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Is the AWS Free Tier Really Free?

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Corey Quinn, cloud economist at The Duckbill Group, argues that the free tier in AWS is broken and AWS should change it. The free models of the main cloud providers differ and might not help beginners in following best practices in cloud deployments.

The editor of Last Week in AWS warns users:

The AWS Free Tier is free in the same way that a table saw is childproof. If you blindly rush in to use an AWS service with the expectation that you won’t be charged, you’re likely to lose a hand in the process.

Under the term Free Tier, AWS includes three different offers depending on the product used. There are "always free" offers that do not expire and are available to all AWS customers, for example 1 million requests per month on AWS Lambda or 25GB of storage on DynamoDB. There are "12 months free" offers limited in time from the initial sign-up date and including popular services, like Amazon EC2 or RDS, but with different constraints. Finally, there are short-term "trials" that start from the activation of a service, like Amazon Inspector or GuardDuty.

Quinn highlights a long term risk associated with this complexity:

The patchwork nature of what's free and what isn't artificially constrains how beginners use AWS services. It seems pretty sensible to spin up your free EC2 instance in a private subnet—and then you're very reasonably surprised when you get charged almost $80 a month for the Managed NAT Gateway attached to that subnet. This has an unfortunate side effect of teaching beginners to use AWS services in ways that won't serve them well in corporate environments.

Niek Houpelyne, a developer who started a #100DaysOfCode challenge using AWS, recently tweeted:

Found out that AWS started charging my credit card for the "free tier" RDS database I created yesterday, since apparently my free tier eligibility expired.

Andrew Ray, creator of the shader editor ShaderFrog, wrote an article about his unexpected AWS bill:

Since it was "pay as you go", and I wasn't ready to deploy, I let my modest cloud infrastructure sit around for the first month. I didn't think anything of it until I received my first bill for $975.25.

AWS later cancelled the bill and has detailed tips on how to use AWS Budgets and an FAQ covering common scenarios under the free tier. Comparing different providers, Quinn suggests:

I think the model is broken enough that it’s time to drastically reimagine the AWS Free Tier entirely. I get that it’s super hard, with an awful lot of moving parts. But Oracle, Azure, and GCP have all mastered this problem in a far more comprehensive, less user-hostile way.

Azure free account includes 12 months of popular services and $200 credit, the Google Cloud free program offers 20+ products and $300 credit. An important difference with AWS is the ability to not be charged until the user manually switches to a paid account. Quinn closes with advice for users who receive unexpected bills:

Open a ticket with AWS Support. Calmly explain what happened (...) If it’s your first time with an overage, they will almost universally waive the fee.

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