AWS Lightsail: Full Guide with Features, Benefits, and Pros and Cons

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AWS Lightsail: Full Guide with Features, Benefits, and Pros and Cons

If you’re looking for a simple VPS without any of the bells and whistles of Amazon EC2, your solution comes in the form of AWS Lightsail. Amazon offers users their own VPS, or “Virtual Private Server,” essentially a virtual machine hosted within Amazon’s cloud containing all the necessary data and software needed to run a fully functional application or website. 

Lightsail features popular built-in content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla, along with widely-used development stacks like Node.js and Django. Both novice and seasoned coders can dive right in without spending a great deal of time setting up their environment. 

Is AWS Lightsail able to live up to its promise of a true out-of-the-box cloud solution without the need for much configuration or intervention? Doesn’t EC2 offer the same thing? Yes and no. We went down the AWS rabbit hole to find out how just how developer-friendly Lightsail actually is, and how it stands out from similar services. Let’s dig in!

Must-Know Facts About AWS Lightsail:

  • In addition to VMs, Lightsail also includes containers, databases, and DNS management services, making it a true infrastructure-as-a-service platform. 
  • Like many AWS components, Lightsail is easily scalable via smart load balancing coupled with added instances when needed. It does not support auto-scaling, however.
  • Lightsail’s console sits atop a publicly-accessible API, letting programmers handle virtually every task from within their code should they choose to take that route.
  • While ideal for development environments, light-to-mid database usage, and the majority of common website architectures, those planning to run CPU-intensive tasks should consider an alternative to Lightsail such as EC2.
  • The majority of Lightsail plans calculate billing costs with an on-demand rate per hour, only charging you for the times your instance is truly in use. There is also a three-month free tier option available for anyone looking to give the service a test run. 

What is AWS Lightsail: Explained

Launched by Amazon in late 2016 as part of its AWS landscape, Lightsail lets its users build and deploy websites and other applications quickly without worrying too much about the infrastructure behind their code. Coined by the company as a “powerful virtual cloud server built for reliability and performance,” Lightsail’s preconfigured application stacks and easy-to-use interface make it an ideal solution for anyone looking to avoid the additional headaches that come along with getting your apps and sites off the ground. 

As we touched upon briefly above, one of the main use cases for employing Lightsail is to build and deploy websites. With preinstalled versions of WordPress, Joomla, Magento, and much more at your disposal, setting up and hosting your sites with Lightsail is super easy. 

WordPress on computer laptop
To build a new website, you can select WordPress as the blueprint option when picking your instance’s image details.

Going live with web applications is also a common use case when working with Lightsail, as tech stacks like LAMP, MEAN, Nginx, Node.js, and others are readily available. Magento is also included for e-commerce purposes, along with Redmine to assist with project management duties. From an operating system standpoint, a representative sampling of Linux variations are there to choose from, along with the last few iterations of Windows Server.

Lightsail users aren’t limited to these use cases either, as many choose to utilize the platform for file storage purposes or to host and access proprietary financial software. In addition, many developers and testers take advantage of Lightsail’s flexibility and pay-as-you-go models to test new concepts or track down and fix defects before they opt for a production deployment.

Now that we’ve hopefully piqued your interest, let’s go over some of Lightsail’s primary features and functionalities and why some may be key to your individual situation.

Lightsail Block Storage

Depending on your particular storage needs, Lightsail has a couple of options that allow you to house additional data on both a short or long-term basis. Commonly referred to as attached disks in AWS parlance, block storage is available in the form of additional volumes that can be attached to your VPS at any time. 

This is typically used when applications require frequent access to stored data without any performance or latency issues getting in the way, such as user profile data or leaderboards for a lightweight web-based game. If your application requires a higher frequency of input/output transactions per second or you’re working with NoSQL databases like Cassandra or MongoDB then you may want to consider a solution other than Lightsail and block storage. 

Object Storage

For files that comprise an app or site’s static content, including HTML snippets, images, or videos, Lightsail also offers object storage — which can tie into its content delivery network for accelerated and secure access worldwide. The cost of object storage with Lightsail is relatively reasonable, with multiple fixed-priced bundles on the menu. For those readers with some AWS experience or knowledge already under their belt, Lightsail objects can be copied to S3 buckets through the command line interface. 

Lightsail Load Balancers

No matter the purpose of your site or web application, chances are you won’t sleep well at night unless you know that it will be available and reliable whenever someone wants to access or use it. Lightsail load balancers help achieve that peace of mind by distributing incoming traffic across Availability Zones (and therefore across multiple physical data centers), only sending packets to instances that they know are healthy at that moment. 

If one of your virtual servers happens to be offline for some reason, the load balancers will avoid sending traffic in its direction — ensuring that the customer experience is not negatively impacted.

Load balancers also come in handy when traffic to your Lightsail instances spikes, a situation most app or site owners desire, but also one that can cause much trepidation depending on your hosting configuration. These LBs, which support both HTTP and HTTPS protocols, help make the prospect of more users a unanimously positive thought. 

Lightsail Databases

Unless you’re launching a very basic website or an application with minimal functionality, there will likely be a need for some type of database solution associated with your Lightsail VPS. Its managed databases come in four sizes across both Standard and High Availability (HA) plans, with Amazon handling the heavy lifting when it comes to the security and health of each DBs infrastructure — one less thing you need to be concerned about. 

