CodeBork | Tales from the Codeface

The coding blog of Alastair Smith, a software developer based in Cambridge, UK. Interested in DevOps, Azure, Kubernetes, .NET Core, and VueJS.

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Earlier this year I had some time off between jobs, and I used the opportunity to put some life into an idea I’ve been wanting to work on for nearly a decade now. I need to run the project on only a small budget, and therefore need to keep hosting costs down. On the other side of the coin, I really like the workflows I built around Docker, and want to continue building on those. As such, I’ve been researching options for running Docker Containers on Azure, beyond the obvious orchestration example of Kubernetes. This blog post is a semi- not very scientific summary of what I’ve found so far. All quotations are for North Europe (Dublin): whilst all are available in UK South (London), the region is at least second-tier when it comes to updates, previews, etc., and is not as cheap as the North Europe region on some services. The prices are in GBP as I am based in the UK and billed in GBP. All hourly prices converted to monthly equivalent costs are based on a 730-hour month.

I’ve divided the options into Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) options. While all of the PaaS options can be considered “serverless”, only one offers consumption-based pricing: Azure Container Instances (ACI).

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)

As with everything in life there are pros and cons to both IaaS and PaaS. The pros of IaaS are greater control over your resources and infrastructure, and the ability to more finely-tune your set-up for your application. The downside is a greate administrative burden, in the form of patching and updating your virtual machines’ operating systems, installed software, etc., as well as your own application.

Azure Virtual Machines

It’s fair to say that, with a virtual machine in the cloud, you can do basically anything you want. It’s certainly the case that one could run Docker Containers on Azure Virtual Machines, and if one is working solely with Docker Compose, this might not be a bad solution. As we’ll see, however, there are better options for deploying Docker Compose configurations on Azure.

The cheapest pay-as-you-go VM available on Azure is the B1S “burstable” VM. These allow you to accrue CPU “credits” during periods of VM inactivity that can be redeemed during periods of high activity. When the available credits have been exhausted, the VM CPU resource is severely limited. The B1S VM is £0.0084/hour or £6.19/month.

A word on spot instances

The newer “spot instances” are a lot cheaper than this, with Azure’s pricing pages boasting discounts as high as “~90%”, and this is the absolute cheapest option for doing basically anything on Azure, provided you’re willing to put the work in: in the case of running a Docker Compose application, this means spinning up a new spot VM and deploying the application to that each time a VM was terminated. This can be achieved via in-VM notifications, but as far as I’m aware there’s no turn-key solution for this: even VM Scale Sets will only handle so much of the process. That said, a D2a v4 spot instance will set you back roughly the same amount per month as a B1S and is a much beefier VM with 2 vCPUs and 8GB RAM, but the cheapest spot instance I could find was an F1 at ~£5.3450/month, with 1 vCPU and 2GB RAM. This might be appropriate for a very small workload, but for the money I’d vouch that a D2a v4 represents better value given the additional work required.

Conclusion: cheap, but a lot of extra effort required to handle deployments.

Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS)

AKS is the shire horse of container workloads on Azure: it will handle any workload you care to throw at it, and as a result is big, powerful, and expensive. There’s plenty to take care of yourself too: as mentioned at the beginnig of this section, you will need to patch your VMs’ operating systems and other software, including staying on top of Kubernetes (k8s) updates. At the time of writing, AKS defaults to k8s 1.15.11, and offers 1.16.8 and .9 as fully-supported releases. If you want the newer 1.17 and 1.18 release streams, you’re relegated to “preview”-level support, and herein lies the rub with hosted k8s solutions: they all track a version or two behind upstream Kubernetes. Given k8s releases a minor version each quarter, the default release stream AKS offers is a whole year behind upstream.

Only some VM types are supported in AKS, and as a result the absolute smallest cluster you can build is 1xB2S node, which is £0.034/hour, or £24.48/month. I have left as an open question whether or not Kubernetes processes such as kubelet will consume CPU credits and make this impractical, but given the smaller B-series VMs are not supported, I would hazard a guess that it won’t consume all the VM’s credits…

AKS now supports spot instances in a secondary node pool, but not in the primary node pool. This makes sense from a technical perspective, but means that the spot instances are an incremental cost over the ~£25/month base price. The cheapest spot instance VM available in AKS is the DS1v2 offering 1 vCPU and 3.5GB RAM for ~£36/month. I haven’t worked out why there is a >2x discrepancy between the spot pricing for this level in AKS vs. as a standalone VM, where the cost is advertised as ~£15/month.

Finally, AKS offers an interesting scalability feature that allows a cluster to “break out” into Azure Container Instances for scheduling in times of high load. There are some known limitations that may not make this a slam-dunk option (e.g. the fact that these virtual nodes won’t run DaemonSet resources), but it can certainly be a cost-effective way to scale.

Conclusion: £25/month base price is affordable, but the available resources are small and the incremental cost of scaling out is at least £25/month.

Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)

PaaS offerings are becoming much more popular as people realise the benefits of not administering their own servers. To my mind this is equivalent to the notion of “serverless”, although some prefer to keep to a stricter definition involving code-to-platform deployment and consumption-based pricing (e.g. Azure Functions, AWS Lambda, etc.). Some of these offerings, such as Azure App Service and Azure Functions are “all-inclusive”, meaning that custom domain names, public IP addresses, etc., are included in the plan price.

