A number of the larger cloud providers provide parts of their service for free, have limited free trial and/or provide some extra credits to spend on their services for a limited time. This post looks at the different options from 5 cloud providers to help what providers to try out, when and why.

A common pattern among some of the larger cloud providers is to divide their services when it comes to what you pay:

  • Always free - The service itself is free to use. In a number of cases, this may be a value-added service on top of other services, which themselves may not necessarily be free. Or it may be that a service is free to use up to a certain limit
  • Free trial - The service is free to use for a limited time only. In some that are also restricted by some upper bound, after which it will start to cost money even during the free trial.
  • Usage credits - A certain amount of money is credited to be spent on service usage at the cloud provider. This is typically available for a limited time only.

The cloud providers

I have chosen 5 cloud providers which are among the largest players and which also provide a fairly broad range of services. These cloud providers are, in alphabetical order:

  • Alibaba Cloud
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Google Cloud Platform
  • IBM Cloud
  • Microsoft Azure

Alibaba Cloud

A major player especially in the Asian market, Alibaba cloud are celebrating their 10 year anniversary this year (started September 10th 2009).

Alibaba Cloud separates between individual accounts and enterprise accounts. The latter requires a verification that it is registered with a real company. The free trial is a mix of specific services that can be used up to a defined metric for that service or a specific cash amount that is provided to be used with a specific service. The cost of the usage limits defined in the trial and the actual cash provided for certain services is what adds up to the 300/1200 USD amounts.

Most of the trial services are for 1 month, so it is a relatively short period of time compared to some other cloud providers. However, it is also possible to start the free trial up to one year after creating an Alibaba Cloud account. So it is possible to create an account and start a project in the free trial at a bit later stage.

Amazon Web Services

Considered to be the first cloud provider ((re-)launched in 2006, first public service in 2004) and largest player in the cloud provider market, AWS has a large worldwide presence.

AWS uses usage limits strictly for the services that are part of the free trial period, there is no cash part of the free trial to be spent on services. This may be good in that it is clear how much usage is free as part of the trial, but less clear what it may cost after the trial has ended. The free trial starts when the account is created.

Google Cloud Platform

Google’s cloud service offerings started in 2011 (in preview from 2008), extending its own internal infrastructure to be used by others.

GCP’s free trial is straightforward - use up to 300 USD on any service within 12 months of creating an account. This makes it easy to see what the cost for something ends up as, but less clear what one actually gets for this money upfront.

IBM Cloud

Launched in 2014 under the name Bluemix, rebranded to IBM Cloud in 2017.

IBM Cloud is unique in that has kind of an unlimited free trial - a limited set of services can be used for free forever, within certain usage restrictions. There is not even a credit card required. However, to access a wider range of services one has to upgrade the account to pay-as-you-go. When someone upgrades, they get 200 USD to spend on any of the services available.

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Azure was launched in 2010 as Windows Azure and later changed its name to Microsoft Azure. They have a worldwide presence and the only one in this list with data centres in six continents at present.

Azure’s free trial starts with account creation and lasts for 12 months, in which a certain number of services can be used within certain usage limits. There is also an added 200 USD that is valid for 1 month at the start of the free trial period to spend on any service. The 200 USD may have been converted to a similar amount in a local currency, depending on where you are.

The free options - summary

This is a short summary of free options, based on information from 2019-10-03.

Cloud ProviderFree Trial servicesFree Trial periodCash credits for free trialAlways free services
Alibaba Cloud9 different services1 month, 1 year or specific credit, depending on service300 USD (individual), 1200 USD (enterprise)26 services, with usage limits
AWS47 services1 month, 2 months, 12 months, with usage limits. 1 and 2-month trials can typically be started at any time.no, instead of usage limits are applied for each service22 services, with usage limits
GCPall services12 months, or cash credit used up300 USD15 services, with usage limits
IBM Cloud29 services + 1 limited trial serviceno limit, part of Lite account. Usage limits apply for each service. The limited trial service period is 1 month.200 USD when converting Lite account to Pay-as-you-go account, valid for 30 days8 services, with usage limits
Azure21 services12 months200 USD to spend the first 30 days of trial period29 services, with usage limits

Choosing a free trial - why, when, what

I do not think a cloud provider would be chosen based on their free trial offering, but it may help keep costs down for hobby projects or small pilot projects.

In my experience for shorter trial periods (e.g. 1 month) to be worthwhile, it is necessary to have a pretty clear picture of what should be accomplished during the trial period and with what services. That includes already being a bit familiar with the cloud provider services. Start a trial and then try to figure out what to do would be a waste of free trial time.

For the longer free trial periods (12 months and more) there is definitely room to figure out things as you go. For any cloud provider with more than a few services, there is a non-trivial learning period, even if many of them boast about how simple it is to get started. Yes, the very simple things can be easy and quick and work at a very small scale. Figuring out what to do next from the first steps, how and why and in what order requires more time and practice.

For general tinkering just getting your hands dirty with cloud services, the trial approach provided by AWS and Azure with a bit of extra free resources in a number of services may work well here.

If you have more focus on what you want to learn and do, I find the simplicity in the GCP free trial model appealing - it is simple to understand what you get from it in terms of monetary value. It is also the same value regardless of the project and services used. It can also be a good thing to have the costs in mind right from the start.

In theory, services provided in the AWS and Azure, free trials will provide more value if a couple of the services are used to their free trial limits though. But that will very much depend on the use cases.

The IBM Cloud Lite account approach looks appealing also, assuming that the solution you want to try out will fit with the Lite and always free services. This seems to be a bit slanted towards (serverless) analytics.

I do wish that the added 200 USD cash option provided by Azure would be possible to start the 30 day period at any time during the free trial and not just in the beginning - it makes it less useful. It is a bit more useful in IBM Cloud, given that it only starts when the account is upgraded to pay-as-you-go.

General notes

General tinkering trials - AWS and Azure work well. More targeted/focused trial - GCP should be a good choice also. If you can, do some planning before the trial starts or right at the start - time flies.