Alibaba Cloud, AWS & DigitalOcean: Cloud Services Compared

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Cloud computing allows you to use computer services such as servers, databases, analytics and more over the internet using virtual machines.

The idea has been around since the inception of the Internet, but it really began to take off when Amazon launched its Elastic Compute Cloud in 2006, which later became known as Amazon Web Services, or AWS. Many other competitors have entered the market since then as cloud computing has blossomed into a huge growth industry.

Cloud Computing providers allow you to host websites and applications, store data and assets, run software as a service applications, provide on-demand services such as streaming videos, photo backup and storage and even use artificial intelligence services.

One of the key benefits of cloud computing is that as you only pay for what you use, in a similar way that you pay for gas or electricity. You can almost think of it as ‘renting’ a server located ‘in the cloud’. This makes it a very inexpensive way of gaining access to multiple high-end servers, running the latest software without the cost and hassle of running the actual servers yourself.

Another advantage of cloud computing is elastic scaling, which is the ability to increase or decrease the amount of computing power that your service uses, as and when required, using load balancers. This allows you to launch your service without the need big up-front investment and helps to take some of the risk out of launching a new service, while still allowing for expansion in the future. For example, Alibaba Cloud features a load balancer that can use shared resources, but also switch to guaranteed performance instances when required.

Cloud computing providers also make it easy to set up and deploy both ready-made and custom builds of virtual machines using a variety of operating systems. You can spin up a new instance and have it running in a matter of minutes. Virtual servers don’t require any management and are able to take advantage of a huge infrastructure with servers located globally means that people can access your site from around the world without having to worry about latency issues. Their distributed nature means that there isn’t a single point of failure, making them extremely reliable with an uptime of virtually 100%. Backup and recovery are also baked into the service, so you don’t need to worry about data loss. There’s no need for IT administrators here!

In this post we’re going to take a look at 3 of the big providers – AWS, Alibaba Cloud and Digital Ocean – and compare them using the following criteria:

  • Services offered
  • Pricing
  • Help & Support

All three services have a very similar offering, but do it in slightly different ways. Hopefully this post will help you decide which one is the right fit for you.

Meet The Competitors

Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is the big daddy of cloud computing. Launched in 2006, it now has an impressively vast array of services on offer and is the clear leader in the field. When you first log into AWS, you get the familiar feel Amazon’s website – it’s almost as if you’re just buying something else from their store. Initially, the sheer number of options can be quite overwhelming.

Alibaba are often referred to as the ‘Chinese Amazon’. They launched Alibaba Cloud in 2009 as a direct competitor to AWS, with a focus on Asian markets. It has grown significantly since then and is now the largest cloud provider in China. In 2017 they were named the official cloud services provider of the Olympics and this year they received the MySQL Corporate Contributor Award in recognition of their contributions to open source. Alibaba Cloud are really ramping up their offering in 2018, and recently made a commitment to invest $15 billion over the next 3 years into their already impressive cloud computing service. When you log into Alibaba Cloud, you notice that it has a modern and professional feel to it. They also offer a mind-boggling number of options that can seem a bit daunting at first.

Digital Ocean started life in 2012 with the aim of making it easy for developers to build applications in the cloud. My first impressions of their site was that it has a clean look and user-friendly design. They also use the concept of ‘Droplets’ that are virtual machines at various price points. This fits the theme of the company by reimagining the cloud as a digital ocean where each virtual machine is droplet in a digital ocean. This approach certainly makes it simpler to get started without having to wade through a vast number of options.

Services Offered

All 3 Cloud Computing providers in our roundup provide a similar offering in terms of the basic provision. This includes:

  • The ability to create virtual machines with multiple cores and up to 256GB of RAM
  • The ability to create custom images that can be recreated on demand
  • Load Balancing
  • Content Delivery Networks
  • Firewall including protection from Trojans and DDOS attacks
  • Snapshots & backups with built-in redundancy
  • An API so that other services and developers can interact with resources hosted in the cloud

All the services are easy to set up and have nice UIs, but AWS and Alibaba can look a bit complicated at times, with buttons, sliders and knobs all over the place! This is simply due to the fact that they have so many more options to choose from. Digital Ocean keeps things simple, which makes for a more pleasant user experience when setting things up.

All 3 services rely on you being comfortable giving commands via the console. They all have a wealth of documentation and tutorials that will walk you through various procedures.

The table below highlights some differences in what each service provides:

Features AWS Alibaba Cloud Digital Ocean
Regions Multiple in US, Europe and Asia plus one in South America 2 in the US, 1 in Europe, Multiple in Asia, including lots in China and some exclusive to Alibaba Cloud Multiple in US and Europe, 1 in Asia
Operating Systems Windows Server + Multiple Linux distributions Windows Server + Multiple Linux distributions Multiple Linux distributions
Storage Integrated storage using Amazon S3, Elastic Block Store or Elastic File System Integrated Object Storage Service, Elastic Block Storage and Network Attached Storage Integrated solution called Spaces
Databases Amazon Dynamo DB, Amazon Redshift An umbrella offering which does Managed Redis, MongoDB, MySQL, SQL Server and PostreSQL. AsparaDB, HybridDB, PolarDB (coming soon) No integrated cloud options, but you can install any database such as MySQL, PostGresSQL MongoDB etc
Extras Elastic Beanstalk allows you to build web apps quickly. Lots of integration with all Amazon’s other web services. Huge amount of documentation. The award-winning Peta Scale data platform MaxCompute, Managed database offering for every possible type of data, Plesk Admin console provided free of charge. Free DDoS protection for all public endpoints. Large and friendly developer community. One-click installation of popular services such as WordPress, Ruby on Rails and Ghost. Digital Ocean Monitoring allows you to track various metrics easily.

