Thoughts on Free Amazon Web Services

Last week, Amazon announced that we could all get some free AWS if we signed up for a new account. Just what do you get for signing up? Take a look.

What you get with the AWS Free Usage Bundle

The First Catch

First off, this is only free for the first 12 months. After that you’re going to have to pay as you go. In a way, this is like Microsoft’s BizSpark, but in the clouds. You get to ride a long for free, for a while. After that while, you’re going to have to pony up some money to keep riding. Nobody said it was free forever.

The Second Catch

Let’s say you start out with your free AWS account and you build an application to help manage your yarn collection. You write some code and you’re happily trucking along. One day you decide to share the link with a few friends who are also really into knitting. The next thing you know, everyone is using your yarn tracking website. This is great, right? It is great… until the bill shows up. The free AWS only lasts for 12 months. Or until you exceed your service levels. Whichever comes first. Unless you have definite plans to monetize your service, you will need to carefully monitor your application load.

What Do You Really Get?

So what are you really getting for free? We all know that nothing is free, so what makes Amazon’s deal noteworthy?

The Server

You get a virtualized server with 613MB of memory. That barely sounds like enough to power your microwave, but in the world of Linux servers, that may be more than enough for your website. Even if it isn’t enough horsepower for your production application, it’s enough to develop in a realistic environment and deploy to your first round of beta users.

The Load Balancer

Once you’ve got more than a few users, you might need to move beyond that tiny 613MB server. Or you might shard your application out. Or you could use it to help you manage your fault tolerance. There are a lot of reasons to use a load balancer. Amazon has been thinking of you and you get 750 hours of their load balancing service free. Per month. 750 hours is 31.25 days. You can’t use all the free that you get. It’s just that free. There is a limit on the amount of free traffic that the load balancer will handle, but that should encourage you to keep your apps lean and mean, right?


Free storage! 10GB of Amazon Elastic Block Storage sounds like 10GB of free something or another that I don’t know about. Reading the documentation doesn’t clear this up. Basically, you get free magical storage that you can format however you want and attach wherever you want in your Amazon virtual server farm. You can even take point in time snapshots of these storage devices so you can revert your storage to a known good state. That’s pretty cool, eh? Try getting your SAN administrator to let you do that. More free storage! Five gigs of Amazon S3 is a lot of S3 storage. I use S3 to host large files that I don’t want to upload through WordPress – video, PDFs, and presentations. It’s a great way to add a lot of hosting to your free or cheap hosting account. Likewise, it’s a great way to add storage to your free AWS instances and remove some load from your virtual server. On the down side, it does look like you’re going to pay for the traffic that your readers consume. But, hey, you already counted on that, right? Even more free storage! 1GB of SimpleDB storage! SimpleDB is a distributed database with a few limitations. Despite the limitations, it’s a sold platform for developing web-based/cloud applications. You can access the database from just about anywhere and it should be available as long as Amazon’s servers are up and running. And you had better believe that Amazon is going to stay up and running.


Surprise! You get 30GB of free traffic a month. Well, 15GB up and 15GB down. But it’s sort of the same. I think. Maybe? The point is that you get some free bandwidth. Bandwidth can get pricey which makes any amount of free bandwidth a good thing.

Implications For Your Design

With a hard cap of 15GB on your traffic, you’ll want to make sure that you’re using images that are as compressed as possible, minified CSS and JavaScript, clean HTML source code, and lean protocols. You’ll want to be careful in development and make sure that you’re only pulling back the data that you need and nothing more, and that you make as few round trips to the server as possible. Of course, you were doing all of this before, right?

Putting it All Together

The free tier of AWS is a good introduction to working with AWS. It provides more than just a simple virtual machine, it provides an entire infrastructure to get you started. You can rapidly build out from a single to server to a large number of servers and still use most of these free services. If you don’t need something, you’re not going to pay for it. This is a lot cheaper of an option than buying your own hardware or trying to work within the confines of a hosting provider. This is your own virtual hardware to develop with as you please. One more thing – Amazon may stop accepting new people into the magical free AWS tier at any moment. Act now, supplies are limited.