5 ways to save money on your cloud costs

Quickly estimate the cost of your cloud environment

Keeping track of your monthly cloud computing bills isn't easy. The typical bill is complex and made up of dozens of different factors, such as CPU core, storage units, RAM size and data transfers. Fortunately, there are online resources and services that can help trim costs by using a series of clever choices.

[ Also on ITworld: Five tools for cutting cloud costs ]

Calculators: Some cloud providers offer calculators to help estimate workload costs on its platform. These include:

One hitch: You may think about your computing needs in different terms than how a cloud provider offers its services. For example, Amazon has dozens of different service offerings, but get beyond the basics of compute, storage, and data transfer, and it can get confusing. Even getting a simple answer, such as how many hours are included in your month (the actual calendar days multiplied by 24) isn't always a safe assumption: some cloud calculators assume a 720-hour month.

Despite the complexity, the horsepower you can rent in the cloud these days is impressive. Azure has its G5 instance, with 48 GB of memory and 6.59 TB of local solid-state drive storage running on a 32-core Xeon virtual CPU. This compares with Amazon Web Services (AWS), which offers a 32-core CPU with 60 GB of memory and 640 GB of storage with its C3 instance. Google offers 1 TB of memory but “only” on 16 virtual cores with its n-1 high memory instance.

Comparison services: A number of companies offer comparison reports and interactive services to help determine which cloud provider offers the best deal. Some are free, some are not. Therefore, it's important to understand the business model before opting for this kind of help – (see table for services).

Another decision point is the level of analysis required. Some services go wide and evaluate many players, while others offer deeper analysis on just a few. Sadly, none accomplish both. Given that there are hundreds of cloud players, not even the widest service, CloudHarmony, can evaluate close to the majority of them.

Some of the costing services are also fairly expensive (four figures and up per month), and designed for customers with very large cloud implementations. So, if your cloud costs exceed $1,000, you could consider a paid comparison service. Otherwise, stick with the free services.

Here are five ways to save money on your cloud:

Some of the services can fit into multiple situations, but your focus should be on the various ways you can cut your monthly bills.

1. Find the cheapest cloud provider for a particular workload size and duration

All of the cloud comparison services (see table) do a decent job of figuring out the answer to this question, with more or less detail. With the interactive services, you start off by specifying the size of your particular VM: CPU, RAM, disk, and operating system, and then they tell you what the monthly cost to operate that particular VM will be over a particular time period. In most cases, the comparison service tells you the name of the instance they chose to best match your particular workload that is used by the cloud provider, so when it is time to purchase that particular instance you know what to select.

If you aren't sure which cloud will best meet your needs, start with either Cloudorado or CloudHarmony to do your research since they offer exposure to the greatest number of cloud providers. Each comparison service has a long list of other features, such as free data transfers or free static IP addresses, if you want to narrow down your requirements. CloudHarmony allows you to narrow down your selections based on where the actual cloud data centers are located (that could be important for some applications). It also links to uptime status reports for each of its providers, generated by Panopta, a website and server monitoring service, so you can see how reliable they were in the past month.

And as another example, a recent (and free) report from CloudSpectator shows that Microsoft Azure provides the lowest cost block storage, while SoftLayer is the least costly for large Windows instances.

Opportunities: Competition means some cloud components can cost less from particular providers.

Potential savings: 10-25 percent of total cloud bills are common if you shop carefully enough

2. Plan ahead by using reserved instances

Amazon introduced the concept of reserved instances, so you can save a little money if you can plan ahead. Other cloud players have jumped on this bandwagon. You pay something upfront and less over the lifetime of the running instance. There are different choices on when these payments are made just to make things more complicated. Amazon explains it here.

If you plan to pick reserved instances, a few services can help. The first is Cloudability, which has a special reserved instance planner tool. Check out the webinar, and the screen shot below gives you an idea of how it is configured:

The second is PlanForCloud. As you select your cloud instance, you can select the particular purchase option in a pull-down menu choice, as shown below.

The third player is CloudHealth, which also has a report that can illustrate what instances could benefit from additional reservations.

Opportunities: They exist, particularly on compute and storage costs that you can plan ahead

Potential savings: Up to 33 percent savings, but you have to shell out a lot of upfront cash to get this level of savings.

