Architecting for Zero Data Loss Disaster Recovery using Amazon RDS Solutions

Exploring how Amazon RDS database offerings can assist with achieving Zero Data loss in the event of a major disaster on the live database service.

AWS Admin
Amazon Employee
Published Aug 18, 2023
Last Modified Jun 21, 2024


This article will look at how Amazon RDS databases support recovery from failure or disaster. We will cover the internal database mechanisms that facilitate database recovery from a service failure as well as the offerings that facilitate complete database disaster recovery. Finally we will bring all of this information together to form an idea of what is possible utilising Amazon RDS to architect for a zero data loss solution.

What Does Zero Data Loss Disaster Recovery (ZDLDR) Actually Mean and When Is It Needed?

Disaster recovery is the act of recovering an impaired service after a failure event that affects the primary availability zone(s), data centre(s), or region(s). Such an event could range from natural disasters, power cuts, and network outages to political activism stopping or impacting the data centres where servers and services are physically run.
Recovery from failure and testing of recovery procedures also forms part of the AWS Well-Architected Framework falling under the 'Reliability' Pillar. This is a core component of any AWS architected design, so it should be well understood.
Your resiliency strategy should also include Disaster Recovery (DR) objectives based on strategies to recover your workload in case of a disaster event.
Many Amazon architected solutions will use multiple AWS services. For example there could be an EC2 compute instance running a containerised application that connects to an RDS Database. For the purpose of this blog the disaster recovery scope is only looking at the database. We do not consider the other services.
Recovery from a disaster with zero data loss, or ZDLDR, means that once the database is back in service, it will carry on from the point of failure and hold all transactional history up until the point of failure. For instance if we lost an availability zone at 9:00am UTC, for a ZDLDR solution we would want a solution that could reinstate that database service as if it were 09:00am UTC again. Anything less could imply loss of new or changed data.
A database with missing or out of date data may cause an application to cease to function as it should, or report incorrect or missing data. It could require complex manual intervention to rectify. The issue could further be impacted if the system continued to operate with the missing or incorrect data, which then causes additional logical cascading data corruptions.

Cloud Enabled vs Cloud Native Databases

One of the key reasons to use a relational database service such as Amazon RDS is to ensure data is highly available and recoverable at all times. This is all provided by a managed service that facilitates the simple setup, configuration, and administration.
Amazon RDS supports 5 different database engines, as shown below:
Cloud Native vs Cloud Enabled
Figure 1. Cloud Native vs Cloud Enabled
These Amazon RDS Database engines generally fall into 2 categories
  • Cloud Enabled
  • Cloud Native
Cloud enabled databases run using similar infrastructure and setup as if they were running on premise. In a way they are databases designed for an on premise environment and tailored to run on the cloud and utilise those great services that AWS provides. Amazon RDS which caters for engines Oracle, SQL Server, Postgres, MySQL, and MariaDB can be considered cloud enabled offerings.
As depicted below, these databases write to a standard non-clustered EBS volume(s). Disaster recovery can be provided by physical block level replication or logical database replication to a second availability zone. Note we can also perform logical replication within the same availability zone as well.
Figure 2. RDS Multi AZ EBS
Cloud native databases are designed from the ground up to utilise cloud features that are generally only available on the cloud. Amazon Aurora Postgres and Amazon Aurora MySQL (both of which are still part of the RDS family) can be considered a hybrid cloud native database offering. Aurora decouples the compute from the storage layer. The storage layer has extra efficiencies and safe guards, and it utilises multiple AZs to enhance high availability.
As depicted below, Amazon Aurora RDS writes to a clustered proprietary storage volume that spans across all 3 availability zones where 6 copies of the data will reside into what is referred to as a protection group. The data is grouped such that an Aurora database can be stood up for disaster recovery at any time in any availability zone within the same Region with no further replication or overhead.
RDS Multi AZ Clustered
Figure 3. RDS Multi AZ Clustered

