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Erik Lundevall Zara
Erik Lundevall Zara

Posted on • Originally published at elz.cloud

Exploring the cloud - the free cloud

A number of the larger cloud providers provide parts of their service for free, have limited free trials or give some extra credits to spend on their services for a limited time. This post looks at the different options from 5 cloud providers to help what providers to try out, when and why.

A frequent pattern among some of the larger cloud providers is to divide their services when it comes to what you pay:

  • Always free - The service itself is free to use. In several cases, this may be a value-added service on top of other services, which themselves may not necessarily be free. Or it may be that a service is free to use up to a specific limit
  • Free trial - The service is free to use for a limited time only. There may also be an upper bound for utilization, after which it will start to cost money even during the free trial.
  • Usage credits - A certain amount of money is credited to spend on service usage at the cloud provider. It is typically available for a limited time only.

The cloud providers

I have chosen five cloud providers that are among the largest players and which also provide a reasonably broad range of services. These cloud providers are, in alphabetical order:

  • Alibaba Cloud
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Google Cloud Platform
  • IBM Cloud
  • Microsoft Azure

Alibaba Cloud

Alibaba Cloud

A big player in particular in the Asian market, Alibaba cloud are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year (started September 10th 2009).

Alibaba Cloud separates between individual accounts and enterprise accounts. The latter requires verification that a real company registered the account. The free trial is a mix of services to use up to a defined metric for that service or use up to a given credit amount.
The cost of the usage limits defined in the trial and the actual cash provided for various services is what adds up to the 300/1200 USD amounts.

Most of the trial services are for one month, so it is a relatively short period compared to some other cloud providers. However, it is also possible to start the free trial up to one year after creating an Alibaba Cloud account. So it is possible to create an account and start a project in the free trial at a bit later stage.

Amazon Web Services

Amazon Web Services

Considered to be the first cloud provider ((re-)launched in 2006, first public service in 2004) and largest player in the cloud provider market, AWS has a significant worldwide presence.

AWS uses usage limits strictly for the services that are part of the free trial period. There is no cash part of the free trial to spend on services. It may be useful in that it is clear how much usage is free as part of the free trial, but less clear what it may cost after the trial has ended. The free trial starts at account creation.

Google Cloud Platform

Google Cloud Platform

Google's cloud service offerings started in 2011 (in preview from 2008), extending its internal infrastructure to be used by others.

GCP's free trial is straightforward - use up to 300 USD on any service within 12 months of creating an account. It makes it easy to see what the cost for something ends up as, but less clear what one gets for this money upfront.

IBM Cloud

IBM Cloud

Launched in 2014 under the name Bluemix, rebranded to IBM Cloud in 2017.

IBM Cloud is unique in that has kind of an unlimited free trial - a limited set of services can be used for free forever, within certain usage restrictions. There is not even a credit card required. However, to access a range of services one has to upgrade the account to pay-as-you-go. When someone upgrades, they get 200 USD to spend on any of the services available.

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Azure was launched in 2010 as Windows Azure and later changed its name to Microsoft Azure. They have a worldwide presence and the only one in this list with data centres in six continents at present.

Azure's free trial starts with account creation and lasts for 12 months, in which a specific set of services are available within certain usage limits. There is also an added 200 USD that is valid for one month at the start of the free trial period to spend on any service. The 200 USD may have been converted to a similar amount in a local currency, depending on where you are.

The free options - summary

This table is a summary of free options, based on information from 2019-10-03.

Cloud Provider Free Trial services Free Trial period Cash credits for free trial Always free services
Alibaba Cloud 9 different services 1 month, 1 year or specific credit, depending on service 300 USD (individual), 1200 USD (enterprise) 26 services, with usage limits
AWS 47 services 1 month, 2 months, 12 months, with usage limits. 1 and 2-month trials can typically start at any time. no, instead of usage limits are applied for each service 22 services, with usage limits
GCP all services 12 months, or cash credit used up 300 USD 15 services, with usage limits
IBM Cloud 29 services + 1 limited trial service no limit, part of Lite account. Usage limits apply for each service. The limited trial service period is 1 month. 200 USD when converting Lite account to Pay-as-you-go account, valid for 30 days 8 services, with usage limits
Azure 21 services 12 months 200 USD to spend the first 30 days of trial period 29 services, with usage limits

Choosing a free trial - why, when, what

I do not think a cloud provider is chosen based on their free trial offering, but it may help keep costs down for hobby projects or small pilot projects.

In my experience for shorter trial periods (e.g. one month) to be worthwhile, it is necessary to have a pretty clear picture of what should be accomplished during the trial period and with what services. That includes already being a bit familiar with the cloud provider services.
Start a trial and then try to figure out what to do would be a waste of free trial time.

For the long free trial periods (12 months and more) there is room to figure out things as you go. For any cloud provider with more than a few services, there is a non-trivial learning period, even if many of them boast about how simple it is to get started. Yes, simple things can be easy and quick and work at a significantly small scale. Figuring out what to do next from the first steps, how and why and in what order requires more time and practice.

For general tinkering just getting your hands dirty with cloud services, the trial approach provided by AWS and Azure with a bit of extra free resources in many services may work well here.

If you have more focus on what you want to learn and do, I find the simplicity in the GCP free trial model appealing - it is simple to understand what you get from it in terms of monetary value. It is also the same value regardless of the project and services used. It can also be a good thing to have the costs in mind right from the start.

In theory, services provided in the AWS and Azure, free trials will provide more value if a couple of the services are used to their free trial limits though. But that will very much depend on the use cases.

The IBM Cloud Lite account approach looks appealing also, assuming that the solution you want to try out will fit with the Lite and always free services. It seems to be a bit slanted towards (serverless) analytics.

I do wish that the added 200 USD cash option provided by Azure would be possible to start the 30 days at any time during the free trial and not just in the beginning - it makes it less useful. It is more useful in IBM Cloud, given that it only starts when upgrading the account to pay-as-you-go.

General notes

General tinkering trials - AWS and Azure work well.
More targeted/focused trial - GCP should be a favourable choice also.
If you can, do some planning before the trial starts or right at the start - time flies.

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