Are Free Tier Cloud Services Worth The Cost?

Over the years that I’ve been talking with public groups on cloud services, and Azure in particular, I will typically have at least one person in every group make a statement like this:

“Azure’s good, but the free tier isn’t as good as AWS.”

I’ve discussed this statement with groups enough times that I thought it would be good to capture my perspective on where Azure stands, provide some useful resources, and pose a question to those whose starting point is free services.

You want The Free? You can’t handle The Free!

You want the free?!

When people talk about how a free tier isn’t that useful, typically what they are saying translates into is one of two scenarios:

  1. The timeframe the free tier is offered for is not long enough for the person to achieve an acceptable learning outcome based on their time investment;
     
  2. More commonly, the service limits are too low meaning the person cannot achieve an acceptable learning outcome before their credit runs outs (regardless of time).

The reality is, beyond basic scenarios (run a Virtual Machine, create a database), and where someone doesn’t have sufficient continuous time to allocate to their cloud environment, the more likely it is they will receive minimal value from free tier services.

Effective use of free tiers

So how to minimise these outcomes?

  1. Be clear about what you want to achieve before you start a free tier subscription. If you don’t know *what* you want to do in advance you are likely to fritter away that free credit before you get to your eventual end goal. Additionally, if you know what you want to achieve then review the required cloud services you will use and determine if a free tier is going to provide you with sufficient resources to reach your goal.
     
  2. Start with pre-built environments or quickstarts – find labs or similar that give you access to existing environments. Attend events that include credits as part of attendance and use those to achieve a goal. Look at tutorials and samples to find automation scripts / templates that can get you up and running quickly (but remember the previous tip – if you try to provision a ten node Kubernetes cluster will that actually succeed in a free tier? Would a one node cluster suffice to allow you to learn?)

All the cloud platforms will provide you with time-limited free tiers, with some services being offered as “always free” at certain low usage levels.

Azure has had free services trials or tiers in one way or another for some time. Traditionally, however it hasn’t offered a 12 month period, though fairly recently that’s changed and there is now an extended 12 month Free tier offering for Azure.

One Azure cloud… many ways to get ongoing credits

Where Azure does differ substantially from AWS in particular is in the number of offerings Azure has that get you access to Azure credits on ongoing basis, lifting you out of having to use just free tier services:

  • Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Azure Benefits – available as an add-on to existing MSDN subscribers (note: your organisation might not have access to this benefit depending on your licensing). This is an ongoing benefit while you pay for an MSDN subscription.
  • Azure Starter for Students (formerly Dreamspark). This is an ongoing benefit while a student.
  • BizSpark Benefits – available to those who are leveraging the BizSpark programme for their business. Ongoing benefit while you are in the BizSpark program.
  • Azure for non-profits – go through the process to prove your status and gain access to Azure Credits.
  • Microsoft Azure Passes – typically when Microsoft runs training courses for Azure attendees will typically be provided with Azure credits in the form of an Azure Pass. We gave these away at the Global Azure Bootcamp this year. Time-limited offers (one to three months).

Investing in yourself or your idea

The reality of free tier services is they will only get you so far, whether the use you make of the cloud is to learn new concepts or to try an idea you have.

My take is this: if you aren’t prepared to invest your own money (i.e. I just want more free stuff) then you don’t put much value on your own education or idea.

If we had the cloud computing services we have now when the dotcom boom was happening we may well have seen a massively different outcome.

Startups wouldn’t have spent massive amounts of their funding on infrastructure and wasted months waiting for services to be provisioned before they even got to serving the first request.

Imagine if you had on-demand services when you were at school (maybe you still are) – the quality of your education would be improved by access to these sorts of services.

We are at a pivotal moment where we now have access to on-demand resources that a generation ago would have been unimaginable. If you are serious about an idea or personal development put your money where your brain is.

But I’m not an accountant!

Congratulations. Now you are! Didn’t hurt a bit either, did it?

It’s unavoidable for many of us that at some point it will come down to cost. I know there will be more than a few of you sitting there having previously paid a larger than expected cloud hosting bill. I bet you now manage those resources like a hawk. While this is a painful way to learn, you will have identified a key factor in how you design and run cloud native services.

Also, welcome to how businesses work – specifically how to control costs so they can remain viable. This is why your last request to the ops team for 10 servers was rejected, or why you had to finesse your design to fit into existing infrastructure constraints. 🙂

So, where to next?

I highly recommend spending time familiarising yourself with services in the cloud too – avoid anti-patterns that will likely be where you will unexpectedly spend more money than you thought.

You can find good examples of ways to configure services from the likes of Scott Hanselman and content like his “Penny Pinching in the Cloud” posts, or Troy Hunt’s posts on how “Have I been pwned” performs on Azure (pricing at the bottom of the post).

So, did I solve your problem? Make more of the Free? Unlikely I suspect.

Ultimately you need to consider that free tiers and services are designed as a taster, to get you thinking about how your could use those services for other things. While there are “always free” services, the reality is you will be unlikely to build the next Atlassian with it, but I’m pretty sure you can use them to pass exams or to get educated on cloud technology.

Happy Days 😎

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