More cloud users are starting to investigate Alibaba Cloud, so the time is ripe for a comparison of AWS vs Alibaba Cloud pricing. Commonly recognized as the #4 cloud provider (from a revenue perspective anyway), Alibaba is one of the fastest growing companies in the space today.

Alibaba has been getting a lot of attention lately, given its rapid growth, and its opportunities for cloud deployments within mainland China. ParkMyCloud is preparing to release support for Alibaba, and that of course has let us focus on pricing and cost savings – our forte. In this article I am going to dive a bit into the pricing of the Alibaba Elastic Compute Service (ECS), and compare it with that of the AWS EC2 service.

Alibaba vs Aliyun

Finding actual pricing for comparison purposes can be a bit complicated, as the prices are listed in a couple different places and do not quite exactly match up. If one searches for Alibaba pricing, one ends up here, which I am going to call the “Alibaba Cloud” site. However, when you actually get an account and want to purchase an instance, you can up here or here, both of which I will call the “Aliyun” site. [Note that you may not be able to see the Aliyun sites without signing up for an account and actually logging-in.]  

Aliyun (literally translated “Ali Cloud”) was the original name of the company, and the name was changed to Alibaba Cloud in July 2017. Unsurprisingly, the Aliyun name has stuck around on the actual operational guts of the company, reflecting that it is probably hard-coded all over the place, both internally and externally with customers. (Supernor’s 3rd Conjecture: Engineering can never keep up with Marketing.)

Both sites show that like the other major cloud providers, Alibaba’s pricing model includes a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) offering, with per-second billing. Note, however, that in order to save money on stopped instances, one must specifically enable a “No fees for stopped instances” feature. Luckily, this is a global one-time setting for instances operating under a VPC, and you can set it and forget it. Unlike AWS, this feature is not available for any instances with local disks (this and other aspects of the description lead me to believe that Alibaba instances tend to be “sticky” to the underlying hardware instance). On AWS, local disks are described as ephemeral, and are simply deallocated when they are not in use. Like AWS, system/data disks continue to accrue costs even when an instance is stopped.

Both sites also show that Alibaba also has a one-month prepaid Subscription model. Based on a review of the pricing listed for the us-east-1 region on the Alibaba Cloud site, the monthly subscription discount reflects a substantial 30-60% discount compared to the cost of a PAYG instance that is left up for a full month. For a non-production environment that may only need to be up during normal business hours (say, 9 hours per day, weekdays only), one can easily see that it may be more cost-effective to go with the PAYG pricing, and use the ParkMyCloud service to shut the instances down during off-hours, saving 73%.

But this is where the similarities between the sites end. For actual pricing, instance availability, and even the actual instance types, one really needs to dive into a live Alibaba account. In particular, if PAYG is your preference, note that the Alibaba public site appears to have PAYG pricing listed for all of their available instance types, which is not consistent with what I found in the actual purchasing console.

Low-End Instance Types – “Entry Level” and “Basic”

The Alibaba Cloud site breaks down the instance types into “Entry Level” and “Enterprise”, listing numerous instance types under both categories. All of the Entry Level instance types are described as “Shared Performance”, which appears to mean the underlying hardware resources are shared amongst multiple instances in a potentially unpredictable way, or as described by Alibaba: “Their computing performance may be unstable, but the cost is relatively low” – an entertaining description to say the least. I did find these instance types on the internal purchasing site, but did not delve any further with them, as they do not offer a point of reference for our AWS vs. Alibaba Cloud pricing comparison. They may be an interesting path for additional investigation for non-production instance types where unstable computing performance may be OK in exchange for a lower price.

That said…after logging in to the Alibaba management console, reaching the Aliyun side of the website, there is no mention of Entry Level vs Enterprise. Instead we see the top-level options of “Basic Purchase” vs “Advanced Purchase”. Under Basic Purchase, there are four “t5” instance types. The t5 types appear to directly correspond to the first four AWS t2 instance types, in terms of building up CPU credits.

