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I’ve been a big fan of DigitalOcean pretty much since they launched. Their pricing was cheap and simple, and their service was a joy to use. What made it different (as compared to other VPS hosts of the time) was the sheer simplicity of setup. The first time I used it, I was up and running with an SSD-backed VPS in under a minute – and blown away, of course.
In 2016, Amazon launched Lightsail – presumably in an attempt to tap into the market for developers who need quick and cheap VPSes. It got me thinking whether or not it’d be worth it to actually run some of my VMs there. At the lower tiers, at least, it looked like Lightsail had a cheaper offering.
A word on features
Each VPS host offers the same thing, fundamentally: CPU, RAM, SSD storage and bandwidth. They do diverge on the added-value features – for instance, DigitalOcean includes free DNS and monitoring, whereas Amazon expects you to pay for Route53 and CloudWatch respectively.
In this case though, I’m looking purely at the cost of the servers themselves.
For this pricing comparison, I’m first looking at the per-hour cost – since that’s what you get billed on.
- 0.5GB RAM: Out of the gate, Lightsail and DigitalOcean have the same pricing and features for their smallest instance.
- 1GB RAM: One tier up, Lightsail actually works out fractionally cheaper for the features offered by DigitalOcean. But that lead doesn’t last.
- 2GB RAM: In this category, Lightsail is slightly cheaper, but DigitalOcean offers double the CPU capacity at a similar price point.
- 4GB RAM: There’s parity again here with a comparative saving of just under 10%, if you were to select Lightsail over DigitalOcean.
- 8GB RAM: And at this point, Lightsail is slightly cheaper (<10%), but again, DigitalOcean offers double the CPU.
This is how it works out on a Monthly basis:
Interestingly, despite having higher per-hour costs than some Lightsail options, DigitalOcean’s advertised monthly cost is lower. They must be using a strange definition of “Monthly” in calculating that, so to make it fair, I’m basing this on a 744-hour (31-day solid) month. That’s the upper bound for what you’d need to budget for.
My conclusion: at these instance sizes, DigitalOcean is better value for money across the board. With the possible exception of the 4GB RAM instance offered by LightSail – there you’d save roughly 10% over DigitalOcean.
Let’s talk about Transfer
In the next section, I’m going to compare these prices to raw AWS EC2 prices. One of the stated benefits of Lightsail is that once you outgrow your initial servers, you can migrate and extend by leveraging the AWS cloud. Which sounds nice in theory.
DigitalOcean (and Lightsail, by the looks of it) bundle a bandwidth allocation in at each price point.On DigitalOcean, that Transfer number counts for incoming and outgoing traffic on the public network interface (meaning that transfer on a private network is free).
AWS EC2 has a different approach. Most transfer into EC2 is free, and transfer out (uploading from your VPS to somewhere else) is charged differently depending on the destination. If it’s to another internal AWS service you usually get a much cheaper rate, as compared to transfer to the Internet.
While DigitalOcean and Lightsail both make huge bandwidth allocations available, the assumption (on their end) is that most users won’t actually use all of that bandwidth. If users did actually manage to max it out every month, the pricing would be very different.
Comparing to EC2
So let’s look at what it would cost to get the same features and bandwidth allocation directly from Amazon EC2. In this comparison, I’m basing everything off the N. Virginia region (their largest, oldest and cheapest), and I’m assuming On-Demand pricing for Linux VMs. I’ll compare it against Lightsail, which is only marginally more expensive than DigitalOcean to begin with.
Say what? Must be a calculation error, right?
EC2 charges for each component separately, and in excruciating detail. You’ll rent a Compute instance for RAM and CPU, then attach an Elastic Block Store volume to serve as the storage, and you’ll pay separately for the bandwidth. Complicated? You bet!
So in that table, the cost of each component breaks down like so:
Here’s where that bundled transfer stuff comes into play. If you look at just the Instance and Storage costs, it’s about on-par with Lightsail. The moment you want to serve traffic to the Internet, though, you’re paying $0.09/GB – and budgeting to be able to do terabytes worth of transfer every month is really expensive.
(Incidentally, pushing everything to AWS CloudFront won’t save you, since they start at $0.085/GB for transit to the Internet).
In truth, the bundled transfer included by DigitalOcean and Lightsail is what makes the difference.
If you were already on DigitalOcean, you’re probably congratulating yourself right now for making the smarter choice. And you’d be right.
If you’re on Lightsail, there’s no real reason to move. But if you’re running a couple of smallish EC2 VMs, and are sweating the bandwidth costs every month, it might be worth switching and taking advantage of the free bundled bandwidth.