Understanding Azure SQL Pricing

While many things in Azure have straight forward “Spin this up, pay this per hour” type pricing models, Azure SQL is not one of them! While it does have the option of paying per hour, per database, per machine size, that’s only one of many ways to use Azure SQL. So I thought it would be worth talking through how pricing works with Azure SQL, and hopefully make it a little simpler to find the right option for you.

Before we get started, I just want to note that when I say Azure SQL, I am referring specifically to Microsoft SQL Server in the cloud. Things like Postgres on Azure are named “Postgres for Azure SQL”, but if you see Azure SQL on it’s lonesome, it means that it’s referring to SQL Server. Easy!

With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Single Database vs Elastic Pool

The first decision you are going to have to make is whether you are going to use a Single Database (Or many Single Databases), or use an Elastic Pool.

Single Database is exactly how it sounds, it’s a price per single database you spin up. It’s important to note this is *not* a single server, but a single database. So if your application uses two databases, for example one for transactional data and another just used for logging, then you will pay for two different AzureSQL databases. The benefit however is that each database has it’s own resources dedicated to it, and therefore they are isolated from one another. A downside is that if your application uses multiple databases (For example a single tenant SAAS application that uses a database per customer), then your costs are going to sky rocket.

Elastic Pools are a collection of SQL databases that share computing power, and pay for a “pool” of resources. Elastic Pools do start with higher pricing than Single Databases (e.g. The minimum spend is much larger than that of a single database), but if you have a data model that requires spinning up multiple databases (And possibly spinning them down), then Elastic Pools are for you. I would note that Elastic Pools also have other factors to consider (e.g. Max DTU sizes), and the shared resources can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help. For that reason, I only recommend using Elastic Pools when you truly do have a “pool” of databases, like that of a single tenant SAAS application, and to not use Elastic Pools to save a few dollars on hosting costs for your 3 databases in production.

DTU Pricing Model

DTU stands for “Database Transaction Unit”. It’s taking measures of CPU, Memory and IO and combining them into a single metric. That makes it hard to talk about because the first question I usually get fired back when talking about DTU’s is “So how many CPU’s is that? How much memory?”. And the answer is… We don’t know. Or more so, because it’s a blended metric, 1DTU could be comprised of almost all memory and very little CPU, or it could be completely vice versa!

That’s actually one of the benefits of DTU. It’s a single “processing power” metric without having to juggle exact memory or CPU sizes. If you’ve ever had to grab a VM that has a huge amount of memory, but very little CPU, and it’s left you saying “Well.. I just want to increase the CPU, but not the memory, but the next VM class up doubles the memory!”, then that’s why DTUs are in some ways very powerful.

However, clearly a blended metric hides exactly what you are purchasing and for some people that’s a deal breaker. It makes it hard to understand initial provisioning sizes because at first, you will have nothing to compare it to. However, vertical scaling is absolutely no issue with Azure SQL, and so starting low and working your way up is always an option.

vCore Pricing Model

As an alternative to DTU pricing, you can still purchase Azure SQL using the vCore Pricing Model. vCore is your standard Azure SQL on hardware pricing where you know exactly how many CPU Cores and Memory you are being given. It’s great if you know exactly the computing power you need, or prefer the transparency of resourcing over the DTU pricing model.

Under vCore, there is actually two additional options. There is a price per core model, that is great for unpredictable workloads that may need to scale multiple times per day. Under this model, you simply pay per CPU core, per hour. And that’s it!

As an alternative, there is a “standard” set of machines available that are essentially built into your standard “tier” sizes. e.g.  2 Core 10GB, 4 Core 20GB vCore machines. These are great if you know the computing power you need and it won’t need to scale vertically that often.

DTU vs vCore

Unfortunately, after reading all of this you may come to the conclusion that you want to use vCore for it’s transparency, so that you know exactly what you’re getting. And Microsoft knows it, that’s why they’ve put the minimum provisioned vCore Azure SQL prices at around $400 USD per month (depending on region)! There is no lightweight entry into using the vCore pricing model, it’s almost an all or nothing approach.

On the DTU side of things, pricing can start for as little as $15 USD per month (depending on region), and the price step ups are much more granular, making it a much more viable solution for small start-ups and small businesses that just need a single database in the cloud.

Other options include using a DTU pricing model for Dev/Test workloads, and using a vCore model for Production. Again, this works great but only if you are happy with the minimum spend per month for (possibly) far more computing power than you need.

In the end, DTU vs vCore is less about pricing models and how resources are allocated, and more about the minimum level of pricing. In the majority of cases, DTU pricing is the way to go simply so you can start smaller, and ramp up over time.

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