How to take Amazon EC2 for a test-drive

With a few simple steps, you can stand up a capable virtual Linux server using Amazon Web Services in minutes. Best of all, it's free for a whole year

Just about everyone I know in IT has gotten the dreaded phone call from a friend or acquaintance that begins: "Can you help me fix my computer?" If the person on the the line is persistent enough, the result always seems to be a late night drinking beer and cleaning spyware off a PC that was manufactured during the Clinton era.

Earlier this week, however, I got a more interesting query -- one that may be a sign of the times. A friend wanted to set up a customized forum and image-sharing website for a group he's associated with and wasn't sure where to host it. I could have pointed him to any number of Web hosting companies, but he had a few requirements that indicated he might need a server he could fully control. The kicker: It had to be cheap -- really, really cheap.

That last requirement ruled out just about every option except a cloud-based solution. I had used Amazon.com's EC2 before, but mostly to poke around and see what it looked like, never to actually work on a project. I figured we'd give it a try.

Getting started with Amazon EC2

After you go to the Amazon Web Services site and create an account, you simply sign up for whichever AWS product you need. It's like any other e-commerce experience, credit card info included, but with one rather significant exception: a so-called Free Tier that gives you enough compute, storage, and Internet throughput resources to run a fairly capable Linux-based Web server for free for a year. After that, the services revert to pay-as-you-go pricing that works out to around $20 per month, depending upon your choices during setup and how much traffic actually arrives. It's not too shabby for a highly available Linux server with which you can do anything you want.

AWS encompasses a wide range, from compute resources to various storage products to server monitoring, messaging, and application services. In my case, I had my eye on the well-known Elastic Compute Cloud or EC2, which includes the paravirtualized compute instances that actually run your applications, Amazon EBS (Elastic Block Storage) for instance storage, and Internet access.

Choosing resources and paying for them

EC2 compute instances range from Micro, which I ended up using, all the way up to massive GPU-equipped clusters targeted at HPC environments. The Micro instance includes one virtual core with up to two ECUs of burstable CPU bandwidth, 613MB of RAM, no dedicated instance storage, and "low" I/O performance -- and costs 2 cents per hour after the first year. The other type I considered was the Small instance, which includes one virtual core with a single ECU, 1.7GB of RAM, 160GB of dedicated instance storage, and "moderate" I/O performance -- at a rate of 8.5 cents per hour from the first time you power it up.

At a rate four times more expensive than that of the Micro instance, the Small instance immediately disqualified itself. Another reason to go with a Micro instance was the burstable CPU allocation. On balance, a Micro instance ends up with less CPU bandwidth than a Small instance, but for short periods of time, it's allowed to use double the maximum the Small instance can offer. Since Web traffic (especially for small sites) is often very bursty, that makes the Micro instance a better choice in many cases.

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