These four instance types do not appear to support the PAYG pricing model. Pricing is only offered on a monthly subscription basis. A 1-year purchase plan is also offered, but the math shows this is just the monthly price x12. It is important to note that the Aliyun site itself has issues, as it lists the t5 instance types in all of the Alibaba regions, but I was unable to purchase any of them in the us-east-1 region – “The configuration for the instance you are creating is currently not supported in this zone.”  (A purchase in us-west-1, slightly more expensive, was fine).

The following shows a price comparison for Alibaba vs AWS for “t” instance prices in a number of regions. The AWS prices reflect the hourly PAYG pricing, multiplied by an average 730 hour month. I was not able to get pricing for any AWS China region, so the Alibaba pricing is provided for reference.

While the AWS prices are higher, the AWS instances are PAYG, and thus could be stopped when not being used, common for t2 instances used in a dev-test environment, and potentially saving over 73%. One can easily see that this kind of savings is needed to compete with the comparatively low Alibaba prices. I do have to wonder what is up with that Windows pricing in China….does Microsoft know about this??

Aliyun “Advanced Purchase”

Looking at the “Advanced” side of the Aliyun purchasing site, we get a lot more options, including Pay-As-You-Go instances. To keep the comparison simple, I am going to limit the scope here to a couple of instance types, trying to compare a couple m5 and i3 instances with their Alibaba equivalents. I will list PAYG pricing where offered.

In this table, the listed monthly AWS prices reflect the hourly pay-as-you-go price, multiplied by an average 730 hour month.

The italicized/grey numbers under Alibaba indicate PAYG numbers that had to be pulled from the public-facing website, as the instance type was not available for PAYG purchase on the internal site. From a review of the various options on the internal Aliyun site, it appears the PAYG option is not actually offered for very many standalone instance types on Alibaba…

The main reason I pulled in the PAYG prices from the second source was for auto scaling, which is normally charged at PAYG prices. In Alibaba, “all ECS instances that Auto Scaling automatically creates, or manually adds, to a scaling group will be charged according to their instance types. Note that you will still be charged for Pay-As-You-Go instances even after you stop them.”  It is possible, however, to manually add subscription-based instances to an auto scaling group, and configure them to be not removed when the group scales-down.

In general, the full price of the AWS Linux instances over a month is 22-35% higher that of an Alibaba 1-month subscription. A full price AWS Windows instance over a month is 9-25%  higher than that of an Alibaba subscription. (And once again, it appears Windows licensing fees are not a factor in China.)

AWS vs Alibaba Cloud Pricing: Alibaba is cheaper, but…

Alibaba definitely comes out as less expensive in this AWS vs Alibaba cloud pricing comparison – the one-month subscription has a definite impact. However, for longer-lived instances, AWS Reserved Instances will certainly be less expensive, running about 40-75% less expensive than AWS PAYG, and thus less than some if not all of the Alibaba monthly subscriptions. AWS RI’s are also more easily applicable to auto scaling groups than a monthly subscription instance.

For non-production instances that can be shut down when not in use, PAYG is less expensive for both cloud providers, where ParkMyCloud can help you schedule the downtime. The difficulty with Alibaba will actually be finding instances types that can actually be purchased with the PAYG option.

About Bill Supernor

Bill Supernor is the CTO at ParkMyCloud. Bill is a software and network engineering professional with over 20 years of engineering and management experience in enterprise-grade software products, security, and networking. Prior to joining ParkMyCloud in 2017, Bill served as the CTO at KoolSpan, where he led the development of a globally deployed secure voice communication system for smartphones. Prior to KoolSpan, Bill served in security software engineering management positions at TrustDigital, Cognio, Symantec, and McAfee/Network Associates. He also was an officer in the United States Navy. Bill holds the CISSP and CSSLP certifications from ISC2 and is an AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate.

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