You probably don’t need AWS and are better off without it

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the most prominent large cloud provider in the world, offering what seems to be practically unlimited scalability and flexibility. It is heavily marketed towards startups and big companies alike. There’s even a version of AWS meant for extra-secure governmental use (AWS for Government). There’s an entire branch of DevOps industry that helps setting up software systems on AWS and a lot of people are making money by using AWS in some capacity. AWS isn’t just a VPS provider or web hosting service - there’s entire periodic table of things they offer, ranging from commodity stuff such as virtual private servers (EC2) or data storage (S3) to cutting edge experimental technologies such as quantum computation (Amazon Braket) and artificial intelligence (SageMaker, Rekognition). It is simply too significant to be ignored.

However, is it actually that great? Is it actually good as default choice to host a software system of any scale? Let us go through some arguments against going all-in with AWS and why many companies and individual side-project developers might be better off using something else.

Pricing complexity and billing surprises

If you read AWS discussions on Hacker News or other developer communities you will find that the issue of billing keeps popping up. AWS billing is a lot like taxes in USA - it depends on so many things and you can never be sure how much you will be paying when the month is over. Furthermore, AWS billing is uncapped, which has significant potential for trouble.

If you are using something that is billed based on traffic or resource usage (Lambda, Step Functions) you may have a very bad surprise in otherwise good situation of your project getting viral traction. Imagine a sudden wave of new users becoming the very reason of SaaS startup going bankrupt.

There are also ways to mess up your AWS Lambda “serverless” functions in ways that can rack up huge bills. Certain bugs in code, such as infinite loop or bottomless recursion can make you go broke in a single monday morning.

Another way to get a billing surprise is to provision some resources and forget to take them down. A HN user reports a story of someone who burned 80 grand overnight by provisioning bunch of EC2 instances for testing and leaving them on. If you have non-trivial setup on AWS (e.g. VPC with multiple EC2 instances, some of which exposed to public internet) and are relying on AWS Dashboard or AWS CLI to tear it down when no longer needed it is very easy to forget to remove some part of it (e.g. NAT gateway) and be billed for it even if it’s no longer used.

Yet another way to lose a lot of money is to get your AWS credentials stolen by bad people that will use your account for their own purposes, such as cryptocurrency mining. There’s multiple ways this can happen. Someone might exploit a vulnerability in your app to access source code or configuration file with AWS secrets. If you publish your code on public Github repo you might accidentally leak it yourself.

Now you could say that the above things are accidents, not unlike a car crash or fire in the office. However, AWS pricing is significantly complex for specialist AWS cost optimisation consultants to exist in the market. Depending on how exactly you are using the AWS infra, you may be be overpaying significantly for what you are getting, especially if you consider options to host your systems outside AWS.

One might say that it is possible to use CloudWatch alerts to fire on billing thresholds and get alerted. However, the problem is that billing data is updated after resources are consumed and it might be too late at that point. In fact, AWS has no reliable way to shut down your systems in the event of runaway costs.

Also one may respond that at least in some cases you can contact AWS support and have them write off the surprise charges, even if they occured entirely due to your own mistake. That is indeed true to my own experience. I was able to get $100+ written off when I forgot to remove a Private CA after being done with it. Some people report being able not to pay multiple thousands of dollars in surprise charges. However, this is entirely dependent on the goodwill of a very large corporation that is not known to treat their employees well and there might an explicit limit on how many times you can ask for it. It is not something to rely on.

You might be saying that AWS is actually free up to a point due to the presence of free tier, free trials for some services and generous credits being given out to startups. But here’s the thing - AWS is not providing free services out of goodness of their hearts. AWS giving out some tens of thousands of free credits to every single startup in certain accelerators is not unlike to a drug dealer giving out free hits in a community susceptible to drug abuse. It is done in a calculated manner so that customer life time value is very worthwhile on average case, even if some services are provided for free initially. By taking up the free AWS offer you might be saving money short term only to overpay in long term.

Vendor lock-in

AWS provides a seeming flexibility to develop cloud-native software. However, if you rely on AWS APIs and services too much (for example by implementing a bulk of your codebase in Lambda functions) AWS will become a hard, critical dependency to your systems. Problems with AWS infra can quickly spread to your side. This was particularly evident during the outages in recent years that disrupted significant portions of the web. You will not be able to address these problems quickly if you rely on AWS to work properly all the time (which it does not), unless you have a multi-cloud setup that is deliberately designed to be resilient. Furthermore, AWS may decide that they hate your app/company/project for whatever reason and cut you off, even if it is based on a false positive in their anti-fraud analytics. If your code is written in such way that it works on AWS or not at all this can be fatal to the project.

