamoDB-compatible API, aiming at full compatibility with the DynamoDB protocol. Its goal is to provide a seamless transition from AWS DynamoDB to a cloud-agnostic or on-premise infrastructure while delivering predictable performance at scale.

But which protocol should you choose? What are the main differences between ScyllaDB and DynamoDB? And what does a typical migration path look like?

Fear no more, young sea monster! We’ve got you covered. I personally want to answer some of these top questions right here, and right now.

Why switch from DynamoDB to ScyllaDB?

If you are here, chances are that you fall under at least one of the following categories:

  1. Costs are running out of control
  2. Latency and/or throughput are suboptimal
  3. You are currently locked-in and would like a bit more flexibility

ScyllaDB delivers predictable low latency at scale with less infrastructure required. For DynamoDB specifically, we have an in-depth article covering which pain points we address.

Is ScyllaDB Alternator a DynamoDB drop-in replacement?

In the term’s strict sense, it is not: notable differences across both solutions exist. DynamoDB development is closed source and driven by AWS (which ScyllaDB is not affiliated with), which means that there’s a chance that some specific features launched in DynamoDB may take some time to land in ScyllaDB.

A more accurate way to describe it is as an almost drop-in replacement. Whenever you migrate to a different database, some degree of changes will always be required to get started with the new solution. We try to keep the level of changes to a minimum to make the transition as seamless as possible. For example, Digital Turbine easily migrated from DynamoDB to ScyllaDB within just a single two-week sprint, the results showing significant performance improvements and cost savings.

What are the main differences between ScyllaDB Alternator and AWS DynamoDB?

  • Provisioning: In ScyllaDB you provision nodes, not tables. In other words, a single ScyllaDB deployment is able to host several tables and serve traffic for multiple workloads combined.
  • Load Balancing: Application clients do not route traffic through a single endpoint as in AWS DynamoDB (dynamodb.<region_name>.amazonaws.com). Instead, clients may use one of our load balancing libraries, or implement a server-side load balancer.
  • Limits: ScyllaDB does not impose a 400KB limit per item, nor any partition access limits.
  • Metrics and Integration: Since ScyllaDB is not a “native AWS service,” it naturally does not integrate in the same way as other AWS services (such as CloudWatch and others) does with DynamoDB. For metrics specifically, ScyllaDB provides the ScyllaDB Monitoring Stack with specific dashboards for DynamoDB deployments.

When should I use the DynamoDB API instead of CQL?

Whenever you’re interested in moving away from DynamoDB (either to remain in AWS or to another cloud), and either:

  • Have zero interest in refactoring your code to a new API, or
  • Plan to get started or evaluate ScyllaDB prior to major code refactoring.

For example, you would want to use the DynamoDB API in a situation where hundreds of independent Lambda services communicating with DynamoDB may require quite an effort to refactor. Or, when you rely on a connector that doesn’t provide compatibility with the CQL protocol.

For all other cases, CQL is likely to be a better option. Check out our protocol comparison for more details.

What is the level of effort required to migrate to ScyllaDB?

Assuming that all features required by the application are supported by ScyllaDB (irrespective of which API you choose), the level of effort should be minimal. The process typically involves lifting your existing DynamoDB tables’ data and then replaying changes from DynamoDB Streams to ScyllaDB. Once that is complete, you update your application to connect to ScyllaDB.

I once worked with an AdTech company choosing CQL as their protocol. This obviously required code refactoring to adhere to the new query language specification. On the other hand, a mobile platform company decided to go with ScyllaDB Alternator, eliminating the need for data transformations during the migration and application code changes.

Is there a tool to migrate from DynamoDB to ScyllaDB Alternator?

Yes. The ScyllaDB Migrator is a Spark-based tool available to perform end-to-end migrations. We also provide relevant material and hands-on assistance for migrating to ScyllaDB using alternative methods, as relevant to your use case.

I currently rely on DynamoDB autoscaling; how does that translate to ScyllaDB?

More often than not you shouldn’t need it. Autoscaling is not free (there’s idle infrastructure reserved for you), and it requires considerable “time to scale”, which may end up ruining end users’ experience. A small ScyllaDB cluster alone should be sufficient to deliver tens to hundreds of thousands of operations per second – and a moderately-sized one can easily achieve over a million operations per second. That being said, the best practice is to be provisioned for the peak.

What about DynamoDB Accelerator (DAX)?

ScyllaDB implements a row-based cache, which is just as fast as DAX. We follow a read-through caching strategy (unlike the DAX write-through strategy), resulting in less write amplification, simplified cache management, and lower latencies. In addition, ScyllaDB’s cache is bundled within the core database, not as a separate add-on like DynamoDB Accelerator.

Which features are (not) available?

The ScyllaDB Alternator Compatibility page contains a detailed breakdown of not yet implemented features. Keep in mind that some features might be just missing the DynamoDB API implementation. You might be able to achieve the same functionality in ScyllaDB in other ways.

If any particular missing feature is critical for your ScyllaDB adoption, please let us know.

How safe is this? Really?

ScyllaDB Alternator has been production-ready since 2020, with leading organizations running it in production both on-premise as well as in ScyllaDB Cloud. Our DynamoDB compatible API is extensively tested and its code is open source.

Next Steps

If you’d like to learn more about how to succeed during your DynamoDB to ScyllaDB journey, I highly encourage you to check out our recent ScyllaDB Summit talk. For a detailed performance comparison across both solutions, check out our ScyllaDB Cloud vs DynamoDB benchmark.

If you are still unsure whether a change makes sense, then you might want to read the top reasons why teams decide to abandon the DynamoDB ecosystem. If you’d like a high-level overview on how to move away from DynamoDB, refer to our DynamoDB: How to Move Out? article. When you are ready for your actual migration, then check out our in-depth walkthrough of an end-to-end DynamoDB to ScyllaDB migration.

Chances are that I probably did not address some of your more specific questions (sorry about that!), in which case you can always book a 1:1 Technical Consultation with me so we can discuss your specific situation thoroughly. I’m looking forward to it!

About Felipe Cardeneti Mendes

Felipe Cardeneti Mendes is an IT Specialist with years of experience on distributed systems and Open Source technologies. He has co-authored three Linux books and is a frequent speaker on public events and conferences to promote Open Source technologies. At ScyllaDB, he works as a Solution Architect.