Cheaping out on EC2 – using Spot Instances

Amazon markets Spot Instances as a way to reduce the price you pay for instances. So, continuing my efforts to reduce expenses on EC2, I looked into using spot instances. Spot instances are essentially just like normal instances. You can create your own AMIs, where you essentially create an image and tell Amazon to create instances based on that image, or use an existing AMI.

If you want to create an AMI, get a starting image, and customize it as necessary. I started with the Fedora 17 image. In an attempt to reduce the cost, I resized the disk from 10GB to 2GB, installed vim, less, screen and rsync, which oddly aren’t in the default Fedora install.

I then had to package it as a new AMI – this created an EBS snapshot, so I’m happy that I resized the disk. It’s a bit annoying that you’re going to be paying for an EBS snapshot AND the active EBS volumes, but in virtually all cases, the cost of the EBS snapshot won’t exceed the amount saved by using spot instances. If you have a bigger snapshot, it’ll cost more of course, but then you’d likely be using a more expensive EC2 instance, so the cost should balance out in the long run.

As for actually using the spot instance, I had my AMI set up to automatically start an IRC bot, so I used this for timing. The IRC bot came online ~7 minutes after I submitted the request to start the spot instance, so there’s a bit of lead time, but not too much. Because of the lead time, the instance won’t appear in the instance list for a while.

And an extra tip: Don’t be like me and not realise the spot instance actually started, and leave it running for two months racking up charges, only to be notified by Amazon that you now owe them money after your credit runs out. (Thankfully, they waived the charges as a one time thing.)

So now by default I set an expiry time of a day on all my spot instance requests if I know I’m only going to have them up for a few hours.

And one thing to look at if you require access to your data and can get by with using a pre-created image is using instance stores and mounting EBS volumes with the API. I didn’t try it because apparently, the t1.micro size that I’m using doesn’t support instance stores. Of course, this only really makes sense if you don’t want to pay the cost of having the spot instance run off an EBS volume. For a large scale operation, could be worth it.

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