How to set up Amazon Web Services for your small business

Been reading about what the cloud has to offer? We take a closer look at how you can leverage Amazon Web Services to run a data-driven website.

aws cloud storage

Cloud computing technology has matured significantly over the years, and now offers a compelling list of advantages over on-site deployments, especially for small businesses and start-ups that may not have the capital to purchase servers and other hardware appliances.

Cost aside, the public cloud delivers well-established capabilities such as scalability and elasticity. Even more importantly, businesses can leverage the public cloud to quickly set up infrastructure in a timeframe that is measurable in minutes as opposed to the weeks or months required to set up physical infrastructure.

We take a closer look at Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the most popular cloud services today, in order to examine how it can be leveraged to benefit small businesses.

The AWS ecosystem and basic prerequisites

It’s worth noting that while setting up a cloud deployment isn’t rocket science – at the basic level, anyway – it does require an IT background or a certain level of technical competency in order to configure everything correctly. For establishing a CMS or PHP-based website, for example, someone who’s already familiar with setting up the LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) stack would probably be a good candidate.

For all its widespread appeal, AWS is a proprietary cloud implementation, when all is said and done. So while some concepts could be similar across different cloud offerings, specific expertise working on AWS is typically not transferrable to Microsoft’s Azure or Google’s Compute Engine, and is unlikely to be easily replicated in an on-premises deployment.

[Related: How to create a robust backup strategy with cloud services]

AWS does offer a number of ways to help businesses quickly get up and running with common deployment scenarios; indeed, there’s often more than one way to implement a particular solution. In order to help you make sense of the AWS cloud, though, it makes sense to start from a short list of the most heavily used components.

aws console

The main Amazon Web Services console.

Some key components for Web hosting

EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) virtual servers make up the backbone of a cloud deployment on AWS. These virtual servers are available in a variety of configurations, each with differing amount of CPUs, memory, storage and network performance, and are billed based on an hourly rate. Note that some older instance types may get retired over time

S3 (Simple Storage Service) is an object storage system that can store up to 5TB in a single object, and are accessible anywhere on the Web through the requisite command line operators, API calls or even desktop apps that are designed to work with it.

EBS (Elastic Block Store) offers traditional file system capabilities and is more expensive. Attached to a server, EBS volumes function like a disk drive, and like a storage drive, persist even after a compute instance have been shut down. (Note that EC2 instances can be configured to delete EBS volumes on shutdown.)

RDS (Relationship Database Service) is a Web service that makes it easy to set up, operate and scale a relational database management system (RDBMS). An appropriate database engine can be selected, including MySQL, Oracle, SQL Server, PostgreSQL or Amazon Aurora.

Route 53 for DNS and domain name registration. Route 53 offers competitive rates that can be cheaper than the prices offered by some domain name registrars. On the other hand, Web hosting firms are also known to offer packaged deals that include the domain name for free, or at a cheaper rate for the first few years.

Finally, if you are looking to dabble around with the AWS cloud, you will be glad to know that AWS offers a free tier consisting of up to a year worth of compute instance time, as well as various freebies for the various products and services listed above.

Starting from a machine image and choosing a region

AWS makes it easy to launch your first compute instance by offering a wide range of prebuilt and optimized Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) that you can load onto a newly created instance. A vibrant AWS Marketplace also exists for third-party created images, and the AWS community also creates and uses shared public AMIs.

Before setting up your cloud infrastructure, you will need to choose a location or “region” from which to base your virtual infrastructure. The idea here is to go with a location that is either closest to the bulk of your users, or nearest to where your developers are physically located. For the latter, this could result in slightly better load times and speeds when uploading data and developing your website. Developers and database administrators will want to know that synchronous database replication is not supported across different regions, though asynchronous replication is. Finally, some services, especially if they’re new or beta offerings, may only be available in certain regions.

Of course, depending on how your website is architected, the use of a good Content Delivery Network (CDN) service could in most cases render your deployment region moot. You can use AWS CloudFront CDN, though other options can be used. In addition, AWS offers tools to easily migrate between multiple regions.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the cost of most AWS service is usually the same across the different regions, it’s not always the case. See “Monitor your cost” below for further explanation of AWS cost structures.

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