3. Optimize overall AWS spending

If you're sold on Amazon, you're in luck. Almost all of the comparison services cover at least some of its many offerings. CloudHealth, Cloudability and Datapipe focus on AWS, so start there. Datapipe has an interesting business model where you allow them to manage your AWS accounts. Datapipe will cost you $3,500 per month at a minimum, so weigh the cost savings before you buy. From this service, you can visualize historical trends and make capacity planning decisions, consolidate multiple accounts into a single dashboard and do a security review of your account too. Ironically, GoGrid purchased Datapipe so we'll see if they extend this management service to that cloud too.

CloudHealth's main dashboard provides this dashboard that can break down the various AWS offerings and what you have spent over the past months, as you can see in the screen capture below:

Opportunities: AWS is the most widely covered provider and almost all of the costing services can analyze your spend there.

Potential savings: Varies widely, depending on which costing service you use.

4. Use a burstable CPU rate or distribute my workloads

One of the interesting tricks of using cloud computing resources is that you have to think different, as Steve Jobs used to say. Instead of bringing up a particular CPU instance for a particular workload, it might make more sense to split your workload among several different and smaller instances that are cheaper to run. In some cases you can cut your bill significantly.

To run this kind of sensitivity analysis, look at Cloudorado: they have a very nice way to do this. You go to the Cloud Hosting comparison page and you'll see three “distribute” check boxes to the right of the CPU, RAM, and storage resources (as you can see in the screen shot below). As you select each of these boxes, note how the pricing information changes for the providers that are listed below. For example, for Atlantic.Net for an 8 CPU configuration, we were able to drive our monthly cost for $39 down to $10 by distributing the CPU workloads to smaller VMs.

The second way to play with your CPU sizing is to employ burstable CPUs. This means that the cloud provider gives you more than you originally requested for very limited times, usually at no extra charge. If you can reduce your CPU size, you might be able to take advantage of this feature. None of the comparison services really can help you with the actual calculations, but it is something to be aware of.

This brings up an important point. There are no real standards among the cloud players about what constitutes CPU power, unlike measuring how much RAM or virtual hard disk space is offered by each cloud instance. Cloudorado has attempted to normalize all of its CPU measurements using UnixBench; CloudHarmony makes use of the SPEC CPU benchmark. Both try to make an apples-to-apples CPU comparison more meaningful. You probably still should use your own benchmarks as you get deeper into your cloud implementations to make sure that your VM is set up best for your particular workload.

Opportunities: Good if you really know how your compute, RAM requirements and storage needs change over time and if you can match them to a particular cloud compute offering.

Potential savings: Can be huge, as our quoted example shows, more than half of your spending in some cases.

5. Find a more cost-effective support plan

One of the dirty not-so-secrets of cloud computing is the level of support that you need doesn't necessarily match up with what is offered by each cloud provider. And you may not know what you actually need until you are in the weeds with your cloud deployment and get stuck on a particular implementation point. Here is where two services, Cloudorado and PlanForCloud really shine.

For PlanForCloud, you click on the support comparison tab and can get details about the support plans that each of its six covered clouds offers. It goes into some rather explicit details about these plans.

For example, it might make sense to purchase a more expensive and thorough support contract if you have multiple developers that are building some complex installations. Or to knock things down to a cheaper plan if you have the kind of folks that don't need as much handholding.

For each cloud, you can view in a simple table (see below) whether the cloud vendor has a trouble ticket system, accepts email and phone queries, what is the promised response time, and the ultimate cost of the support plan offered. If you need more details, you can pay PlanForCloud for one of their custom reports.

For Cloudorado, the details aren't as specific, but you can at least narrow down the field in terms of support offerings. You have several checkboxes on the main cloud providers' comparison page that you can specify for parameters such as response time, forums, and phone support. It will display the clouds that match those particulars: for example, 11 of its clouds offer both phone and chat support.

Opportunities: Varies, depending on your hand-holding needs and how much experience you have with using your particular provider.

Potential savings: Varies, but several hundred dollars a month can be cut from your bill with this option.

This story, "5 ways to save money on your cloud costs" was originally published by ITworld.

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