On November 30th, Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced a new service called “Lightsail” which promises to deliver easy Virtual Private Servers (VPS) at predictable costs.

AWS has been the leader in on-demand computing resources for a decade. They pioneered the space, and have by far the largest footprint when it comes to both customers, available regions, and revenue, which is on track to reach $13 Billion this year, according to a report by Business Insider. In the last 5 years however, DigitalOcean has had incredible success by selling to a different market, the individual developer. Making it easier to go from idea to deployment at a low cost, without navigating the confusing AWS control panel, while at the same time having access to an extremely active community. This move by Amazon appears to be a direct attack on DigitalOcean and the success they have had making cloud servers easier for hobbyists, developers, and small businesses to launch and manage. In this post we will dig in to both services and do a comparison on the available features, billing, pricing, and advantages of one over the other. I feel like we’ll probably have to talk about what constitutes “VPS vs. Cloud” as well. We’ll also dig in to how choosing a simple interface and manual server management now can hurt down the road as a project or business grows and your infrastructure needs to scale.

DigitalOcean Found a Massively Underserved Niche

Developers, developers, developers.

It generally looks something like this:

  • Developer creates a project, blog, small business, or experiment
  • Developer wants to show people what they made and host it somewhere
  • Developer wants to spend as little time or money as possible to bring it to life
  • Developer likes getting their hands dirty in server software, or they want to click a button to have one server = one running application
  • Once a project gets large enough or popular enough, developers will often migrate to AWS

AWS totally missed the mark when trying to appeal to this niche, until today. With the creation of Lightsail it appears that Amazon wants to keep more developers on an Amazon only stack and cut into DigitalOcean’s profits.

What Makes Lightsail Different From AWS/EC2

The interfaces you interact with
  • Majorly simplified UI with a focus on getting a single server running some software launched as soon as possible. Less choices, less prompts, less confusing, and much more guided.
  • Simplified API for most common developer needs
  • Simplified CLI

The physical servers powering Lightsail are the same ones you’d be accessing if you were using the AWS EC2 instance launch wizard. They reskinned what they already have powering their massive cloud to appeal to a different kind of customer.

 Bare Mimimum Feature Set

Lightsail is a subset of existing AWS features that are presented in a way that makes it easy to get going for those users who don’t require any of the shiny things and gizmos provided by full blown AWS. You’re not forced to learn about VPC’s, subnets, security groups, and choosing every last detail of the configuration of the server you are going to launch. Instead the workflow is designed to get users to go from 0 to launched server in as little time as possible.

With that being said, all of the advanced features of AWS are available to servers launched via Lightsail by implementing VPC peering.

Pricing & Billing Guarantees

Many users have expressed disdain for AWS over their often confusing pricing and “hidden charges”. This confusion is the prime reason that DigitalOcean was able to gain so much traction so quickly. A huge number of users are overwhelmed by the varying hourly costs for server instances, ip addresses, bandwidth, and storage in AWS, so much so that it has spurred the creation of AWS billing analytics companies like Cloudability and CloudHealth. For that very reason, and because of getting burned in the past from unexpected charges when utilizing AWS, many users moved to DigitalOcean where they were guaranteed not to exceed the monthly spend they chose.

While Lightsail appears to be offering flat rate charges in line with what DigitalOcean is offering, some folks are skeptical about how variable costs like I/O and network bandwidth usage could still push monthly charges beyond what is quoted on the pricing page.

Pricing Comparison

Interestingly (but not surprisingly), Amazon has set their initial Lightsail pricing to be almost exactly what DigitalOcean is offering. The only points of differentiation on pricing tip in DigitalOcean’s favor when it comes to the $20 and $80 per month instance sizes, where you get twice the CPU power on DigitalOcean that you get with Lightsail.

Monthly Price Provider RAM CPUs Disk Space Data Transfer
$5 Lightsail 512MB 1 20GB SSD 1TB
DigitalOcean 512MB 1 20GB SSD 1TB
$10 Lightsail 1GB 1 30GB SSD 2TB
DigitalOcean 1GB 1 30GB SSD 2TB
$20 Lightsail 2GB 1 40GB SSD 3TB
DigitalOcean 2GB 2 40GB SSD 3TB
$40 Lightsail 4GB 2 60GB SSD 4TB
DigitalOcean 4GB 2 60GB SSD 4TB
$80 Lightsail 8GB 2 80GB SSD 5TB
DigitalOcean 8GB 4 80GB SSD 5TB

Where DigitalOcean Beats Lightsail

  • DigitalOcean has amazing brand loyalty and customers who love them
  • One of DO’s largest strengths is it’s large and active community, Q&A section, and wealth of tutorials to help get started trying out and deploying a multitude of projects
  • Support is there for you when you need it, and doesn’t cost anything extra. Lightsail support is AWS support which can cost an arm and a leg if you want a decent response time SLA
  • Bandwidth overage costs are lower ($0.09/gb on Lightsail vs. $0.02/gb on DO)
  • Additional CPU cores for various instances over what Lightsail offers
  • Available block storage built in (I imagine this won’t be an advantage for long though)
  • DigitalOcean has a much larger selection of base operating system images that can be deployed. Currently Lightsail only supports Ubuntu and Amazon Linux

Where Lightsail Beats DigitalOcean

  • Potent upgrade path to more serious services and automation as a business or project grows via VPC peering
  • Built in firewall support (I expect this won’t be an advantage for long, rumor has it)
  • Ability to more quickly re-skin existing features from the AWS ecosystem as simplified features in Lightsail, outpacing DigitalOcean in terms of functionality

Lightsail = VPS / DigitalOcean = Cloud… What?

Does your VPS provider have an API for interacting with it, hourly pricing, and some value-add services like floating IPs or DNS? Congratulations, it’s a cloud.

My point here is that DigitalOcean started as something resembling a VPS provider calling itself a simple cloud. I think this helped to attract customers who were burned by bad experiences with “VPS providers”. As they have added tons of new features like block storage, floating IPs, and DNS, it really is far beyond a VPS provider, it’s a cloud. Lightsail is a huge cloud provider, in a simplicity disguise, calling itself a VPS to appeal to smaller users.

It doesn’t matter what it’s called, it’s the same thing.

Can Choosing a VPS Provider/Simple Cloud Now Hurt Later?

Choosing to avoid server and deployment automation, and instead opting to manually manage individual servers, is something that folks commonly do when they’re just starting out with a project or business. That is not necessarily a bad decision, especially if it works for you and you enjoy working that way.

It can potentially hurt down the line when you suddenly need to figure out how to take your project running on one or two servers, and turn it into a scalable distributed system running on many more. You’ll need to dive head first into the wonderfully complicated and ever-changing world of cloud and deployment automation tools and open source software. Get your bottle of glue code ready, you will need it.

With this move by Amazon however, it is possible to start out on a simple cloud/VPS provider, and slowly add on more advanced AWS tools and databases, without having to make a major shift to a completely different hosting provider down the line. That is an important option that customers need to consider when deciding where to initially deploy their infrastructure.