AWS vs. Azure vs. Google Cloud: Which free tier is best?

Every major cloud provider has a free tier, but some offer more free services than others. Here’s how they compare.

free neon sign

Who doesn’t like free stuff? The public cloud vendors know we all do.

The major cloud services offer their wares to everyone from the indie developer with a credit card to enterprises that cut seven-figure SLAs. The big three—Amazon AWS, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure—also offer free trial versions of various individual services unde their banners. The free offerings are not always enough for full production work, but enough to get a good taste of how the services work without running up a bill.

Note that the list of always-free services varies widely between clouds. What one cloud offers free in some form, others may charge for all the time. In this article, we’ll explain how the free tiers work on AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure and we’ll discuss their similarities, differences, and restrictions. Finally, we’ll point out some notable always-free offerings available from each cloud, along with their service limitations.

Free on AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure

The free offerings on AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure fall into two basic buckets:

  • The “limited-time for free” tier provides you with certain services free for 12 months, but only in limited quantities and only on the first sign-up or registration with the service. After the 12 months are up, you’re billed for those services according to their usual rate.
  • The “always free” tier provides services that are always available for free, provided your usage of them doesn’t exceed a certain amount per month. This can typically be managed by monitoring your usage. AWS, for instance, has budgets and alerts to help with this.

Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure both also offer service credit at sign-up. Google Cloud offers $300 in credit to use on any Google Cloud Platform services. However, your 12-month free trial will end early if you spend all $300 in credit during that time. Microsoft Azure offers $200 in credit at sign-up, but only to spend during the first 30 days. On the plus side, spending all that credit doesn’t terminate your 12-month free trial period.

Free tier restrictions on AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure

The main restrictions are time and usage limits for the services—only so much per month, and only 12 months for the introductory free trial offer. But other limitations also typically apply.

  • Software and operating systems. Commercial software and operating system licenses typically aren’t available under the free tiers. For instance, with AWS, some variants of Windows, such as Microsoft Windows Server 2019 with SQL Server 2017 Standard, are not available in either the 12-month tier or the always-free tier. However, Microsoft Windows Server 2019 Base is eligible for the free tier as long as you stay within the instance-type limits of the free tier.
  • Operational limits. Services available in free tiers often have baked-in limitations that can be removed only by switching to the paid version of the product. With Google Cloud, for instance, there is a cap on the number of virtual CPUs you can use at once. Nor can you add GPUs or use Windows Server instances.
  • No rollovers. If you don’t use all that’s available for free in a given month, don’t expect to be allowed to roll over the balance into future months. Free services are by and large a use-it-or-lose-it deal.

AWS free tier highlights

  • Amazon Chime: Amazon’s business communication service — chat, audio, and video calling — is entirely free for new customers from March 4, 2020, through June 30, 2020. Basic features, including text chat and voice calling, are always free.
  • AWS CodeBuild: 100 build minutes per month on the build.general1.small instance type for free.
  • AWS CodeCommit: Up to five users with 50 GB per month of storage and 10,000 Git requests.
  • AWS CodePipeline: One active pipeline per month for free.
  • Amazon DynamoDB: Amazon’s NoSQL database offers 25 GB of storage and 25 units of read and write capacity free each month. Amazon claims this is “enough to handle up to 200M requests per month.”
  • Amazon Glacier: Up to 10 GB of data can be retrieved for free from Amazon’s long-term data storage service.
  • AWS Lambda: Amazon’s function-as-a-service offering can deliver for free up to one million requests and 3.2 million seconds of compute time a month.
  • Amazon RDS: Amazon’s managed-database service — MySQL, MariaDB, PostgreSQL, Oracle Database (you must supply your own license), or SQL Server Express — can be run nonstop monthly as long as you use a Single-AZ db.t2.micro instance, along with 20 GB of SSD-backed database storage and 20 GB of backups.
  • AWS Step Functions: 4,000 state transitions are free each month.

Google Cloud free tier highlights

  • Google App Engine: Free instances of Google App Engine can use up to 5 GB of Google Cloud Storage and run up to 28 front-end and nine back-end instance-hours per day, and deliver 1 GB of outbound data, use 1000 search operations (with up to 10 MB of search indexing), and deliver 100 emails. Note that the only environment supported for Google App Engine free instances is the standard environment.
  • Google BigQuery: Up to 1 TB of querying and 10 GB of storage per month is included free.
  • Google Cloud Build: 120 build minutes are available for free daily.
  • Google Cloud Functions: Two million invocations, both background and HTTP, are free each month. Also included is 5 GB of outbound network data, 400,000 GB-seconds, and 200,000 GHz-seconds of compute time.
  • Google Cloud Source Repositories: Up to five users, with 50 GB storage and 50 GB of outbound data available for free.
  • Google Cloud Storage: Each month Google Cloud Storage gives you for free 5 GBs of regional storage in the US, 5,000 Class A and 50,000 Class B operations, and 1 GB of outbound data (restricted as per Compute Engine).
  • Google Compute Engine: One f1-micro VM is available for free in U.S. regions. GPU or TPU usage is an additional charge.

Microsoft Azure free tier highlights

  • Azure Active Directory: Up to 50,000 authentications per month are available free.
  • Azure App Service: Up to 10 web, mobile, or API apps can be created at no charge.
  • Azure Cosmos DB: Up to 500 GB of storage and 400 request units per second are available for free each month.
  • Azure DevOps: Up to 5 users, each with unlimited private Git repos, are available free.
  • Azure Functions: Up to 1 million requests per month can be made for free.

Azure also provides 5 GB of outbound data free monthly.

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