Posts Tagged Costs

Cloud costs are an engineering problem

Head over to the new Google App Engine pricing that will come into effect when App Engine comes out of preview later in the year and you see a list of prices similar, in format at least, to pricing for AWS, Azure and other cloud providers. That seems fairly straightforward until you look at the FAQ that describes the pricing in more detail that, while answering a lot of questions, gives explanations that give rise to even more questions.

It seems that Google is switching over to an instance based pricing model from a CPU based one, but there are differences between different frameworks – where Java handles concurrent requests and Python and Go do not (yet). In addition the FAQ makes observations about the change in pricing that will affect current apps that are memory heavy because they have been designed to optimise the CPU pricing and may land up being more expensive under the new model. Then there are reserved instances, API charges, bandwidth, premier accounts and a whole lot of other considerations to add to the confusion. Even if you are not interested in App Engine it is a worthwhile read.

I have done and seen a few spreadsheets to try and work out hosting costs for cloud computing and they reach a point of complexity with so many unknowns that it becomes very difficult to go to the business with a definitive statement on how much it will cost to run an application. This is particularly difficult when development hasn’t even started yet, so there is no indication of the architectural choices (say memory over CPU) that affect the estimates. While AWS make be easier in some sense because the instance is a familiar unit (a machine yay big that we put stuff on), there are still many considerations that affect the cost of hosting. Grace an I struggled with a particular piece of SOLR availability and avoided using a load balancer for internal traffic until we ran the numbers and worked out that it would cost pennies per day in bandwidth costs so decided to use ELB after all – and that is one of the simpler pricing architectural decisions. Trying to build a scalable architecture out of loosely coupled components that makes optimal use of the resources available is very difficult to do.

We could ask vendors for better or more flexible pricing models. We could have estimating tools that allow us to estimate costs based on a choice of ‘similar’ application models. We could trade SLAs for cost as S3 reduced redundancy does. We can hedge out costs using reserved instances. We could run simulations (given the on demand availability this is relatively easy). We could have better tools to analyse our bills (as Quest has for Azure). We need all of this but ultimately the pricing of cloud computing is going to remain complex and will increase in complexity in future, leaving the big decisions up to the technical people doing the implementation.

Cloud expertise needs to extend beyond knowing your IaaS from your SaaS and experts need to have a handle on all aspects of cloud computing architectures, for a specific platform, in order to realise the benefits that cloud computing promises. In the context of developers being the new kingmakers, it is developers, software architects and DevOps that are the only ones close enough to the metal to make the decisions that ultimately affect the cost. Where currently developers optimise at the cost of development time (which is largely discouraged), we may want developers to optimise CPU against memory against latency against bandwidth against engineering effort, and even, at a push, against environmental friendliness in future. Let’s not even get into having to adapt to providers changing pricing models periodically. It is going to take some serious skill to pull that together – from the entire team.

So while the cloud computing marketers make it sound easy to put our apps onto the cloud there is a long road ahead in developing the necessary skills to ensure that it is done optimally and at a cost that is reasonable across the life of the application. There are business cases that could collapse under spiralling cloud costs if we pull one lever incorrectly.

Simon Munro

@simonmunro

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