Azure App Service

Azure App Service is a well-established product on the platform at this point. Introduced as Azure Websites in the early 2010s, it was Microsoft’s response to services such as Heroku offering repository-to-platform deployment. Since then it has grown to encompass a number of products across web, mobile, API, and process automation.

Under the covers, Azure App Service is backed by a VM running Microsoft’s Kudu project, and the pricing levels reflect this. Lower-priced tiers co-locate your app(s) with others’, and offer fewer platform features; higher-priced (production-ready) tiers offer “dedicated compute” (i.e., your own VM) and features such as deployment slots and SSL connections.

From a Docker perspective, containers are only supported on App Service for Linux plans, which excludes the lower-priced co-located resources. The Basic tier App Service for Linux plan is £0.013/hour, or £9.79/month, but beware of the up-sells to services such as Azure Front Door which can be very pricey.

Conclusion: The <£10/month price point is highly attractive, and the platform product comes with a number of features at that level: custom domains, an integrated load balancer, SSL and web sockets.

Azure Container Instances (ACI)

Azure Container Instances is an interesting and novel service, and, if memory serves, one of the areas Microsoft led the market with compute offerings. At its heart, ACI is a fully-hosted Kubernetes, where the nodes are abstracted away from you as well as the control plane. Unfortunately, however, it is not possible to deploy ACI containers with standard k8s tooling beyond the one-off kubectl exec unless you use ACI as a virtual node with AKS. As a result, the orchestration concerns of container deployment need to be implemented with Azure Resource Manager templates, which is … not ideal. (There is support for YAML manifests, which is easier than ARM templates, but it’s only “Kubernetes-like”).

That said, fully serverless k8s is rather exciting, and the consumption-based pricing can be cost-effective for deploying self-contained apps such as Grafana, Kibana, etc. A 1 vCPU, 1GB RAM container (sufficient for Kibana workloads at least) will set you back ~£25/month. A 1 vCPU, 1.5GB RAM container (for, e.g. nginx) is only another ~£2/month. These resources are assigned per “container group” rather than per container, which translates to a pod in k8s terminology, so a side-car container will run very cost-effectively.

Given the elastic nature of ACI, it’s probable this is best suited to elastic workloads, such as data-processing and service workers. Unlike Azure App Service, ACI is not “all-inclusive” and only provides the compute resources. Public IP addresses for ACI container groups are an add-on component and billed at the standard ~£2/month.

Conclusion: This is one of the more expensive ways of running a container on Azure. Use this for elastic scaling, worker processes, etc., and not for long-running apps.

Azure Functions

Finally, it’s possible to run containers from Azure Functions. At the time of writing, I’m not convinced of the benefits of doing this, not least because containers are not supported on the consumption plan for Functions; if this is something you’re after, then ACI represents the best option here.

The two options for running containers on Azure Functions are on the Premium plan, and the Dedicated plan. The Dedicated plan backs your Functions app with an App Service plan, and pricing is then the same as for Azure App Service above. If you’re writing a plain HTTP app, then I’d suggest that Azure App Service is the better product to pick; if, however, you’re looking to take advantage of triggers from other platform products such as CosmosDB without writing your own integration code, this can be a good option for your app.

The Premium plan provides pre-warmed instances, so if you have other Functions app requiring this level of service, piggy-backing your containers onto the same plan could be sensible. For just running containers, however, the £0.16/hr, £113.52/month is prohibitive compared with the other options previously discussed.

Conclusion: There is little difference between Functions and Azure App Service as far as containers are concerned if you’re only running HTTP processes. The integration with an App Service plan makes this an interesting option for running back-end processes listening to platform events. The Premium plan isn’t worth the money just for a few containers.

Comparison and Conclusion

Looking at price vs. features, it seems that Azure App Service balances very nicely indeed.

I decided to try to compare the services for value for money in three dimensions: ease of deployment, no. of CPU cores, and GB RAM provided by the services. The latter two are easily quantifiable, and the information is generally available too. “Ease of deployment” is little more than a fudge factor if I’m honest, but I tried to take into account things like the maintenance overhead (troubleshooting when something goes wrong, patching for security updates, upgrading for new features, etc.), how complicated deploying my an application of a handful of services would be, and how many additional resources would need to be deployed to support the application. The following table draws a comparison between the options assuming:

Service Unit price/month No. units Ease of deployment CPU Cores RAM (GB) Value for £
Virtual Machines            
B1S £6.19 2 1.0 1.00 4.00 0.3231
D2a v4 Spot £6.04 1 0.1 2.00 8.00 0.2649
Azure Kubernetes Service            
B2S £24.48 2 3.0 2.00 4.00 0.4902
D2 v4 £58.22 1 3.0 2.00 8.00 0.8245
Azure App Service, Linux Basic            
B1 £9.79 1 6.0 1.00 1.75 1.0725
B2 £19.04 1 6.0 2.00 3.50 2.2059
B3 £38.09 1 6.0 4.00 7.00 4.4106
Azure Container Instances £27.00 4 2.0 1.00 1.00 0.0185
Azure Functions            
Dedicated is equivalent to Azure App Service plans above            
Premium £113.52 1 6.0 1.00 3.50 0.1850