Cloud Storage Doesn’t have to be Convoluted, Complex, or Confusing

By | September 6th, 2017

business man frustrated over cloud storage pricing

So why do some vendors make it so hard to get information about how much you’re storing and how much you’re being charged?

Cloud storage is fast becoming the central repository for mission critical information, irreplaceable memories, and in some cases entire corporate and personal histories. Given this responsibility, we believe cloud storage vendors have an obligation to be transparent as possible in how they interact with their customers.

In that light we decided to challenge four cloud storage vendors and ask two simple questions:

  1. Can a customer understand how much data is stored?
  2. Can a customer understand the bill?

The detailed results are below, but if you wish to skip the details and the screen captures (TL;DR), we’ve summarized the results in the table below.

Summary of Cloud Storage Pricing Test

Our challenge was to upload 1 terabyte of data, store it for one month, and then download it. Cost is based on publicly posted rates.

Visibility to Data Stored Easy to Understand Bill Cost
Backblaze B2 Accurate, intuitive display of storage information. Available on demand, and the site clearly defines what has and will be charged for. $25
Microsoft Azure Storage is being measured in KiB, but is billed by the GB. With a calculator, it is unclear how much storage we are using. Available, but difficult to find. The nearly 30 day lag in billing creates business and accounting challenges. $72
Amazon S3 Incomplete. From the file browsing user interface, while summaries of folders can be found, there is no reasonable way to understand how much data is being
globally stored.
Available on demand. While there are some line items that seem unnecessary for our test, the bill is generally straight-forward to understand. $71
Google Cloud Service Incomplete. From the file browsing user interface, there is no reasonable way to understand how much data is being stored. Available, but provides descriptions in units that are not on the pricing table nor commonly used. $100

Details of Cloud Storage Tests

For our tests, we choose Backblaze B2, Microsoft’s Azure, Amazon’s S3, and Google Cloud Storage. Our idea was simple: Upload 1 TB of data to the comparable service for each vendor, store it for 1 month, download that 1 TB, then document and share the results.

Let’s start with most obvious observation, the cost charged by each vendor for the test. Looking at the publicly available prices posted online by each vendor, here’s what costs should be:

Cost
Backblaze B2 $25
Microsoft Azure $72
Amazon S3 $71
Google Cloud Service $100

Later in this post, we’ll see if we can determine the different cost components (storage, downloading, transactions, etc.) for each vendor, but our first step is to see if we can determine how much data we stored. In some cases, the answer is not as obvious as it would seem.

Test 1: Can a Customer Understand How Much Data Is Stored?

At the core, a provider of a service ought to be able to tell a customer how much of the service he or she is using. In this case, one might assume that providers of Cloud Storage would be able to tell customers how much data is being stored at any given moment. It turns out, it’s not that simple.

Backblaze B2

Logging into a Backblaze B2 account, one is presented with a summary screen that displays all “buckets.” Each bucket displays key summary information, including data currently stored.

B2 Cloud Storage Buckets screenshot

Clicking into a given bucket, one can browse individual files. Each file displays its size, and multiple files can be selected to create a size summary.

B2 file tree screenshot

Summary: Accurate, intuitive display of storage information.

Microsoft Azure

Moving on to Microsoft’s Azure, things get a little more “exciting.” There was no area that we could find where one can determine the total amount of data, in GB, stored with Azure.

There’s an area entitled “usage,” but that wasn’t helpful.

Microsoft Azure cloud storage screenshot

We then moved on to “Overview,” but had a couple challenges.The first issue was that we were presented with KiB (kibibyte) as a unit of measure. One GB (the unit of measure used in Azure’s pricing table) equates to roughly 976,563 KiB. It struck us as odd that things would be summarized by a unit of measure different from the billing unit of measure.

Microsoft Azure usage dashboard screenshot

Summary: Storage is being measured in KiB, but is billed by the GB. Even with a calculator, it is unclear how much storage we are using.

Amazon S3

Next we checked on the data we were storing in S3. We again ran into problems.

In the bucket overview, we were able to identify our buckets. However, we could not tell how much data was being stored.

Amazon S3 cloud storage buckets screenshot

Drilling into a bucket, the detail view does tell us file size. However, there was no method for summarizing the data stored within that bucket or for multiple files.

Amazon S3 cloud storage buckets usage screenshot

Summary: Incomplete. From the file browsing user interface, while summaries of folders can be found, there is no reasonable way to understand how much data is being globally stored.

Google Cloud Storage (“GCS”)

GCS proved to have its own quirks, as well.

One can easily find the “bucket” summary, however, it does not provide information on data stored.

Google Cloud Storage Bucket screenshot

Clicking into the bucket, one can see files and the size of an individual file. However, no ability to see data total is provided.

Google Cloud Storage bucket files screenshot

Summary: Incomplete. From the file browsing user interface, there is no reasonable way to understand how much data is being stored.

Test 1 Conclusions

We knew how much storage we were uploading and, in many cases, the user will have some sense of the amount of data they are uploading. However, it strikes us as odd that many vendors won’t tell you how much data you have stored. Even stranger are the vendors that provide reporting in a unit of measure that is different from the units in their pricing table.

Test 2: Can a Customer Understand The Bill?

The cloud storage industry has done itself no favors with its tiered pricing that requires a calculator to figure out what’s going on. Setting that aside for a moment, one would presume that bills would be created in clear, auditable ways.

Backblaze

Inside of the Backblaze user interface, one finds a navigation link entitled “Billing.” Clicking on that, the user is presented with line items for previous bills, payments, and an estimate for the upcoming charges.

Backblaze B2 billing screenshot

One can expand any given row to see the the line item transactions composing each bill.

Backblaze B2 billing details screenshot

Here’s more detail.

