A First Look at Google Cloud Platform

This got really long, so I broke it up into parts. Feel free to skip to the parts you’re interested in.
* Setting up, Organization differences & IAM/Authentication (this post) (dev.to mirror)
* Google Compute Engine (dev.to mirror)
* Google Cloud Storage (dev.to mirror)
* Google Cloud Datastore (dev.to mirror)

I have a bunch of experience with AWS (Disclaimer: I worked there). My AWS account dates back to 2010, but I’ve only really started using AWS heavily in the last 2 years.

I’ve been speccing out and performing cost estimations for a new project recently, and with the introduction of the GCP free tier and the $300 of credit, I decided to look into some of the services GCP offers to see how it compares to AWS.

Google has a comparison between AWS and GCP, which is useful but pretty dry. I decided to just dive in and experiment – that $300 of credit means I’m pretty safe!

Registering for GCP

It was a matter of going to the GCP console and logging in with my Google account. I had to sign up for the free trial and provide my credit card details, but that was it. Compared to the AWS signup process, this was a lot simpler.

However, it’s simple because Google has effectively split the account verification steps – I used my gmail account, which was already verified. A side effect of this is created resources are associated with this account by default. An AWS account is trivial to transfer – update the email address and be done with it. My Google account? Less easily transferred, but that brings me to the first major difference.

AWS Accounts vs GCP Projects

Google doesn’t really expound on the account/project difference, merely saying this in their comparison:

Cloud Platform groups your service usage by project rather than by account. In this model, you can create multiple, wholly separate projects under the same account. In an organizational setting, this model can be advantageous, allowing you to create project spaces for separate divisions or groups within your company.

In practice, it’s an entirely different way of handling resources. If you wanted to run something in its own isolated silo in AWS, you would generally create an entirely separate account, and use consolidated billing/AWS Organizations (which is a whole other set of problems). In GCP, each project is its own little silo, with no communication between projects by default.

After getting used to AWS (and using AWS Organizations to handle the account-per-project), this is a very different way of thinking. To me, there are two main benefits.

The first is that switching ownership of resources is incredibly simple – assign a new project owner, and remove the existing owner, and it’s done. What’s most impressive is that (as far as I can tell), the transfer will be done without interrupting anything currently running. Compute Engine instances will continue to run, Cloud Storage buckets don’t need to have contents copied out, the bucket deleted, then recreated in the new account, hoping that no one else steals the bucket name in the meantime.

The second benefit is that segmentation of projects is far easier. You don’t have to have the equivalent of an AWS account per project if you want separation for security.

A nerfed IAM?

The downside of separation by project is that GCP seems not to have an active equivalent of AWS IAM’s ability to restrict access to individual resources. The GCP documentation explicitly calls this out:

Permissions are project-wide, which means that developers in a project can modify and deploy the application and the other Cloud Platform services and resources associated with that project.

I am conflicted over this situation. Best practice says that accounts/roles should have the fewest permissions possible. I try to lock down my IAM policies to specific resources wherever possible. For example, a user can only interact with a single SQS queue because I restrict the attached IAM policy by queue name.

On GCP, it’s all or nothing within a project. I have to allow access to all PubSub topics if I want to allow access to one.

Now, what actually happens is that people can and do liberally use * in their IAM policies in AWS, so Google’s just making it really easy to get up and running.

But the fact that the restrictions aren’t available by default are worrying, especially for large companies that do have to capability to manage IAM policies (and not operate accounts per service).

I think Google’s realised this, and is extending IAM (still in Alpha) to allow permissions to be defined on individual resources where supported (eg PubSub, Datastore). It looks like it’s possible to use the IAM API to define custom roles, but I haven’t successfully done so. I just ended up using project isolation, which works, but feels bad.


GCP has a greater variety of ways to authenticate with their APIs compared to AWS.

  • Compute Engine/App Engine work with IAM and get credentials, much like EC2’s instance roles. These are limited to individual projects.
  • Developers using the gcloud CLI can authenticate using OAuth2, and switch between projects.
  • Non-interactive systems outside GCP use a service account that’s tied to a specific project.

Using the SDK requires creating a service account, which generates a JSON file (or PKCS12, but let’s ignore that). The easiest way is to use an environment variable GOOGLE_APPLICATION_CREDENTIALS to set the location of the file when using the SDK, and let the SDK handle everything.

You can define the file location in code, like Boto. (And presumably other AWS SDKs, I’ve only really used the Python version.)

You can also go full OAuth, provide a list of scopes and walk through the OAuth process, but … no.

Compared to AWS’s simple “IAM users get a Access Key & Secret Key”, it seems rather overcomplicated. Thankfully reasonable defaults are used.

Amusingly, GCP isn’t as agnostic as AWS is – references to G Suite sometimes appear. Not everyone is designing applications to be run on G Suite, so I have a feeling it’s just old documentation.

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