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Amazon Launches Lightsail Virtual Private Servers

| by Chris Swan on Dec 04, 2016. Estimated reading time: 3 minutes |

Amazon has launched Lightsail, a Virtual Private Server (VPS) service to compete with companies like Digital Ocean, Linode and the multitude of Low End Box providers. The service bundles a basic Linux virtual machine with SSD storage and a bandwidth allowance. Pricing starts at $5/month with tiers by RAM allocation. Each larger configuration comes with more storage and bandwidth, though these scale sub-linearly versus RAM/price.

Smaller AWS EC2 instances have competed with VPSs for some time, and particularly those within the free tier for new users, such as the t2.micro. The main issue has been the cost of bandwidth, as a successful project can easily consume terabytes of bandwidth costing hundreds of dollars, and free tier provides only 15GB/month. The entry level $5/month Lightsail instance comes with 1TB of bandwidth, which would cost $89.91 on EC2 (or $88.65 for a free tier user). Users who go over their bandwidth allocation will be charged the standard EC2 rate of $0.09/GB. This might be preferable to the usual VPS behaviour of just stopping once the bandwidth allocation is exhausted, but could also lead to economic denial of service (EDoS).

Lightsail also includes the option of a static IP address at no additional charge. This on its own is worth much of the monthly charge for the smallest type (as for comparison an unallocated EC2 Elastic IP would cost $3.60 for 30 days). The service also bundles DNS management, so Lightsail users can avoid the $0.50/zone charge for Amazon’s Route 53 service.

Lightsail isn’t part of EC2 in the (recently refreshed) AWS management console, and instead offers its own simplified management web interface providing similar features to typical VPS services. This means that SSH key management, networking and DNS are standalone from other parts of the AWS experience that might be familiar to long term users. Firewall configuration is very basic compared to EC2 security groups with no ability to filter which IPs open ports are available to (it’s the whole Internet or nothing). Ports 22 and 80 are open by default, and can’t be closed. The Lightsail user interface also offers a web based SSH console that integrates directly into the key store. Metrics are also available in the management console (but aren’t presented in AWS CloudWatch).

Like every other AWS service, the management console exposes a subset of the capability available through the API, which means that Lightsail can be scripted and managed from a command line interface (CLI). API keys are managed using AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM).

Since Lightsail uses the underlying Xen hypervisor that’s employed by EC2, it’s able to do things that aren’t available on container based VPSs (such as those running OpenVZ or similar). This means that Lighsail users can run container management tools like Docker, and make use of /dev/ interfaces like filesystem loopbacks that are often blocked by VPS security policies.

There are presently two choices of base operating system, Ubuntu 16.04 and the RedHat derived Amazon Linux. Users can choose a Bitnami application stack such as Wordpress, Magneto, Drupal, Joomla!, GitLab or Redmine, or a software stack such as Node.js, LAMP, MEAN or Nginx.

One area that Lightsail shines over typical VPS services is backup, where users can take snapshots (which are charged at $0.05/month). The API can be used to restore a snapshot to a different instance type (and re-assign a static IP), which makes it possible to scale instances up or down.

Amazon hasn’t been price competitive with VPS providers, particularly on bandwidth charges, and Lightsail changes that. It means existing users have fewer reasons to go elsewhere, and new users have an entry level offering that might be the first step into the broader service portfolio. It’s been suggested that the bandwidth bundles could be exploited by using Lightsail as a front end proxy to an application running in EC2, but that’s a dodge that will only appeal to the most cost conscious users. Of course it casts a light on the broader issue of bandwidth pricing, which hasn’t come down as quickly as other charges, even as Amazon has built a huge global network (which was covered in detail during James Hamilton’s re:Invent 2016 introductory keynote). For a summary of other re:Invent announcements and launches take a look at the AWS re:Invent Recap.

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