Amazon RDS database Transaction Logging

Database engines journal change using their own internal tracking sequence. This internal change or sequence number can also be used as the target to restore databases or derive the clock time to restore a database if needed. In RDS Oracle this is known as the System Change Number (SCN), and in other RDS Engines it's referred to as Log Sequence Number (LSN). For a ZDLDR solution, the SCN or LSN for a database would match prior to the disaster and after as well as the data.
Database EngineInternal Change TrackingDatabase Change log
Amazon RDS for MySQLLog Sequence Number (LSN)Binary/Redo Log
Amazon RDS for PostgresSQLLog Sequence Number (LSN)Transaction Log
Amazon RDS for MariaDBLog Sequence Number (LSN)Binary/Redo Log
Amazon RDS for OracleSystem Change Number (SCN)Redo Log
Amazon RDS for SQL ServerLog Sequence Number (LSN)Transaction Log
Cloud enabled databases capture all changes in logs also known as transaction, binary or redo logs depending on the database engine. These logs are generally write ahead logs (WAL) so all data manipulation is first persisted to these logs then the underlying database files using a process known as check pointing. This provides a mechanism for a database to roll forward all SCN or LSN changes in the WAL(s) and recover its underlying files to be consistent after an ungraceful outage or server crash. Though any inflight transactions would be rolled back as they were not committed, this is a generally accepted model amongst cloud enabled database vendors and applications, which results in zero data Loss. This is depicted below in Figure 4.
RDS crash recovery
Figure 4. RDS crash recovery
RDS Cloud Native databases, namely Amazon Aurora, uses a decoupled clustered distributed storage system. Once a change has occurred in the database, the log records are sent to the storage tier and persisted to a log called a hot log. The database is then freed from any other overhead regarding management of these records. It falls to the Storage tier to take responsibility for coalescing and persisting those records to disk and data page updates to reflect the change. As there is no transaction log or WAL as such on the database tier, the crash recovery phase is minimal when recovering from an ungraceful shutdown or crash. Aurora is designed to recover from a crash almost instantaneously without a transaction log. Crash recovery is performed asynchronously so the database is open and available immediately after a crash. This is depicted below in Figure 5. It should also be noted Aurora's database working memory area, called a page cache, is also decoupled from the database so it can independently survive a database crash and be reused once the database is back.
Aurora crash recovery
Figure 5. Aurora crash recovery

High Availability vs Backups vs Disaster Recovery

One of the strengths of Amazon RDS is a simple and configurable backup solution, high availability, and disaster recovery options. This provides the capability to reinstate a failed database environment. But there are clear differences in their implementation, usage, and potential for data loss.
The industry standard term for the amount of data loss a system can tolerate is known as the Recovery Point Objective (RPO). This is measured as a unit of time, it could be seconds, hours, or even days. An RPO of 0 would mean that a database could not tolerate any data loss.
High availability is resilience to failure of individual services such as compute and storage. AWS by nature is highly available (as long as best practices are followed). If an EC2 Instance fails due to a hardware issue this can be respawned on new hardware. EBS disks will have the resilience we have come to expect of modern day hard drives. So we can expect Amazon RDS to be highly available as it's built using this same reliable, fault tolerant infrastructure. As we have discussed earlier, if there is an issue that crashes the database, the database should still restart with zero data loss. If an RDS database is set up to run as Multi AZ, RDS will automatically failover to the disaster recovery site as well under many conditions. Using Multi AZ will provide an RPO of 0 due to synchronous replication.
Backups in Amazon RDS are based on EC2 instance storage level snapshots and for cloud enabled offerings this is coupled with transaction log backups every 5 minutes, all automated when enabled and implicitly written to S3 object bucket storage. The initial snapshot of a database will perform a full storage backup with subsequent snapshots being forever incremental, copying only changed disk blocks for speed and efficiency.
Full PhysicalOne off Initial Backup
Incremental PhysicalDaily Backup Window
Cloud Enabled Transactional LogicalEvery 5 Minutes
Cloud Native Transactional LogicalEvery 5 Minutes
The hybrid cloud native Amazon Aurora backups are continuous, and backup the hot log and changed data pages. Though the earliest restore time using these backups for Aurora is also 5 minutes minus the current time. Due to the very high availability of Amazon Aurora storage, the use of backups as a last resort should be a very rare occurrence.
To restore an RDS Cloud enabled database would need a restore of the full backup + incremental backup(s) + for cloud enabled database the roll forward of the transaction logs. Potentially the RPO using Amazon cloud enabled RDS backups would be 5 minutes at most (the cadence of transaction log backups). This would only be applicable if not using Multi AZ to reinstate the database.
To restore a RDS hybrid cloud native database Aurora we would need a restore of the full backup + incremental hot log and data page backup(s), there are no transaction logs to restore.
As stated Aurora backups are every 5 minutes so there could be 5 minutes data loss. But as Aurora is highly available running normally over 3 Availability Zones
there is less chance that 5 minute backup cadence is an issue or will be prevented due to Aurora storage being unavailable.
RDS Backup workflow
Figure 6. RDS Backup workflow
Disaster recovery in Amazon RDS is based on Multi AZ or Multi Region database copies where we have a physically separate database copy located in a different physical location. This database copy could be replicated using physical block level replication or database technologies with the latter protecting against disk corruptions. The replication used between database copies to keep them identical or near identical as possible could use asynchronous, synchronous, semi-synchronous, or Aurora clustered protection group replication depending on the replication technology used and DR setup.
Replication MethodDescription
AsynchronousSend changes to a second site but do not wait for them to be applied
SynchronousSend changes to a second site but wait for them to be applied
Semi-SynchronousSend changes to two sites but wait for them to be received by at least one of the sites
Protection GroupsSend data in each protection group to be replicated six times spanning three AZs in the same region