Whether it be MySQL or PostgreSQL, your Lightsail databases can be easily maintained and also backed up at any point through the magic of a one-click snapshot. The DBs can also be administered through the AWS command line, its public API, or via code itself using a robust and well-documented API.

Lightsail Container Services

Containerization has become such a popular deployment process because of its simplicity when it comes to bundling code with all needed files and libraries in a single package, no matter the underlying infrastructure. These containers act as their own isolated runtime environments, letting developers freely run their web apps or microServices in a stable, standalone space. 

Lightsail provides full support for Docker containers (Linux only) and lets you push virtually any image found in a public container registry as well as your own custom private images if desired. All you need to do is designate CPU and RAM specifications along with the required number of nodes, and AWS does the rest. As with Lightsail itself, its container services also bill you by the hour in an on-demand cost structure. 

How to Use AWS Lightsail

The ways to utilize Lightsail vary based on what you’re looking to accomplish, but from a high-level view, it all starts with signing up for a free AWS account and creating a Lightsail instance via the service’s home page. It’s important that you take your time and understand the reasons for selecting certain Regions and Availability Zones during this part of the process, along with your OS choice of Linux or Windows and the other configurable settings presented by the setup wizard. These include your billing plan and the RAM, CPU, and SSD specifications associated with it. 

There are a number of different paths you can take at this point. For example, if you’re looking to build a new website, you may want to select WordPress as the blueprint option when picking your instance’s image details. After obtaining the credentials for your WP site via SSH, you can sign in to the admin dashboard and have at it.

Perhaps you’re an application developer looking to create a new container for your packaged files. In that case, you’d set up your Docker images locally and push them to the Lightsail container service, ensuring that all required flags and settings are accurate before doing so. Finally, you’d create a deployment and move forward.

There is so much that you can do with Lightsail, and we’ve just barely touched the surface so far. The best way to really see what you can do is to dive in and start learning it.

How to Learn AWS Lightsail

Although Lightsail is about as user-friendly as it gets when it comes to AWS offerings, there’s still a bit of a learning curve if you aren’t necessarily a technical person or if you really want to get into the weeds and utilize some of its more advanced features and settings. Fear not, as you’ll find that there is a bounty of freely available resources throughout the web that not only explain the inner workings of the service but also provide some very detailed walkthroughs on each of its components and workflows. 

As a starting point, the oft-updated Frequently Asked Questions in Amazon Lightsail can answer many of your initial queries without bogging you down with the low-level details. From this page, you will find links to more involved documentation on each individual topic, such as available pricing plans and quick start guides.

If learning by video is more your speed, YouTube is awash in Lightsail-themed tutorials that can prove helpful. There are also both free and paid courses available from several reputable providers that focus on Lightsail and other related AWS services.

Finally, if you prefer to learn by a more hands-on method, we recommend signing up for the three-month free tier plan and just playing around with Lightsail and its various settings until you get comfortable with them. For some folks, there’s no better way to get a handle on unknown technology than actually using it. 

AWS Lightsail: When Is It Not the Best Choice?

You now know that there are plenty of benefits to using Lightsail as your VPS solution. Fast, reliable, and relatively cheap, Lightsail is perfect for non-complex web applications, most websites, business software, and even a sandbox to develop and test your code. 

Where it falls short, however, is when you’re working with intensive workloads such as those involving analytics and other big data initiatives or if you’re trying to deploy enterprise-sized applications that rely on intricate architecture and require constant and steady throughput. 

If you still plan on using AWS but find that Lightsail might not be powerful enough to meet your needs, it’s likely that the Amazon EC2 compute web service is more suitable. Thankfully there is a free tier solution for EC2 instances as well, one that can run for a full year, assuming you stay under 750 hours per month of usage and do not exceed other bandwidth and storage limitations set forth by Amazon.

If you still aren’t sure if you should choose Lightsail or EC2, we suggest taking a deeper dive into each service before finalizing your decision.

AWS Lightsail: Release History

Amazon first introduced Lightsail as a new member of the AWS Compute family in November 2016. It was a welcome addition to the portfolio and was quickly adopted by many existing users and newcomers to the platform. 

Originally intended to compete against the many other VPS options available at the time, its on-demand pricing model and integration with other useful AWS services set it apart from the competition. As time went on, Lightsail expanded its feature set, including releases like managed databases in October 2018 and support for Docker containers in November 2020.

However, there have not been many significant additions to Lightsail’s capabilities for some time, leaving many users fearing the worst. The limited feature set and barebones style compared to EC2 means that Lightsail is not a huge profit driver for Amazon. As a result, development is low-priority and inches along at a snail’s pace. Still, it makes a great gateway for users to get into the AWS ecosystem and eventually migrate to EC2.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is AWS Lightsail?

Lightsail is Amazon’s platform offering users their own virtual private server, without the need to set up a complicated EC2 instance. You can use it to deploy simple websites using the built-in support for popular content management systems and tech stacks.

What is difference between Lightsail and EC2?

Lightsail is a simple VPS service designed for small projects, while EC2 is comprised of multiple services and is intended primarily for more complex or larger projects.

Is AWS Lightsail cheaper than EC2?

You will need to calculate your own bandwidth usage costs using Amazon’s calculators, but for most beginners and simple projects, Lightsail is substantially cheaper than spinning up an EC2 instance.

How can I learn how to use Lightsail?

You can start by checking out the FAQ about Lightsail. The page has links to more detailed information on individual topics. There are also a number of tutorials on YouTube, as well as courses you can take.

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