Alibaba Cloud may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of competitors to Amazon Web services (AWS). However, alongside cloud services like Azure and Google Cloud Platform, Alibaba Cloud is now trying hard to unseat AWS as the world’s leading cloud computing platform.
If you live outside of Asia and haven’t heard of Alibaba Cloud until recently, you’re not alone. Although Alibaba Cloud was founded in 2009, only a few years after AWS, it focused initially on the China market, then expanded slowly into neighbouring countries.
Today, it is clear that Alibaba Cloud intends to compete globally with AWS and other major cloud providers. That leaves many consumers wondering whether Alibaba Cloud computing can offer better value than AWS. This article explores that question by comparing the Alibaba Cloud computing, storage, API and other services with those of AWS.
Alibaba ECS vs. AWS EC2
The standard compute services offered by Alibaba Cloud and AWS are Elastic Compute Service (ECS) Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2), respectively. (Alibaba Cloud ECS should not be confused with AWS ECS, a container service on AWS.)
Both cloud computing services provide the same core features:
- The ability to choose from dozens of instance types.
- Support for virtual as well as bare-metal servers.
- Compatibility with a variety of Windows and Linux-based operating systems.
- The ability to create custom images.
At present, the main differences between Alibaba Cloud ECS and AWS EC2 are that Alibaba Cloud provides a broader set of instance families, and that AWS offers more regions. Currently, Alibaba cloud offers only a handful of regions in the United States and Europe, and has none in South America. AWS has broader geographic coverage across the planet, including two regions in China.
Alibaba Cloud vs. AWS Instance Pricing
Making a direct price comparison between Alibaba Cloud ECS and AWS EC2 pricing is not possible because pricing varies between different instance types, and no instances from the two companies are identical.
However, as a basic AWS vs. Alibaba Cloud pricing comparison, consider the following instance types: On Alibaba Cloud, a Linux-based instance with 1 CPU core and 2 gigabytes of memory costs $19 per month using a monthly subscription. (Alibaba Cloud offers a “pay-as-you-go” option as well, which is equivalent to AWS on-demand pricing and is more expensive; unfortunately, at the time of writing the Alibaba Cloud pricing calculator is not working, so estimating pay-as-you-go costs for this type of instance is not possible.)
In comparison, on AWS EC2 an on-demand Linux t2.small instance, which also has 1 CPU core and 2 gigabytes of memory, would cost $10.51 per month as a reserve instance with prepayment, or $16.84 per month using on-demand pricing and 100 percent utilization, according to the AWS price calculator.
In this comparison, the AWS offering is more cost-effective if you need only compute resources. However, the Alibaba Cloud instance includes 40 gigabytes of SSD storage for the price quoted above, and the AWS instance does not include storage. In this case, storage needs would determine whether Alibaba Cloud or AWS offers a better price.
AWS vs. Alibaba Cloud: Storage
Alibaba Cloud and AWS both offer block, object and file storage services.
Alibaba Cloud’s storage services include Object Storage Service (OSS), Elastic Block Storage (EBS) and Network Attached Storage (NAS). On AWS, the equivalents are S3 object storage, Elastic Block Store (EBS) and Elastic File System (EFS).
Both clouds offer “cold” storage services as well, which can be useful for cost-efficient storage of data that does not need to be accessed frequently. Alibaba Cloud offers three tiers of storage for its OSS service: Standard, Infrequent Access and Archive. AWS is similar, offering standard, infrequent and “Glacier” storage services. Overall, Alibaba Cloud’s storage prices are slightly lower than those of AWS at all storage tiers.
The pricing structures for Alibaba Cloud storage and AWS storage are somewhat different and vary depending on which data centers you use. As a general price comparison, however, consider the following: S3 charges $0.023 per gigabyte for the first 50 gigabytes of data stored using standard storage, compared to $0.02 on Alibaba Cloud OSS at the equivalent tier. (The total cost of data storage will be higher on both clouds once you add bandwidth costs.) That’s not a very big difference, although Alibaba Cloud is slightly less expensive. This trend holds true across different storage tiers (standard, infrequent access and archival).
Alibaba Cloud API vs. AWS API
For developers, both clouds offer API services to enable applications to interact with cloud resources. The specifics of the API functionality vary depending on which services they interact with.
Currently, evidence suggests that the AWS APIs offer some features that are not available from Alibaba Cloud’s API. See, for example, this feature comparison of the Alibaba Cloud OSS API and the AWS S3 API.
Other Services on Alibaba Cloud and AWS
Over the past several years, AWS has expanded upon its cloud computing and storage offerings to provide a broader array of cloud-based services. These range from the CloudFront CDN, to the Fargate container service, to Lambda serverless computing, and much more.
Alibaba Cloud offers a similar selection of services. Its answer to AWS Lambda is Alibaba Cloud Function Computing, for example. Alibaba offers a container service as well. Both clouds also offer database management and cloud-based big data platforms.
Comparing each type of service on Alibaba Cloud and AWS is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is clear that both clouds aim to offer a comprehensive suite of cloud services that extends far beyond basic compute and storage resources.
In terms of community and awareness, AWS has a much larger presence, especially among English-speaking users. It would be virtually impossible to find an English-speaking IT professional who has not heard of -- and probably used -- AWS. In contrast, Alibaba Cloud remains poorly known in Western countries. It is also smaller overall, with a quarterly revenue of around $500 million, compared to AWS’s $4 billion. The Alibaba Cloud English-language documentation is also not as thorough; some important data about Alibaba Cloud services and pricing is posted only in Alibaba Cloud forums rather than integrated into the official documentation. And as noted above, the Alibaba Cloud pricing calculator currently appears to be broken. That said, Alibaba Cloud is clearly in the midst of working to expand its presence in Western countries and improve its services for English-speaking customers.
Note that Alibaba Cloud provides a migration tool to assist in moving workloads from on-premise environments or other public clouds to Alibaba Cloud. The tool does not convert APIs, however; it primarily helps to move virtual machines between environments.
Alibaba Cloud and AWS provide broadly similar cloud computing, storage and other services. While AWS offers broader geographic coverage, Alibaba Cloud is likely to continue to expand as it seeks to catch up with AWS in this regard. When it comes to cost, the pricing structures of both clouds vary, which can create an opportunity for consumers to get the best value by using whichever cloud best meets their needs.
AWS remains much a better-known cloud provider in the West, but as Alibaba Cloud continues to grow, it promises to become another serious competitor to AWS around the world. For some workloads, it may offer a better value.
Alibaba Cloud vs. AWS Feature Comparison
|Covers all continents?||No||Yes|
|Standard compute service||ECS||EC2|
|Supported operating systems||Linux, Windows||Linux, Windows|
|Bare-metal server option?||Yes||Yes|
|Compute pricing models||Monthly or pay-as-you-go||On-demand or reserved|
|Storage services||Object, block||Object, block|
|Approximate quarterly revenue||$500M||$4B|