Logical Replication vs Physical Replication

'How' we replicate RDS databases for DR as described above is generally considered to be either:
  • Synchronous (SYNC) where we wait for data to be committed on both the primary RDS database in its AZ and standby RDS database in a different AZ before continuing.
  • Asynchronous(ASYNC) where we send the data from the primary RDS database in its AZ to the standby RDS database in a different AZ but do not wait for data to be committed.
  • Semi-Synchronous which requires 2 replicas to support the primary database, the commit is only considered persisted when 1 of the 2 replicas has confirmed the changes have been received. Note we say received, not applied - so in theory a double outage of both the primary and replica in receipt of change may still have a chance of data loss. This is also referred to as a Multi AZ DB cluster.
Amazon Aurora also provides a 4th method:
  • Protection Groups where the decoupled storage performs replication with no direct waiting by the compute tier.
These 4 types of replication are depicted below:
Replication Async vs Sync
Figure 7. Replication Async vs Sync
'What' we replicate could be either:
  • Using a physical DR copy, where the replication is at the physical Level tracking disk block changes. This type of replication is always synchronous. Within Amazon RDS this is referred to as Multi AZ replication and is only supported using Multi AZ not Multi Region. One of the drawbacks of physical replication is that it will replicate disk corruptions. Persisted disk corruptions should be considered a very rare occurrence, but nevertheless they need to be catered for. As physical replication uses SYNC replication we can assume an RPO of 0 when not dealing with disk corruptions.
  • Using a logical DR copy, where the replication is at the database level tracking transactional changes. This can be either synchronous, asynchronous, or semi-synchronous where supported. One of the key advantages of logical replication is that it supports both cross AZ and cross region replication. Logical database copies are referred to as replica copies. For a logical DR copy, disk corruption should not be replicated. This is key point for any ZDLDR solution. If the logical replication is asynchronous, it has the potential to drift (lag) behind the primary site, but this doesn't necessarily mean data loss if site switches are planned or graceful.
  • Using Amazon Aurora storage cluster, where the replication is handled by the intelligent storage tier mirroring multiple copies of data across protection groups and all available AZs. Here the physical replication must be replicated at least 4 ways across all available AZs to be considered updated and eventually 6 ways, using what's called a 4 of 6 Quorum for writes. Due to the always synchronous storage replication of Aurora, we can assume an RPO of 0. We should note that Amazon Aurora storage replication is only supported within the same region, though cross regions replication is supported asynchronously. Disk corruptions present on Amazon Aurora will self heal from one of the healthy copies of the data, and there will be a minimum of 4 copies and eventually 6, so this is very effective against disk corruption.

RDS Replicas

A replica in Amazon RDS or Amazon Aurora represents a database that also has the potential to be used as an additional read only copy of the live database while still being continually updated with all changes. Using Amazon RDS Oracle, there is an extra license fee to provision a read-only replica known as an Active Dataguard (ADG) License. ADG also provides additional self repair capabilities for block corruption. Though Amazon RDS Oracle also has the ability to have a replica in recovery mode only which is not accessible for read access. When the RDS Oracle Replica is in recovery mode only the Active Dataguard License in not required but additionally does not provide the self repair of corrupt blocks. Amazon Aurora replicas are based on the decoupled storage that is automatically replicated across all AZs, but the replication thereafter is considered asynchronous as the replicas are kept updated with native database replication. For disaster recovery, though, Aurora would rely on its decoupled storage for an RPO of 0. Furthermore, for Amazon Aurora we don't even need to stand up a replica as the potential to create one is still there at any time as the data is clustered across all available AZs to facilitate that.
Logical replication can be:
  • Asynchronous for cloud enabled RDS replica's RDS Oracle, RDS Postgres, RDS MySQL and RDS MariaDB.
  • Semi-Synchronous if using RDS Postgres or RDS MySQL with 2 replicas.
  • Synchronous using RDS SQL Server, which utilises a feature called 'Always On' or 'Mirroring' where the replication to the secondary site is a logical synchronous apply under the covers.
  • Synchronous using Oracle RDS Custom, where we are able to access the underlying operating system and also make certain customisations that are not possible under normal Amazon RDS Regular. One of the customisations that is possible for Oracle is to set up for logical synchronous replication.

