Free Isn’t Always Free: A Guide to Free Cloud Tiers

Free $$$

They say “the best things in life are free.” But when most cloud storage companies offer a free tier, what they really want is money. While free tiers do offer some early-stage technical founders the opportunity to test out a proof of concept or allow students to experiment without breaking the bank, their ultimate goal is to turn you into a paying customer. This isn’t always nefarious (we offer 10GB for free, so we’re playing the same game!), but some cloud vendors’ free tiers come with hidden surprises that can lead to scary bills with little warning.

The truth is that free isn’t always free. Today, we’re digging into a cautionary tale for developers and technical founders exploring cloud services to support their applications or SaaS products. Naturally, you want to know if a cloud vendor’s free tier will work for you. Understanding what to expect and how to navigate free tiers accordingly can help you avoid huge surprise bills later.

Free Tiers: A Quick Reference

Most large, diversified cloud providers offer a free tier—AWS, Google Cloud Platform, and Azure, to name a few—and each one structures theirs a bit differently:

  • AWS: AWS has 100+ products and services with free options ranging from “always free” to 12 months free, and each has different use limitations. For example, you get 5GB of object storage free with AWS S3 for the first 12 months, then you are billed at the respective rate.
  • Google Cloud Platform: Google offers a $300 credit good for 90 days so you can explore services “for free.” They also offer an “always free tier” for specific services like Cloud Storage, Compute Engine, and several others that are free to a certain limit. For example, you get 5GB of storage for free and 1GB of network egress for their Cloud Storage service.
  • Azure: Azure offers a free trial similar to Google’s but with a shorter time frame (30 days) and lower credit amount ($200). It gives you the option to move up to paid when you’ve used up your credits or your time expires. Azure also offers a range of services that are free for 12 months and have varying limits and thresholds as well as an “always free tier” option.

After even a quick review of the free tier offers from major cloud providers, you can glean some immediate takeaways:

  1. You can’t rely on free tiers or promotional credits as a long-term solution. They work well for testing a proof of concept or a minimum viable product without making a big commitment, but they’re not going to serve you past the time or usage limits.
  2. “Free” has different mileage depending on the platform and service. Keep that in mind before you spin up servers and resources, and read the fine print as it relates to limitations.
  3. The end goal is to move you to paid. Obviously, the cloud providers want to move you from testing a proof of concept to paid, with your full production hosted and running on their platforms.

With Google Cloud Platform and Azure, you’re at least somewhat protected from being billed beyond the credits you receive since they require you to upgrade to the paid tier to continue. Thus, most of the horror stories you’ll see involve AWS. With AWS, once your trial expires or you exceed your allotted limits, you are billed the standard rate. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll look specifically at AWS.

The Problem With the AWS Free Tier

The internet is littered with cautionary tales of AWS bills run amok. A quick search for “AWS free tier bill” on Twitter or Reddit shows that it’s possible and pretty common to run up a bill on AWS’s so-called free tier…
AWS Free Tier Tweet
AWS Free Tier Multi-thousand Bill Tweet
AWS Reddit - I just received a bill for $19,000 for Free tier

The problem with the AWS free tier is threefold:

  1. There are a number of ways a “free tier” instance can turn into a bill.
  2. Safeguards against surprise bills are mediocre at best.
  3. Surprise bills are scary, and next steps aren’t the most comforting.

Problem 1: It’s Really Easy to Go From Free to Not Free

There are a number of ways an unattended “free tier” instance turns into a bill, sometimes a catastrophically huge bill. Here are just a few:

  1. You spin up Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances for a project and forget about them until they exceed the free tier limits.
  2. You sign up for several AWS accounts, and you can’t figure out which one is running up charges.
  3. Your account gets hacked and used for mining crypto (yes, this definitely happens, and it results in some of the biggest surprise bills of them all).

Problem 2: Safeguards Against Surprise Bills Are Mediocre at Best

Confounding the problem is the fact that AWS keeps safeguards against surprise billing to a minimum. The free tier has limits and defined constraints, and the only way to keep your account in the free zone is to keep usage below those limits (and this is key) for each service you use.

AWS has hundreds of services, and each service comes with its own pricing structure and limits. While one AWS service might be free, it can be paired with another AWS service that’s not free or doesn’t have the same free threshold, for example, egress between services. Thus, managing your usage to keep it within the free tier can be somewhat straightforward or prohibitively complex depending on which services you use.

Wait, Shouldn’t I Get Alerts?

Yes, you can get alerted if you’re approaching the free limit, but that’s not foolproof either. First, billing alarms are not instantaneous. The notification might come after you’ve already exceeded the limit. And second, not every service has alerts or alerts that work in the same way.

You can also configure services so that they automatically shut down when they exceed a certain billing threshold, but this may pose more problems than it solves. First, navigating the AWS UI to set this up is complex. Your average free tier user may not be aware of or even interested in how to set that up. Second, you may not want to shut down services depending on how you’re using AWS.

Problem 3: Knowing What to Do Next

If it’s not your first rodeo, you might not default to panic mode when you get that surprise bill. You tracked your usage. You know you’re in the right. All you have to do is contact AWS support and dispute the charge. But imagine how a college student might react to a bill the size of their yearly tuition. While large five- to six-figure bills might be negotiable and completely waived, there are untold numbers of two- to three-figure bills that just end up getting paid because people weren’t aware of how to dispute the charges.

Even experienced developers can fall victim to unexpected charges in the thousands.

Avoiding Unexpected AWS Bills in the First Place

The first thing to recognize is that free isn’t always free. If you’re new to the platform, there are a few steps you can take to put yourself in a better position to avoid unexpected charges:

  1. Read the fine print before spinning up servers or uploading test data.
  2. Look for sandboxed environments that don’t let you exceed charges beyond a certain amount or that allow you to set limits that shut off services once limits are exceeded.
  3. Proceed with caution and understand how alerts work before spinning up services.
  4. Steer clear of free tiers completely, because the short-term savings aren’t huge and aren’t worth the added risk.

Final Thought: It Ain’t Free If They Have Your CC

AWS requires credit card information before you can do anything on the free tier—all the more reason to be extremely cautious.

Shameless plug here: Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage offers the first 10GB of storage free, and you don’t need to give us a credit card to create an account. You can also set billing alerts and caps easily in your dashboard. So, you’re unlikely to run up a surprise bill.

Ready to get started with Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage? Sign up here today to get started with 10GB and no CC.


About Amrit Singh

Amrit Singh is a product marketer at Backblaze but an engineer at heart, helping developers build and grow their applications on the B2 Cloud Storage platform. He's always looking out for new and innovative ways developers utilize cloud storage to build next-gen tech stacks. So if you want to chat about anything cloud or technology, connect with him on Instagram: @akooms or Linkedin: Amrit Singh.