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On November 30, public cloud infrastructure provider Amazon Web Services (AWS) introduced Amazon Lightsail, a service that gives you quick access to a virtual private server (VPS).
At first glance, the product launch appeared to be an attack on smaller companies that offer low-cost VPS, such as Bluehost, DigitalOcean and Linode.
But if you take the service for a spin, it becomes clear that Lightsail is a rethinking of AWS’ setup process and basic tools. While it’s not as flexible as the regular computing and storage services from AWS, it does make the cloud more friendly to beginners. And that’s important — more people may use AWS for independent projects, which could become larger and lead to business use. AWS has faced criticism from time to time for being complicated, and Lightsail can be thought of as a response to that.
Instead of being just another service that you get to from the AWS management console, Lightsail has its own subdomain: lightsail.aws.amazon.com. When you go there, AWS shows you a user interface that’s very different from the norm. There are bright orange buttons, a Quick Assist drawer on the right that explains what you’re looking at, and sometimes even blue boxes that pop up and show you what to click on next. At the top of each page is a floating bar with shortcuts to the service’s dashboard, a search box for finding relevant documentation, a simplified account page, and the usual AWS console and billing pages. The presentation looks like something a startup would show a new user.
The page with steps for setting up a Lightsail box brings together a bunch of tools that are otherwise spread out when you’re working with the AWS EC2 computing service.
You can either choose a base operating system (Amazon Linux or Ubuntu 16.04 LTS) or an image on top of an OS. Typically, when creating an EC2 instance with the Quick Start tool, you see a long list of OS images, and you can venture into the expansive AWS Marketplace and dig out an Amazon Machine Image (AMI) to run on top of your virtual machine (VM) instance. Here, you have a lot fewer options to choose from. It’s not as intimidating.
Lightsail presents you with a link to open up a text box where you can enter a shell script for your instance, but if you keep scrolling and skip it, you’ll be fine. Scroll down further, and Lightsail shows you an SSH key pair manager. For every instance you set up in Lightsail after your first, the service predicts that you’ll want to use the key you most recently used, so you can probably keep scrolling. Or you can create a new key pair or upload your own public key.
Below that, you have five different instance sizes to choose from. Here, AWS reminds you that you can use Lightsail for one month free of charge if you use the cheapest tier. It does not appear that AWS offers a free tier on Lightsail, as it does with EC2.
From there, you can change the availability zone where your instance will be launched. Currently, AWS only offers Lightsail out of its US East (Northern Virginia) region of data centers, so the options are limited to four us-east-1 zones.
Scroll down a little further, and you get a text box in which you can type a name for your instance. It’s automatically populated based on the VM image, instance size, and region you selected earlier. You can choose to spin up as many as 20 instances from here.
Then you simply hit the Create button, which will make AWS spin up the VMs you requested.
What’s significant here are all the options you don’t need to worry about: Spot Instances, dedicated instances, networks, subnets, IAM rolls, shutdown behavior, whether to use CloudWatch, attached storage volumes, tags, security groups, and which ports to open.
Depending on your preferences, it could take up to about 50 seconds for AWS to instantiate your VMs. On the dashboard for your VMs, you can navigate to a specific instance — with a nice human-readable description and icon for the VM image — and manage it, or you can quickly start, stop, or delete existing instances. There are also buttons to set up static IP addresses for VMs or DNS zones to apply existing web domains to VMs. Unfortunately, there is no way to select multiple instances and make changes to them.
But what you can do easily is connect to the VM over SSH. You don’t need to worry about copying and pasting its URL into your terminal, as you do with EC2. (If you don’t want to use the web-based option that Lightsail provides, you can alternatively copy the public IP and username for the VM and use your own SSH client.)
From the management page for a specific VM, you can click the Metrics tab to see charts on CPU utilization, incoming and outgoing networking traffic, and status check failures. Ordinarily, you could set up the CloudWatch service if you want to chart out things like this, but with Lightsail, AWS gives you simple charts as part of the package.
The Networking tab lets you adjust ports as necessary. The Snapshots tab lets you take new VM snapshots and see the five most recent ones for that specific VM. The History tab shows events, such as when you created, stopped, or restarted a VM, when you created snapshots, and when you attached a static IP.
It’s not clear if the service will take off the way that Aurora, Lambda, and Redshift did after AWS introduced them. But it is clear that AWS went out of its way to make the core part of AWS — computing in the cloud — much more accessible.
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