When (and when not) to use EC2

Tuesday, December 03 2013

There is a lot of advice on the internet regarding the suitability of EC2. One can easily find all kinds of benchmark and price comparisons, long rants on Cloud vs Bare metal, and any number of other reasons for or against using EC2. I feel that a lot of these articles miss the mark entirely, and figured I’d toss up my own attempt at guidelines for choosing (or avoiding) EC2.

This article will attempt to provide a simple list of some (but not all) cases where EC2 is and isn’t a good fit. I will undoubtedly miss some, and there are exceptions to every case, but take these as a set of general guidelines. Also, for the sake of brevity, I assume that you have a basic grasp of what EC2 is. If not, check out the EC2 page before continuing.

EC2’s killer feature

Before we get to the fun stuff, I want to take a moment to highlight EC2’s killer feature: Elasticity. Here are some important bits extracted from the AWS EC2 page:

Amazon EC2’s simple web service interface allows you to obtain and
configure capacity with minimal friction.
[...]
Amazon EC2 reduces the time required to obtain and boot new server instances
to minutes, allowing you to quickly scale capacity, both up and down, as
your computing requirements change. Amazon EC2 changes the economics of
cloud computing servers by allowing you to pay only for capacity that
you actually use.

EC2’s primary goal is to make it easy to provision and destroy VMs as needed. They’ve got an advanced set of HTTP APIs for managing your fleet, a very good set of imaging/provisioning utilities, a wide variety of instance sizes to choose from, and they even excellent auto-scaling capabilities built into ELB. The hourly billing allows you to handle bursts of traffic without a long-term commitment, and you can also fire up experimental/tinker instances without much expense.

There are other services that also offer some of these things individually, but EC2 is at the front of the pack when it comes to provisioning instances and scaling up/down.

It’s not all sunshine and roses

That sounds great! Why would I ever want to use anything else?”

  • The performance per dollar is atrocious. Be prepared to shell out for a larger instance to get consistent performance. This is more of a barrier for projects with smaller budgets. In the case of a very well-funded project, infrastructure spend is (probably) much less of a concern.
  • Amazon Web Services in general features a pretty steep learning curve before one can make informed infrastructure decisions. You’ll need to learn about security groups, EBS, EC2’s SSH key management system, how snapshots/AMIs work, performance characteristics, common sources of failures, etc.
  • The lower end instances (below m1.large) are embarrassingly underpowered and erratic. For services or applications with low resource requirements, this may or may not be an issue. Make sure you benchmark and test before committing to a reservation!
  • EBS has had serious reliability issues and is very inconsistent performance-wise without Provisioned IOPS or RAID. The majority of the larger EC2 outages have been due to EBS issues.
  • The customer service is abysmally bad. Unless you pay for a Support Plan, your only option is to post to a public forum and hope that someone from AWS replies. I understand that AWS operates at a huge scale, but I expect better from a company full of brilliant people like Amazon. Telling paying customers (without a support plan) to post in the forums for help is inexcusable. A support plan should be for above-and-beyond service.

That was discouraging. Let’s get back to the good stuff.”

EC2 is a potential good fit for your application when…

  • You want/need to be able to scale up and down to meet handle traffic. This can be done automatically via ELB (after some setup work), via the EC2 HTTP API, or by the more traditional web based management console.
  • Your application has to have consistently fast, low latency access to at least one other AWS service.
  • Your application pumps enough traffic into/out of an AWS service and you don’t want to pay the higher external traffic tolls.
  • You plan on using a number of managed services that typically pair with EC2. For example, ElastiCache, RDS, CloudSearch, and etc. These can be a life-saver if your team doesn’t have the ops/administrative skill to manage the equivalent EC2 instances yourselves. Though, they’re not always a good value for teams with some ops chops in-house.
  • You have enough budgeted to pay for the instance sizes that are appropriate for your performance needs. For many/most, this probably involves buying at least some instance reservations.
  • EC2 would allow you to streamline your operations processes enough to allow you to run with a smaller ops team. Spending more for infrastructure convenience is a lot less expensive than hiring another employee.

EC2 is probably not a good fit for your application when…

  • You don’t need to scale up/down much. This is one of the biggest strengths of EC2. If you aren’t using it, you can go with something much cheaper/faster/more reliable/more consistent.
  • You can’t afford to pay for redundancy, but your application has high stability/availability requirements. EC2 instances fail, EBS volumes fail or slow down randomly, entire availability zones fail. The systems supporting EC2 are incredibly complex and operate at a massive scale. Stuff happens. If you can’t afford some measure of cross-availability-zone redundancy (at minimum) and your application has stability requirements, EC2 is probably not for you.
  • The need to purchase 1-3 year instance reservations to get decent hourly rates on instances bothers you. The On Demand rates can be incredibly expensive if you run instances with them for extended periods of times. A reservation requires the upfront payment of a large chunk of the next 1-3 year’s costs. This can be a problem for those without enough liquid capital. It also means that adding additional capacity can be a larger business decision.
  • Your application has components that require very consistent performance, but you can’t afford one of the very large instance sizes that have few to no neighbors on the host machine. Very high activity DB servers often fall into this category.
  • You are wanting to eventually incorporate bare metal servers into your fleet. EC2 currently only offers virtualized instances, though you can rent out an entire host machine for yourself. Alternatively, you can use Direct Connect to bridge to certain data centers, but you’ll want to make sure this fits in your architecture and budget.

Advice on deciding for or against EC2

Read through the cases outlined above again and keep a tally of how many apply for your project. If you find that a good number of the cases under “good fit” apply, EC2 is probably worth further consideration. If you find that more than 1-2 of the scenarios under “not a good fit” are true, you should probably tread more carefully.

Exceptions, omissions, and etc

But you forgot X case, or your advice isn’t appropriate for my usage case!”

This article attempts to be decent one-size-fits-most guide, but there are exceptions and other scenarios that I didn’t cover. If you know some of these, you probably don’t need this guide. If I missed something super obvious, leave a comment and I’ll update the article.

I don’t cover comparing prices against other providers in this article, but I’d like to point out that some of EC2’s price is there because of convenience and flexibility. You are paying extra for the ability to interact with stuff like ELB, CloudWatch, and other services. Perhaps I’ll follow up with another article expanding on this more if there’s interest…

In the end, it will come down to you identifying your requirements and finding the best fit.

On a related note, if you need help or advice with infrastructure planning, get in touch with me via the Contact link on the top navbar.


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