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

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Firing up your first instance

After signing up and mulling over what kind of instance I wanted, it was time to fire one up. Your instance is initially based on an AMI or Amazon Image. Amazon provides a number of different public AMIs for you to choose from -- including many different flavors of Linux and Windows -- along with a much wider community-provided selection. You can also upload your own image to Amazon's S3 cloud storage and then make it available as an AMI for you to base your own custom instance on.

Again, the limitations on the Free Tier played a role in my choice. I ended up going with a simple 64-bit Amazon Linux image. Amazon Linux is essentially a stripped-down version of CentOS (which is itself a stripped version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux) with some EC2-specific tools injected to make them easier to manage. The image starts with very little already installed, but using Yum to install new packages is very quick and easy. Amazon hosts its own basic Yum repository within each availability zone, so adding new packages doesn't hit your transfer totals.

Since CentOS is what I wanted from the start, this ended up working out well. My only issue ended up being that Amazon's Yum repos don't include some of the mainline CentOS packages (specifically some that have some encumbered licensing such as ffmpeg though I'm not sure if that's the reason they aren't included). However, simply reconfiguring the machine to use those external Yum repositories was all it took to easily get the packages I needed.

When you create your instance, you'll also create an SSH key pair. That key pair is what you'll need to connect to your instance for the first time (password encryption is not enabled in the image by default). Make sure you download it and store it somewhere safe -- after you've created it, you can't download it again.

All that remained after creating the instance was to turn it on and start configuring the applications.

Putting it all together

In the end, AWS ended up being an excellent answer to my friend's needs: very cheap, easy to manage, and capable. If you remove all the time I spent figuring out what kind of instance I wanted and which AMI to use, the end-to-end duration -- everything from signing up to the point where I was SSH'd into the server -- was about 10 minutes. While the low performance of the Micro instance is noticeable at times (especially when running CPU-intensive processes such as down-sampling uploaded images or video), in general it handles the load of a small site without any complaint.

Notwithstanding recent availability concerns, I highly recommend getting your own free Micro instance to play with. At worst, you can have it for a year, pay nothing for it, and get to say you gave the cloud a spin.

This article, "How to take Amazon EC2 for a test-drive," originally appeared at Read more of Matt Prigge's Information Overload blog and follow the latest developments in storage at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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