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We live in a world awash with software development options. From programming languages to operating systems, the choices you make in the beginning have long-lasting impacts on the project's growth and scalability. But there's one choice that is largely superficial: which cloud provider you use.
Each provider has their own secret sauce they claim makes them "better than the rest," but, to a certain degree, there's little difference in their stability, availability and functionality. What generally separates one cloud platform from another is its usability; it is less about what you can do and more about how you can do it.
Most enterprises will commit to one provider from the start because that's the way they've always procured IT resources, but to choose the right cloud, they need a different approach.
But if all things are considered equal across clouds, how you do you determine which one will best meet your organization's needs over the long run? Well, you need to try each one.
Of course, this can quickly get costly if you don't know what you're doing. That's why enterprises should start with free tiers, so IT teams can explore the providers' features and capabilities.
What's in a free tier in cloud?
Nearly every cloud provider offers a free tier; some generous, others less so. These tiers are typically broken into two categories, one for new users and another for all users:
Free for a limited time
Most cloud providers offer new users limited access to their services for free for a certain time period. Amazon, for example, gives new AWS users 750 hours of compute time per month for their first year. This is enough to power a single compute instance -- 1 vCPU, 0.5 gibibyte storage -- for the entire length of the trial, alongside 34 other limited trials across its entire cloud product line. This move incentivizes new users to try a service right away.
Outside of the typical free trial, cloud providers also offer all their users limited resources at no cost. Whether it is a certain number of requests for a serverless platform, or a couple gigabytes of storage, the idea is to give existing users the opportunity to try out more common services that they didn't need earlier on.
A comparison of free tiers across the cloud
It's important to recognize that, even though most providers offer comprehensive free tiers, they aren't all made equal. Some have far higher free limits, while others offer more free services. Take a look at the three major players in the market and see how their respective free tiers compare.
Amazon Web Services
Amazon Web Services (AWS) has a generous free offering, and not many AWS services charge any money right out of the gate. It has 33 "always free" tiers and 34 "free for 12 months" tiers, as well as several additional short-term trial offerings.
Where it excels: Amazon's limited trials are some of the best offered by any cloud provider. In addition to the more common 12-month trial offering for new users, other services are covered by limited time trials that kick in at the moment of activation, which gives their users the opportunity to safely -- and affordably -- try just about everything within their portfolio.
Where it falls short: While Amazon's limited-time trials are compelling, their "always free" tiers focus primarily on operations and maintenance. Services such as infrastructure monitoring and architecture review are more valuable to AWS users that have already bought into the larger service.
Similar to AWS, Microsoft Azure also offers a 12-month limited trial for its most popular services, as well as a set of "always free" products. What makes it stand out from AWS, however, is an additional $200 credit available for use in the first 30 days, enabling users to try services that don't explicitly offer a free trial.
Where it excels: Azure's free-tier excels for products that prefer a Windows-based architecture. Where AWS offers a limited 750 machine hours per month, regardless of operating system, Azure offers the same 750 for Linux-based virtual machines and an additional 750 hours for Windows-based virtual machines.
Where it falls short: Like AWS, Azure's always-free tier favors existing Azure customers. These "glue" services, such as free virtual networks and security assessments, are far more valuable to customers who heavily use other Azure services.
Google Cloud does not offer free trials. Instead, it provides a limited number of "always free" tiers, as well as a $300 credit to explore other services that aren't offered for free.
Where it excels: While Google's free-service offering is generally more generous than its competitors, what makes it really stand out is the number of machine learning services that are included. From computer vision to natural language processing, there are many tools for those who want to dip their toes into cloud-based AI.
Where it falls short: As previously mentioned, Google does not offer any time-based trials. While this could potentially be thought of as a benefit, it does limit experimentation and means you must use the credits in a very deliberate and careful way.
Other large IT vendors, like IBM and Oracle, as well as more niche ones, like Vultr and DigitalOcean, have free cloud tiers as well. In many instances, it might make sense to use a smaller provider with a more focused product offering, such as serverless computing or message queues, rather than buy into a single vendor. Explore and choose the products that will best support the growth of your business.
Regardless of which cloud provider you decide to try, make the most of the resources they give you. Whether you work for a new startup that wants to save some money in its first year or as a freelancer taking advantage of the low volume to cut costs, use every benefit you can find to support your company and project.
However, these free resources are a double-edged sword. The more reliant you become on any one service, the more likely you are to ultimately spend more than you planned. Pay special attention to which resources you use and what they will cost after the free-trial period is over. A service or tool that is free at that moment can cost a small fortune if the offering changes or you run out of time. Make the most out of the competitive advantage, but don't get too comfortable so you can pivot if needed.
Also, if you don't plan to use a platform beyond the trial window or free tier, make sure to tear down any environments after you're done. In some situations, resources that are left on will begin to accrue charges, which you obviously want to avoid.