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Growing Concerns among Developers about the AWS Free Tier

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In recent weeks many experts in the AWS community have been advocating for sandbox accounts on AWS and hard billing limits that cannot be exceeded to let engineers experiment with new services without jeopardizing their personal well-being.

Forrest Brazeal, director of content & community at A Cloud Guru and AWS Serverless Hero, wrote the popular article "Please fix the AWS Free Tier before somebody gets hurt" that was triggered by a message on the A Cloud Guru Discord server.


He tweets:

This shouldn't be possible, period. There needs to be an easy, safe way for students to explore AWS without incurring unexpected megacharges.

Comparing the potential risk with recent events on Robinhood, he explains:

All I can think of is that horrible story that appeared during the worst of the pandemic, about the young man who died believing he’d lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on the stock trading app Robinhood. And I keep thinking: what if this student hadn’t reached out to a developer community? What if AWS Support hadn’t been nudged on Twitter, and had taken a few days to get back? What if the costs (and the panic) had kept spiraling?

The article triggered many reactions from developers on Hacker News and Reddit, comparing options on Azure and Google Cloud. User swiftcoder writes:

I'm also going to point out, as a former AWS engineer, that "too hard" isn't in the AWS engineering vocabulary. The problem isn't that it's too hard. It's that it isn't a business priority. As soon as it becomes prioritised, a legion of very smart AWS engineers will solve it.

AWS Support documents how to avoid incurring charges when using the AWS Free Tier and has multiple times proved to be supportive and reimburse the accidental charges, but there is currently no way to set a hard limit on billing. Forrest Brazeal is not the first AWS expert raising questions about the Free Tier, as reported by InfoQ last September. Corey Quinn, cloud economist at The Duckbill Group, reacted to the recent events writing:

It would appear that I'm not the only person who has lost patience with AWS's free tier scaring the crap out of newcomers with large bills. (...) It's rare that AWS billing is a life-or-death situation; the day that changes is a watershed moment that there's no coming back from. If I'm AWS I'd be treating this as a raging fire in the building. I hope they are.

Microsoft offers a spending limit functionality turned on by default to all new customers who sign up for an Azure free account or subscription types that include credits over multiple months. Users running on the Google Cloud free program are not charged unless they explicitly enable billing by upgrading the Cloud Billing account to a paid one. Forrest Brazeal acknowledges that some options exist in the AWS space but they are currently limited:

Some have pointed out the existence of AWS Educate Starter Accounts, which provide no-credit-card access to a limited subset of services. Only via participating educational institutions, though. Opening this up to all learners would be a huge step forward.

The growing number of services and options on AWS will likely increase the request of safer options for developers moving their first steps on the cloud or testing new services.


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Community comments

  • AWS Budget

    by Raghav Ramesh,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    AWS allows one to set a budget for IAM users. Perhaps a low monthly budget can help solve this problem?

  • Re: AWS Budget

    by Renato Losio,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    AWS offers indeed many tools and options to control the spending on the cloud and avoid unexpected bills, including the latest AWS Anomaly Detection. But they are useful to users already experienced with the platform. The main challenge at the moment is for new users approaching AWS for the first time as there is no safety net "by default". It is hard to expect that a developer opening an account and starting to play with the Free Tier is already aware of not default options or services to manage the costs.

  • I see this happening everyday

    by Eduardo Pereira de Sousa,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Last year I uploaded some videos about basic EC2 management tasks on YouTube, those videos were made to my students, but I like to keep it public for everyone.
    The video from this series with most views and comments (by far) is about instance termination and resource cleanup. The comments from the general public are scary. People launch multiple micro instances thinking they're all within free tier limit, ebs volumes left behind, RDS multi-az instances for test/development, and so on.

  • AWS knows what it is doing

    by Dino Va,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    There is no doubt in my mind that AWS is fully aware of the cost benefit analysis of this. They do it for a reason (as the poster indicated above they already have AWS Educate Starter Accounts). Even experience people make mistakes (I have seen this over and over again). It is real easy to use a resource that will create a huge cost without being totally aware of it (of course they will not indicate the cost upfront).

    They hide behind the billing cost tool because they can point to it and say see! There are so many resources and so many variants and their UI is minimal at best. E.g you delete an ec2 resource but it will not prompt you to delete all dependent resources like mounted volumes.

    They do have the means to make this totally transparent but I am guessing they make a ton of money based on incidental charges.


  • Re: AWS Budget

    by Manoj Madhavan,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Well one of the biggest challenge with the budget is that you would have used your all your resources (it has a 1 day latency in generating the cost incurred) by the time your alerts are triggered. Have had this issue with most of the new services (Glue Streaming , Macie, Sagemaker Studio , MSK etc. The support team had been kind enough to waive the charges when contacted, though they demand an explanation. But any real-time alert on the resource consumption/ bills would have really saved a lot of scare and would give people a little more confidence in trying things out. (Had a £2k bill raking up on Glue streaming - you would believe the streaming services to have a billing model similar to the kinesis services, but was in for a shock the next day, when I was told that the legacy Glue billing is applied and the bill is generated when the streaming cluster is stopped - I still get the chills wondering what would have happened if I had not turned it down after 30 days - never went back to glue streaming there after.).

    The other bit of the free tier is that not al services are eligible for the free tier or has certain conditions applied to it - the wordings are so small that it resembles the insurance advertisement. (Eg : costing model of Macie).

    Will hope things shape up better .

  • I have had this issue before

    by Jarrod Tanner,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I had it where I had the free account and got charged, I don't know what caused it and Amazon support would not tell me. Due to it I couldn't afford any of my medication and Amazon didn't care at all

  • This is sad

    by Terry Zolinski,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    After seeing how much my company spends on AWS, I know there is room for a few free hours here and there for students to learn. My company would even pay someone's monthly bill to allow them to learn on AWS. We churn out interns twice a year and they are given unfettered access to AWS, because we know it's an investment in the young interns to be better at what they do. We have out of control bills all the time, but this is the nature of the beast in cloud operations land.

    AWS will not set guardrails against this because they are making money either way. It's like a tax, you need to pay it to remain a member of the working society you want to be a part of, or be left in the dust by your peers who can afford a few mishaps here and there.

    A developer just wants to understand how to write code for the platform, not be a junior devops engineer just to setup their account so they aren't billed out of nowhere.

    I don't know how to deal with this other than get government involved and lobby for AWS to change. AWS should see these young people as potential cash cows in the future, but they would rather a slow and steady bleed from every possible account than invest in tomorrow.

    That's my two cents as an independent contractor.

  • Re: AWS knows what it is doing

    by Terry Zolinski,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    You are right on point Dean, AWS knows they make a killing from accidents and they love it. They don't care about the customer like traditional vendors and it is sad, because so many contracts for good vendors have been abolished by AWS and they do not care if your company sinks or floats.

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