As you can see from the table, AWS is the only provider that has data centers in every continent. Alibaba has a big focus in Asia with data centers located in Dubai, Malaysia and Indonesia. They are also increasing their offering in the West with data centers in North America as well as Europe. Digital Ocean is primarily focused in Western countries.

AWS and Alibaba Cloud offer Windows Server, whereas Digital Ocean only uses Linux Servers. It should be noted, however, that it does cost more to run a virtual Windows Server. All 3 services offer their own integrated storage solution and cloud-based databases are provided by AWS and Alibaba Cloud. It’s also possible to install any database software directly onto a virtual machine on all the services. They all provide an impressive list of extras that help to manage your virtual server and ensure it runs smoothly.

Alibaba Cloud also boasts an impressively high-level of security service that has successfully defended their services from a huge number of attacks over the years using an elastic network of web application firewalls.

Pricing

Comparing the pricing for these services is actually very difficult! The granular level of customisation that AWS and Alibaba Cloud offer means that its very difficult to compare exactly like with like. To complicate matters further, you can get cheaper deals with AWS if you don’t need the service available all the time.

Amazon pricing is all ‘on-demand’, so you only pay for exactly what you use. They also offer reserved and spot instances at a discount if you don’t your service to be constantly available.

Digital Ocean uses the concept of Droplets that are paid for on a monthly subscription basis. Once again they have tried to simplify things to avoid using complicated calculators to try and predict what your monthly costs will be. The lowest priced droplet starts at $5 a month for a basic starter package. You can upgrade to a different droplet whenever you need to and can also pay for additional memory or storage as you need it.

Alibaba Cloud offers an on demand option that sits somewhere between AWS and Digital Ocean’s droplets. They offer per second billing on pay-as-you-go instances, but give discounts for sustained monthly and annual usage. They also offer package plans that make it easier to get started with the most common configurations already built for you and typically offer better value than the same set-up as a pay-as-you-go option.

Despite the difficulty in comparing prices, here are some different setups and the prices to give you an idea of what you might expect to pay:

Note that AWS charges by the hour so has been calculated by multiplying this by 730.5 as an estimate for the number of hours in a month. You have to pay for storage as an extra using S3. Prices were taken from this page and are correct at publication date.

Starter Package

AWS – $10.08/month

  • 1 CPU
  • 1GB Memory
  • No Storage

Alibaba Cloud – $4.50/month

  • 1 CPU
  • 1GB Memory
  • 40GB SSD Storage

Digital Ocean – $5/month

  • 1 CPU
  • 1GB Memory
  • 25GB SSD Storage

Popular Packages

AWS – $40.32

  • 1 CPU
  • 1GB Memory
  • No Storage

Alibaba Cloud – $39/month

  • 2 CPUs
  • 4GB Memory
  • 60GB SSD Storage

Digital Ocean – $20/month

  • 2 CPUs
  • 4GB Memory
  • 80GB SSD Storage

High End Packages

AWS – $683.75/month

  • 16 CPUs
  • 64GB Memory
  • No Storage

Alibaba Cloud – $570/month

  • 32 CPUs
  • 128GB Memory
  • 3,000GB SSD Storage

Digital Ocean – $640/month

  • 24 CPUs
  • 128GB Memory
  • 2,560GB SSD Storage

All 3 services offer additional storage options and the prices are pretty similar (between $0.01 and $0.03 per GB). Be aware that you need to take into account that there may be extra bandwidth costs associated with uploading and downloading any resources that you store using these services.

The good news is that Alibaba Cloud are currently offering $300 of free credit to get you started, so you can try out a basic server as well as some of their other features without risking any money.

Help & Support

So what happens when you get stuck? If you run into difficulties, then all 3 services offer a ticketing system and all get back to you reasonably quickly. Digital Ocean has a bit more of a friendly feel about it as the other two feel a bit more corporate. AWS and Alibaba also offer paid-for technical support if it is required.

All 3 services also all have a large wealth of online support databases, chock full of tutorials and how-to guides that will walk you through how to set up all the common configurations.

Conclusion

We are living in a golden age of cloud computing and really are spoilt for choice. All three of the companies covered in this article offer lots of options and are great value for money.

Amazon is still the market leader and you can be confident that they will provide you with a good service with lots of options.

Digital Ocean make the task of setting up a virtual machine seem much less daunting and they have built a brilliant community of developers.

Alibaba have a good introductory offer and the cheapest quick set-up monthly fee of $4.50, so would be a good option if you’ve been thinking about giving cloud computing a go. The offer will let you run a basic server for up to 2-months and you’ll also be able to use your free credit to try out some of their other services as well.