Database Support for Logical Synchronous Replication

We can see below which database engines support SYNC and SEMISYNC replication so therefore potentially an RPO 0 depending on the replication type. Note if using Oracle RDS Custom we could create a similar setup to emulate SEMI-SYNC if needed.
Database EngineStorage Sub SystemMulti AZ Physical Block Replication Support (SYNC)Multi AZ DB Replica Logical Replication Support (SYNC)Multi AZ DB Replica Logical Replication Support (SEMI-SYNC)
Amazon Aurora MySQLMulti AZ ClusteredImplicitNoNo
Amazon Aurora PostgresMulti AZ ClusteredImplicitNoNo
Amazon RDS for MySQLSingle AZ StripedYesNoYes
Amazon RDS for PostgresSQLSingle AZ StripedYesNoYes
Amazon RDS for MariaDBSingle AZ StripedYesNoNo
Amazon RDS for OracleSingle AZ StripedYesNoNo
Amazon RDS for SQL ServerSingle AZ StripedYesNoNo
Amazon RDS Custom OracleSingle AZ StripedNoYesYes
Amazon RDS Custom SQL ServerSingle AZ StripedYesYesNo
It's worth stating the database edition can impact what choices are available, as RDS Oracle logical replicas are only available using enterprise edition. Other Amazon engines including SQL Server logical replicas are available under both standard and enterprise editions.
We should also note that logical and physical DR databases are not mutually exclusive. We could have both a logical replica(s) and a Multi AZ physical copy for the same source database, and in fact this may provide a more complete DR setup.

RDS Custom for Oracle and SQLServer

Amazon RDS provides a lower level offering called RDS Custom for database engines Oracle and SQL Server. With this offering, we gain access to the underlying compute server's o/s. Being able to access the compute also allows us to make customisations to the RDS Engine and its configuration not possible under normal RDS. With regard to disaster recovery the ability to configure synchronous logical replication for Oracle is relevant for us as a ZDLDR Solution. RDS Custom also gives SQLServer the ability for physical synchronous Multi AZ configurations which is not possible under standard RDS, but this won't protect against disk corruptions.

AWS RDS Outposts

Amazon allows customers to run Amazon RDS in their own data centres using what is called outposts. The Outposts are Amazons infrastructure running within the customers data centre. Using Amazon Outposts we can run RDS engines SQL server, MySQL and Postgres. To achieve disaster recovery a customer can install more than one outpost and configure multi AZ setup, but this only supported for RDS Postgres and MySQL not SQL Server.

Disaster Blast Radius

Not all failures require disaster recovery on Amazon RDS. For an RDS database the implicit services that support the database are:
Amazon RDSDatabase s/w running
EC2Compute that the database s/w runs on
EBSStorage that holds the data and s/w
KMSkeys to support database encryption
S3storage to support Database backups
Let's refer to this as Level 1. A failure at Level 1 should not require disaster recovery in general, but may invoke it for a faster recovery if using a Multi AZ setup. There should be zero data loss as each of these services is generally self-healing or highly redundant.
EBS volumes where our database software and data is stored is redundant and highly available, but there is an edge case where it could be susceptible to disk corruption. With modern disk drives, implicit integrity checks by the database software, operating systems, and actual drives themselves, this should be considered very rare, but still a possibility. The ability to deal with disk corruption will form a crucial role in achieving a ZDLDR solution.
In general a Level 1 failure should not result in potential data loss unless there is a disk corruption, but even disk corruption to some degree can be minimised depending on how Multi AZ copies or replicas are created.
The next level of failure would be an entire availability zone failure. Let's call this a failure at Level 2. A Level 2 failure would need a disaster recovery site to continue the operation of the database service. If using a Multi AZ database setup, then there should be no data loss for synchronously, semi-synchronously or aurora storage replicated databases. For asynchronously replicated database there could be some lag and potential data loss. For semi-synchronously replicated databases there should be zero data loss if no further impacting issue on the site that has confirmed receipt of the changes. If there is no multi AZ RDS database, then it's also possible to use backups to reinstate the database service, but these could be up to 5 minutes behind the lost site.
The next level of failure would be loss of an entire region. Let's call this a failure at Level 3. A Level 3 failure always has the potential for data loss, as database replication across regions will most likely be asynchronous due to the distances data must travel to be replicated. Multi region backups will lag even further behind the live Region as well. We could possibly assume an RPO of minutes for cross region DR using asynchronous replication, though this is dependent on speed, distance, and database load activity.
The last level of failure would be a multiple region failure. Let's call this a Level 4 failure. This should be extremely rare but can also be mitigated by replicating RDS to additional regions or a hybrid or multi cloud DR strategy as well. Amazon RDS Custom Engine could allow the low level customisations for multi cloud DR. Regular RDS could take manual backups and push these to a target environment as well, but the RPO could be very high for that.
Disaster Blast Radius
Figure 8. Disaster Blast Radius
It should be evident that a true ZDLDR solution is only possible at a Level 1 and Level 2 events, as the other levels utilise asynchronous replication.

