Cloud platforms are a big investment. Giving them that credit card number is the start of what could be a long relationship and many tens of thousands of dollars. So it's a good idea to try before you buy, and if you're using the cloud as a departmental developmental solution, it's an even better idea to find a service that won't cost you a penny while you get your applications and services up to speed.
That makes it well worth your time to use the various trial, test, and low-volume cloud services out there. They've been available for some time -- especially Google's free tier for its App Engine platform-as-a-service -- and Amazon has now joined the club with a free tier for test and development. Low cost and free services like these make particular sense for individuals and teams wanting to try building their own apps.
You might still need a credit card to get started, but it won't get billed if you stay within the services limits; so don't use too many resources, or forget about any time limits. And if it does get billed, you can quickly cancel the service and move on.
Here's a quick rundown of the big three.
Amazon Web Services. Amazon's free AWS offering is certainly impressive, with free options for most of its IaaS and PaaS services. While there are limits, they're easy to stay inside, and if you aren't able to use all the virtual machine options, you definitely have access to more than enough services for any pilot program or small app. If you've considered using AWS, then it's well worth trying out -- and there's plenty of community support. You'll even get to play with some of the more complex parts of Amazon's offering.
Google App Engine's free tier is also well worth investigating for an initial application -- I've had a simple test app running there for a couple of years without incurring any charges -- but it does have its limitations, and can be very easy to run up against those limits. While paid apps can then jump to another tier, free apps just stop working without warning. That's fine for a development or test system, but once you're using it to run backends for mobile apps, or as part of a business process, then a sudden outage could well be a problem; and a support headache for an unsupported app!
Microsoft's Azure comes with a range of free options for its popular services. You can deploy up to 10 free web sites, or build a mobile service that supports up to 500 devices, without having to pay a penny. Both options come with some storage (though that part is only free for a year) and seem tailored for small development teams and for small projects. You can use the free mobile service option to build the backend for an app, without impacting your company's network and server resources, and then if it proves successful, transition it to either a paid tier or to your own internal servers. A free trial with $200 of credits gives you about a month's access to all the services you need, and developers with subscriptions to Microsoft's MSDN program get an $1,800 credit a month (though not for production applications). If you're a startup access is also available as a benefit to organizations that are part of the company's BizSpark program -- and you're not limited to using Microsoft technologies, as there's support for Linux virtual machines on Azure's IaaS service.
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