This can be largely avoided by limiting the code and infra dependencies to things that can be replaced with acceptable cost, such as basic EC2 instances with mainstream Linux distributions and open source equivalents to AWS stuff e.g. PostgreSQL instead of DynamoDB, MinIO instead of S3 and so on. The flipside of this approach is that by avoiding AWS-specific services and tools we maybe also be not getting the maximum value from AWS. For example, if all you use are vanilla servers with Debian Linux you don’t truly need AWS - there are simpler and cheaper ways to set them up.

Devops complexity

Last but not least, there’s devops complexity. Web interface of AWS is not exactly known for it’s usability. Developers and technical users would probably prefer AWS CLI. For things like automated CI/CD pipelines we can use client libraries (such as boto3 for Python) or infrastructure-as-code tools such as Ansible, Terraform, Puppet, Chef. This makes things easier in some ways as we only need to get the configuration or script right once and we can benefit from it in the future without having to remember how to perform tedious manual steps through a browser. However, using Python or Terraform for has its own challenges and may turn out to be harder than it looks.

For example, consider setting up a Kubernetes cluster on AWS. It used to be that we would need to use solution like kops to do it, but now AWS offers EKS - a managed Kubernetes service. So it should be fairly easy, right? Well, not so quick. Setting up EKS cluster with actual compute is far from one-click (or one Unix command) process. Configuring VPC for EKS cluster is harder than one expect it should be. We can do this through Terraform, as AWS is officially supported through Terraform adapter. This cuts down the waste of effort, but when setting up VPC for EKS cluster I had to make a compromise and use aws_cloudformation_stack resource to pull in the example CloudFormation configuration and create VPC from that. This worked fairly well, but there was a degree of impendance mismatch between Terraform stuff and CloudFormation stuff. This manifested during infrastructure teardown - some networking resources (NAT gateways, subnets) could not always be cleaned up due to what appeared to Terraform to be circular dependencies. Running terraform destroy would fail with an error and I would be left with the task of fighting some errors through AWS console to make sure everything is cleanly removed. After some fiddling, this was solved by using depends_on statements in Terraform configuration.

Digital Ocean also offers a managed Kubernetes service that you can set up within minutes by going through a simple process consisting of few steps. It’s not exactly one-click, but close to that. At the end, you also end up with a functioning Kubernetes cluster, but there’s far less hassle getting there. Compare and contrast this with AWS EKS, which may easily eat up a day of your time, especially if you’re not upfront familiar with it. There’s a tool called eksctl to make it easier, but setting up EKS cluster is generally much harder than using DOKS.

People may be saying that a company using AWS is saving money as the alternative would be getting a server that would not only incur capital expenses of buying the server hardware, but also operational expenses to have a systems administrator employed so that the server would be properly managed. One may question if that is true simply because using AWS at scale is not exactly cheap operationally. Furthermore, chances are the company is not saving money on employees as managing stuff on AWS is not easy; it’s just that the effort is spread across multiple people in the development team.


So if we don’t want to use AWS, what are the alternatives?

One option is to purchase a hardware server and keep it on premises. Managing server hardware is becoming an increasingly specialised skillset and thus it might be challenging to find someone able to do this professionally. Fortunately, companies like Hetzner will do it for us for a monthly fee and will provide a dedicated server for installing anything we like. We can install Kubernetes or Proxmox or anything else and make our own cloud based on rented server(s). Remember: there is no cloud, just the other peoples computers.

Furthermore, there are many smaller and cheaper cloud providers that are more than enough for small-medium scale projects (Digital Ocean, Vultr, Linode, etc.). Some consumers of AWS kool aid think that to start your own SaaS you need 100k in AWS credits, but the reality is that many web apps can be developed to be fairly simple and lightweight. There are indie developers spending less than $100 monthly to run a SaaS app or website that makes them fairly good money.

Trickster Dev

Code level discussion of web scraping, gray hat automation, growth hacking and bounty hunting

By rl1987, 2022-04-20