Backblaze B2 billing details screenshot

Summary: Available on demand, and the site clearly defines what has and will be charged for.

Azure

Trying to understand the Azure billing proved to be a bit tricky.

On August 6th, we logged into the billing console and were presented with this screen.

Microsoft Azure billing screenshot

As you can see, on Aug 6th, billing for the period of May-June was not available for download. For the period ending June 26th, we were charged nearly a month later, on July 24th. Clicking into that row item does display line item information.

Microsoft Azure cloud storage billing details screenshot

Summary: Available, but difficult to find. The nearly 30 day lag in billing creates business and accounting challenges.

Amazon S3

Amazon presents a clean billing summary and enables users to “drill down” into line items.

Going to the billing area of AWS, one can survey various monthly bills and is presented with a clean summary of billing charges.

AWS billing screenshot

Expanding into the billing detail, Amazon articulates each line item charge. Within each line item, charges are broken out into sub-line items for the different tiers of pricing.

AWS billing details screenshot

Summary: Available on demand. While there are some line items that seem unnecessary for our test, the bill is generally straight-forward to understand.

Google Cloud Storage (“GCS”)

This was an area where the GCS User Interface, which was otherwise relatively intuitive, became confusing.

Going to the Billing Overview page did not offer much in the way of an overview on charges.

Google Cloud Storage billing screenshot

However, moving down to the “Transactions” section did provide line item detail on all the charges incurred. However, similar to Azure introducing the concept of KiB, Google introduces the concept of the equally confusing Gibibyte (GiB). While all of Google’s pricing tables are listed in terms of GB, the line items reference GiB. 1 GiB is 1.07374 GBs.

Google Cloud Storage billing details screenshot

Summary: Available, but provides descriptions in units that are not on the pricing table nor commonly used.

Test 2 Conclusions

Clearly, some vendors do a better job than others in making their pricing available and understandable. From a transparency standpoint, it’s difficult to justify why a vendor would have their pricing table in units of X, but then put units of Y in the user interface.

Transparency: The Backblaze Way

Transparency isn’t easy. At Backblaze, we believe in investing time and energy into presenting the most intuitive user interfaces that we can create. We take pride in our heritage in the consumer backup space — servicing consumers has taught us how to make things understandable and usable. We do our best to apply those lessons to everything we do.

This philosophy reflects our desire to make our products usable, but it’s also part of a larger ethos of being transparent with our customers. We are being trusted with precious data. We want to repay that trust with, among other things, transparency.

It’s that spirit that was behind the decision to publish our hard drive performance stats, to open source the infrastructure that is behind us having the lowest cost of storage in the industry, and also to open source our erasure coding (the math that drives a significant portion of our redundancy for your data).

Why? We believe it’s not just about good user interface, it’s about the relationship we want to build with our customers.

Ahin Thomas

Ahin Thomas

VP Marketing at Backblaze
Ahin enjoys writing in the third person, cookies (digital or baked), and the new Chris Stapleton album.
Category:  Cloud Storage
  • Danielle Martin

    It’s true that cloud storage costs and bills are hard to understand. It must be deliberate.

  • j-beda

    Wasabi, AWS, and Google do all of their pricing in “binary G”, so any place where they write GB they seem to mean 2^30 bytes (GiB). See https://cloud.google.com/storage/pricing and https://forums.aws.amazon.com/thread.jspa?threadID=151161 and https://wasabi-support.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/115001703451-Does-Wasabi-use-base-2-or-base-10-in-billing-calculations-

    Azure has multiple places where it explicitly references GB (10^9 bytes) and and GiB (2^30 bytes) on the same page, but I cannot see find any place that explicity states their prices in numbers of bytes so it is not clear what their prices actually are: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/15834973/gigabyte-gibibyte-format-windows-azure

    Incidentally, this whole test would be clearer if you explicity stated how much data you were uploading and storing for a month. I am guessing that you were uploading 10^12 bytes = 1,000,000,000,000 bytes rather than 2^40 bytes = 1,099,511,627,776 bytes but depending on tools being used to check file sizes, either one is possible, and they are almost 10% different.

    Additionally, since almost everyone else is completely dropping the ball on this type of thing and creating confusion everwhere, it would be good if Backblaze somewhere explicitly states that their pricing is based on 10^9 bytes rather than 2^30 bytes (1,073,741,824 bytes), a difference of a bit more than 7%. Perhaps your pricing sheet should also list the price per GiB, since that is what most of your compeditors price their services in. This is another way that Backblaze could be more clear and transparent than everyone else.

    • Ahin Thomas

      Thanks for the feedback. Our point of view is that the names have explicit meaning. For instance, 1 Terabyte (what we used for our test) is 10^12 (one trillion) bytes. A tebibyte is 2^40 bytes and is abbreviated TiB.

      One challenge I believe the “other” clouds are posing for the market – to the extent they are writing”GB” but mean “GiB” they are making arbitrary changes to defined language. The blog post you linked to does a nice job of explaining why GiB was introduced to denote base-2 and that abbreviations like GB “…only have their base-10 meaning and never have a base-2 meaning.”

      So rather than redefining agreed upon language conventions, Backblaze does the simple thing – we list our prices and invoice our services in accordance with norms of existing language.

  • Zanpher

    Thank you for this post.

    Is it possible to get some kind of “due date” in the “Bill” section? Right now, as you mentioned, I can see what I will be charged. But not when.

    Is this a possibility?

    • Ahin Thomas

      B2 charges every 30 days (starting from your first bill). We’re looking at a number of enhancements to the UI and will add “due date” to the list of stuff to explore. Thanks for the suggestion and for being a customer!

      • Zanpher

        Thank you for your reply! It is great news to hear!