Architecting for Zero Data Loss Conclusions

Now we know how Amazon RDS databases work and what options are available we can define the possible solutions for architecting a ZDLDR solution. For Amazon RDS databases, the DR copy must be a logical synchronous or semi-synchronous replica to cater for edge case disk corruption issues. For Amazon Aurora databases, ZDLDR is available out of the box due to their unique cloud native storage layer.
For Oracle Using Amazon RDS Custom, there is support for logical synchronous replication and therefore ZDLDR can be achieved.
We can only achieve ZDLDR at level 1 single AZ or level 2. Multi AZ events as these are the only events that are either self-healing or that support synchronous replication. Multi Region replication will usually be asynchronous due to large distances we must replicate across.
Putting all of this together, we can derive which RDS configuration will support ZDLDR as detailed in the table below.
EngineZero Data loss Disaster Recovery
Amazon RDS MySQLPossible to achieve ZDLDR using Semi-Synchronous Replication of a Logical DR t o 2 sites
Amazon RDS MariaDBNot Possible as Logical Synchronous Replication is not Supported Physical replication could be susceptible to Disk Corruption
Amazon RDS PostgreSQLPossible to achieve ZDLDR using Semi-Synchronous Replication of a Logical DR t o 2 sites
Amazon RDS Oracle EENot Possible as Logical Synchronous Replication is not Supported Physical replication could be susceptible to Disk Corruption
Amazon RDS Oracle Custom EEPossible to achieve ZDLDR using Synchronous Replication of a Logical DR site
Amazon RDS Oracle SE2Not Possible as Logical Synchronous Replication is not Supported Physical replication could be susceptible to Disk Corruption
Amazon RDS SQL Server SEPossible to achieve ZDLDR using Synchronous Replication of a Logical DR site
Amazon RDS SQL Server EEPossible to achieve ZDLDR using Synchronous Replication of a Logical DR site
Amazon RDS SQL Server SE CustomPossible to achieve ZDLDR using Synchronous Replication of a Logical DR site
Amazon RDS SQL Server EE CustomPossible to achieve ZDLDR using Synchronous Replication of a Logical DR site
Amazon Aurora PostgreSQLZDLDR is supported out of the box due to decoupled clustered storage
Amazon Aurora MySQLZDLDR is supported out of the box due to decoupled clustered storage

Architecting for Near Zero Data Loss

The purpose of this article is architecting for ZDLDR, but we can reduce the likelihood of data loss for those engines that do not this. Using a Multi AZ with an additional standby replica could provide some protection from disk corruptions. The Multi AZ would be used in the majority of DR scenarios. The replica would exist to support edge case disk corruption with the acceptance it will run asynchronously, so could lag behind. The replica could also provide extra recoverability options using database native export tools to recover individual objects. This setup would also have the protection of 3 AZs, providing further protection against disaster.
3 way AZ RDS Replication
Figure 9. 3 way AZ RDS Replication


Architecting for Zero Data Loss is possible utilising Amazon RDS, due to edge case disk corruption only certain configurations and engines allow this.
The solution to architecting for ZDLDR is the use of database replica's which support synchronous, semi-synchronous or Amazon Aurora storage replication.
RDS Oracle (Custom) and SQL server only requires one additional site to setup a synchronous replica. RDS Postgres and RDS MySQL require 2 additional sites for a synchronous replica. While Amazon Aurora replication is spread across all 3 AZ's by design.
If using Active Dataguard for a RDS Oracle read only replica, there are also automated block corruption repairs. Amazon Aurora also provides self healing of disk corruption from healthy copies.
If a ZDLDR solution can't be used, then we can achieve a near ZDLDR solution utilising Multi AZ an additional replica across all 3 AZs.

Further Reading and References

Any opinions in this post are those of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of AWS.