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How to try out cloud services without hurting your wallet

Mattias Andersson
Mattias Andersson

Want to try out a cloud service, but don’t want to pay for it? Many of the major cloud providers offer free tiers, but with caveats that can cost you thousands of dollars. In this article, Mattias Andersson explains how you can get hands on with cloud services with less risk. 

You’ve decided to learn more about a cloud service — whether that’s Google Cloud Platform (CGP), Amazon Web Services (AWS), or Microsoft Azure — and that’s great! But one of the first things I need to do is warn you, because you are about to use a very powerful tool.

Just like using any other powerful tool — like a car or a chainsaw — you need to understand some very important safety advice before you jump in. The cloud is no different, but the primary danger is to your wallet.

The cloud is truly amazing in that it allows you to use tons of wonderful technology as easily as clicking a few buttons. However, this is a double-edged sword, in that you can click a few buttons you think are inexpensive, but turn out to cost a lot more than you expected!

Now, to be fair, a lot of people have jumped in to learn the cloud and gotten their hands dirty with the free tiers these providers offer, and have been charged nothing. Zero. Unfortunately, others have racked up some pretty frightening bills — and I don’t want this to be you!

Now, you might be a little concerned right now — and that was actually my point! — but I also want to reassure you. There are ways to try out these three major cloud services for free, you just need to know what pitfalls to watch out for. Keep in mind GCP, AWS and Azure all handle their free trials or credits very differently.

How to try out Google Cloud Platform for free

GCP is the safest of the three major cloud providers when it comes to trying things out without paying a dime. It starts out in a “Free Trial” mode where you can’t get charged for anything.

When you create a new account, you’re given a credit of $300 US dollars. When you go about using GCP, anything you do gets charged to that credit. You may have to enter a credit card during the sign-up process, but that card will not get charged unless you upgrade your GCP account to a paid account. 

You’re never forced to upgrade your account, and you can keep learning for free in a risk-managed way until you either use up the $300 dollars or 90 days pass.

After 90 days, Google’s “Free Trial” expires, and you can cancel the account. However, you can do a lot of good learning in 90 days!

How to try out Microsoft Azure for free

Azure has a very similar system to GCP. Even though their credit amount is “only” $200 US dollars, you should absolutely never come close to that much cost in your individual learning process unless you make a mistake. For your purposes, this is purely a risk-managed backstop amount.

The primary difference with the Azure free trial is that it only gives you 30 days to stay in this “Free Account”, unlike GCP’s 90 days. This is a much tighter timeframe to learn things by exploring them hands on!

After the 30 days are up, you can cancel your Azure free account, or upgrade it to a “Pay As You Go” account.

How to try out Amazon Web Services for free

Unfortunately, while AWS is the market leader when it comes to cloud services, they do lag behind when it comes to allowing people to test things out for free. Unlike GCP and Azure, Amazon does not provide any way to try out a real AWS account without accepting the risk of unlimited costs.

I say risk because it is absolutely still possible to try out AWS for free by only ever doing something that qualifies for the AWS Free Tier. But the “Free Tier” is basically a coupon you might get for a small amount of something, with the ever-present possibility of going over.

For example, let’s say if you go to a self-serve restaurant and they give you a coupon for “Five Free French Fries.” If you go and eat four French fries, then you’re all good. No cost! But if you absent-mindedly eat twelve French fries because they taste so good, you’ll have to pay.

What’s more concerning is you’ll be responsible for the charges if you make a mistake — just like if you might have to pay full price if you accidentally order five special truffle fries when your coupon is only for regular ones. On AWS, you could just as easily start a powerful instance that costs dozens of dollars to run, instead of the basic version that qualifies for the free AWS tier. 

What’s worse, if your account credentials fall into the wrong hands, you could easily run up thousands of dollars in charges before you even notice it. Now, to be fair, this applies equally to all the paid cloud accounts, but it’s much easier to make costly mistakes when you’re first learning.

Now, I’m not meaning to rag on any vendor here, as all three of these are absolutely amazing clouds! But I want you to make an informed decision, and risk management while learning is one of the things to consider.

How to use sandbox environments to avoid risk

Now, it’s worth mentioning that one way of controlling costs when you’re learning is to use a lab sandbox environment, if you have access to one. For example, A Cloud Guru offers access to these environments, where they bear the costs of all your actions.  They offer secure, instantly-accessible AWS, Azure, and Google cloud sandbox environments.

While these are part of ACG’s paid plans, they offer you a safety net so you don’t have to constantly be asking yourself about the costs associated with every little thing you do. 

Additionally, your access won’t expire after a certain period, so it’s a great way to learn at your own pace. 

Summary

If you decide to jump in and get your hands dirty with your very own-free cloud account  — without the protection of a sandbox environment — just remember these two important tips. These apply to everything you do in the cloud, whether you’re trying a service out or working professionally:

  1. Be intentional about every cost you trigger
  2. Stop every cost as soon as it becomes unnecessary

Now that you’ve read this article, I hope you have a healthy respect for the potential costs associated with these very powerful cloud tools, and you can still learn your way forward, successfully. 

Looking to learn more about AWS, Azure, or GCP for free?

Until the end of the year, you can sign up for free certification prep with Pluralsight Skills or A Cloud Guru, as part of the Cloud Happy campaign. You can access courses on AWS, Azure and GCP for free – and when we say free, we mean genuinely free.

There are a lot of free courses to choose from—so many that it can cause choice overload! That’s why I’ve written this handy article “Free cert prep with Cloud Happy: Which course should I choose?” And even if you don’t decide to go for a certification, these courses are a great way to learn about these various cloud services.

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