While DigitalOcean still isn’t a real competitor to Amazon Web Services, their astonishing growth has more and more developers wondering what the advantages and disadvantages are between the 2 services. Both offer cloud hosting at a large scale, with DigitalOcean focused on making VPS hosting simple, fast, and low cost and Amazon focused on being a one-stop shop for every cloud service you could ever need.
Amazon offers a full ecosystem of services – computing, storage, CDN, DNS, DbaaS and a lot more, while DO is still primarily just a VPS service with low hourly pricing and a sub-1 minute setup time. So why even compare the 2?
DigitalOcean is the fastest growing player in the cloud space, and now the second largest web host in the world (according to Netcraft). With growth like that they must be doing something right, so lets dive a little deeper.
*note: this graph is from 2013 but DO’s growth has continued to outpace AWS percentage-wise since then, although Amazon still leads in terms in pure revenue growth
DigitalOcean is a relatively new cloud hosting provider in the market, launched in 2011. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone like Amazon, DigitalOcean focuses heavily on developer needs. This means high performance drives and networking equipment, simple to understand billing, and fast and easy setup. They’ve gotten a lot of press over the years due to their meteoric growth and for the massive amount of venture funding they’ve received from some of the top names in Silicon Valley.
The DigitalOcean business model focuses on small businesses and single developers who don’t need all the features and complexity of an AWS. Rather, they offer super simple transparent pricing, and a user interface that allows developers to spin up Linux instances (droplets) in a minute. While they are still fairly limited in feature offering, all the most popular Linux distros are supported (Ubuntu, CentOS, Debian and Fedora) and they are integrated with most popular web applications like WordPress, Ruby on Rails, LAMP, Docker, etc.
Up until recently, DigitalOcean’s pricing has been the rock bottom lowest among all cloud providers. With plans starting at $5/month they are affordable even to the smallest startups. But their pricing advantages haven’t lasted, with many of their competitors (Amazon included) racing towards zero with super low cost options. Still, DigitalOcean is a fan favorite because they don’t nail you with a lot of hidden charges that most other competitors still do. Pricing starts at $0.007/hour or $5/month and what you see is what you get. They don’t charge for additional bandwidth (yet) or any of the other add-on costs that can build up when using providers like AWS. Amazon has continued to drop their hourly pricing in an attempt to keep up companies like DigitalOcean, but they aren’t there and likely won’t get there since they really aren’t offering an equivalent service.
DigitalOcean also lead a mass migration to high performance SSD servers and high capacity networking equipment that was followed by many of their competitors. While many have closed the performance gap that was blatantly large just a few years ago, they also offer a droplet startup time of 55 seconds which is 2-3x faster than competitors like Amazon. We’ll discuss the performance differences between DigitalOcean and AWS in further detail later in the writeup.
In terms of feature offering, DigitalOcean only offers Linux virtual machines and DNS management for the time being, but they have stated that this will be changing in the near future. They do not offer things like load balancing, advanced analytics, hosted databases, DDoS protection, CDN, etc. They are still a fairly bare-bones IaaS provider, but that can be considered a strength or a weakness, depending on your needs.
Amazon Web Services is the world’s largest IaaS provider and offers a full stack of web services that make up their cloud computing platform. The AWS platform allows companies of any size to access nearly infinite amounts of computing capacity, and just about every other cloud service that could go along with it. They operate data centers in 11 regions around the world with each region having multiple availability zones, which are isolated redundant data centers intended to prevent service outages even if one availability zone goes down.
AWS has continued to lower their pricing over the past few years in order to compete with upstarts like DigitalOcean, but they are still not the cheapest game in town. And honestly, they aren’t always the highest performing either. Where they really dominate is in the breadth and depth of their service offering. It would take an entire article to cover all the features and services they offer to go along with EC2, but some of the most popular include, S3 (storage), CloudFront (CDN), Route 53 (DNS), direct VPN connectivity, Hosted Active Directory, Elastic Load Balancing, DynamoDB, Beanstalk (application deployment), and a brand new Web Application Firewall.
By this point most people are familiar with Amazon Web Services and what they bring to the plate, so lets jump right into how they stack up to DigitalOcean in terms of a few key metrics: pricing, performance, and support.
Outside of simplicity, pricing has been DigitalOcean’s biggest differentiator against AWS since the beginning. Since Amazon’s service isn’t really comparable to DigitalOcean in many respects, we will stick to just basics: computing, storage, and transfer.
Below you’ll see DigitalOcean’s most popular plans (in hourly pricing) with the 2GB plan @ $20/month or $.03/hr being the most popular. Several other VPS providers like Linode and Vultr have recently dropped their rates to meet or even beat this pricing, but historically DigitalOcean has been the cheapest. And their lowest cost plan at $.007/hr or $5/month is the lowest entry level plan in the industry.
Amazon Web Services pricing can become unbelievably complicated when you consider all the possible add-on services they offer, so we will only discuss their relatively new t2 server offering, which is comparable to DigitalOcean’s most popular entry level plans. Below you can see pricing for the AWS t2.micro and t2.small EC2 instances.
The Amazon t2.micro is most comparable to DigitalOcean’s $10/month 1GB plan. As you can see, the on-demand hourly rate is slightly lower, and the effective hourly on a 1-year term is significantly cheaper. Also, if your account is less than 12-months old you can use a t2.micro instance for free within certain usage limits. On the other hand, the rates above are for computing only and not storage or transfer.
The Amazon t2.small instance is most comparable to DigitalOcean’s most popular $20/month 2GB plan. Again, the hourly rate is slightly lower and with a 1-year commitment it is nearly half the price (for computing only). Again, it’s important to note that the pricing here does not include storage or bandwidth like the DigitalOcean plans do.
Below you can see some performance benchmarks between DigitalOcean entry level plans and comparable EC2 instances.
As you can see, response times are comparable between the DigitalOcean 2GB plan and both Amazon t2 instances, with Amazon edging out the win. DigitalOcean has a slight advantage in CPU, but in both metrics the results are comparable. Performance on the DigitalOcean 1GB plan drops off considerably.
*performance data from VPSbenchmarks.com
DigitalOcean has a massive arsenal of documentation available for their service, and since it is still a relatively basic VPS host there is generally not as much of a need for support. That said, they do not offer support by phone and response times by email can be slow, likely because of the sheer number of customers they are supporting.
Amazon also has a strong database of help documentation, but with the massive breadth of service offering available in the portal, most users will need to engage with support at some point or another. They have a massive support team that can accommodate this, but support is not included with all plans. Technical support charges can cost up to 10% of your monthly contract spend, which can really add up for larger organizations.
To reiterate, DigitalOcean is still not a true Amazon competitor. Their target market is small startups and single developers who value simplicity over features whereas Amazon is aiming to be the Walmart of cloud computing, offering everything to everyone.
In terms of performance vs price, DigitalOcean had a significant lead over most of their competitors for years, but that gap has since been closed as everyone from Amazon to Vultr followed their lead and revamped their network infrastructure while dropping pricing on entry level plans. Still, DigitalOcean is a favorite among developers due to the sheer ease of use of their platform and super fast setup times.
AWS, on the other hand, is still the largest IaaS platform in the world by a large margin, owning over 30% of the total market share. By comparison, their next closest competitor Microsoft Azure has less than 10% (as of 2016). Companies choose Amazon not because they are the cheapest or the fastest, but because they offer a breadth of features and services that is unmatched in the industry, all easily accessible from a single control panel with a single monthly bill.