COMPARISON 21 minutes

DigitalOcean vs. AWS

Last updated:
Author Jason Moth

What’s the first thing that springs to mind whenever someone mentions Amazon? For most people, it’s probably the online marketplace we all know and love. However, if you’re a developer, you might associate that name with something else entirely. In addition to running a very successful marketplace, Amazon also offers a wide variety of other products and services, including a cloud computing platform known as Amazon Web Services or AWS.

AWS is by far the largest and most successful platform of its kind right now. But while few companies can pose a serious threat to this behemoth, there are plenty of smaller platforms that are trying to complete to some degree. DigitalOcean is one of these platforms and it is a household name in its own right, especially among developers. But is it ever worth going with a smaller company like DigitalOcean instead of a giant like AWS? Well, that depends.

DigitalOcean isn’t really in the same league as AWS but it’s not trying to be. The company is constantly trying to carve its own niche and has attracted plenty of loyal users over the years as a result. That last sentence should give a pretty good indication that a company like DigitalOcean can be a better choice than AWS in certain situations.

A Few Things to Note About This Comparison

Somewhat similar to the Amazon online store, AWS can be seen as a virtual marketplace where customers can purchase a wide variety of products. However, in this case, the products can be anything from analytics tools and VR applications to blockchain networks, media services, machine learning software, and so much more. DigitalOcean, on the other hand, is primarily a cloud infrastructure provider, though the company offers a handful of other tools and services as well.

In order to keep this comparison as relevant as possible, I’m not going to pit DigitalOcean against the entire AWS platform. I think we all know who would win in that scenario. Instead, we’re mainly interested in seeing how DigitalOcean compares to Amazon’s cloud hosting and computing solutions. Namely, Amazon Lightsail and Amazon EC2.

Naturally, I’m not going to completely ignore all the other components of AWS either. After all, one of the main reasons why someone who would want to go with Amazon over DO is so they can take advantage of everything AWS has to offer. On the other hand, if you’re reading this article chances are you’re currently looking for a good cloud hosting solution and that’s why we’re going to focus on that particular aspect first and foremost.

Ease of Use

Cloud hosting services tend to be designed with developers in mind so they’re usually not very user-friendly as a result. Unfortunately, that makes cloud hosting a pretty unappealing option for a lot of inexperienced users. Case in point, neither DigitalOcean nor AWS give you access to a cPanel like you would get with a shared hosting provider for example (quite important for beginners, this is the main reason AWS lost the Bluehost vs. AWS comparison). Instead, users need to work with command-line interface tools and APIs in both instances in order to configure and manage their servers. Luckily, there are ways to make things easier for yourself if you’re not comfortable with working with those types of tools.

Amazon Lightsail includes access to a variety of pre-configured one-click applications like WordPress, Magento, Joomla, Plesk, and more. You can also find video tutorials on the AWS website on how to set up and deploy a website that uses one of those applications. That said, there’s a bit more to these “one-click” applications than one might expect. For instance, the tutorial on how to deploy a WordPress website on Lightsail is 8-minutes long so this isn’t exactly a one-step process.

DigitalOcean has its own marketplace where you can find a lot of useful free applications. There’s a bit more variety here compared to what Amazon Lightsail offers and these are closer to actually being one-click applications. Among other things, DO’s marketplace features the cPanel application so you can start by installing that if you want to make things easier for you going forward. A few other useful apps you can find on the marketplace include WordPress, Plesk, Mastodon, and Ghost.

Ease of Use – Despite being geared primarily towards developers, DigitalOcean makes things surprisingly simple to newcomers as well. There’s no cPanel by default but you can find the application on the marketplace and install it yourself. AWS does its best by providing some handy video tutorials but the platform is ultimately a bit more difficult to work with regardless.

Scalability

Big companies can afford to get powerful virtual machines right off the bat but most regular users would prefer to start small and gradually upgrade as needed. Having the option to scale things slowly is a big advantage that should never be overlooked. That goes double if you’re looking to host a small website that doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic. It doesn’t really make sense to spend a whole lot of money on a virtual machine unless you actually need the extra resources.

DigitalOcean has great scalability. You start with a basic machine that comes with 1 GB of RAM, 1 CPU and 25 GB of SSD for a modest sum. You can then gradually upgrade until you make your way up to the beefy rigs that come with 192 GB of RAM, 32 CPUs and 4 TB of SSD storage. It’s also possible to switch at any time to a machine with optimized memory or CPUs in case your day-to-day operations require you to focus more on a specific type of resource.

AWS also scales pretty well but there aren’t as many intermittent steps here. You can sign up with Lightsail for a basic virtual server that comes with 512 MB of RAM, 1 CPU, and 20 GB of SSD storage. On the higher end of things, you can get a machine that features 32 GB of RAM, 8 CPUs, and 640 GB of SSD storage. Lightsail doesn’t scale as high as DigitalOcean, however, you can upgrade to Amazon EC2 if you need more resources. EC2 comes with a really nice feature called Auto Scaling, which can be configured to automatically add or remove instances based on demand.

Scalability – DigitalOcean offers a very simple system where you can start with a basic machine and slowly upgrade your server whenever you need more resources. Amazon Lightsail doesn’t scale as good as DO, however, the scaling with EC2 is very solid and gives you a lot of control over resource management. That said, this component of AWS is pretty complex and the configuration process may seem intimidating to a lot of inexperienced users.

Pricing

DigitalOcean

Cloud hosting is pretty affordable if you don’t mind starting with a basic machine. Signing up with DigitalOcean will only set you back $5 per month at the most basic level, which is a bit more expensive than Lightsail’s entry point but you get more resources in return. Once you’re ready to upgrade, you can gradually increase your monthly bill by increments of $5 in exchange for better virtual machines until you reach the $20 tier. After that, the price hikes are more significant at every step of the way until the final tier, which costs a whopping $960 per month.

As mentioned previously, DigitalOcean offers not just standard general purpose virtual machines but also specialized ones. For example, CPU-optimized machines are designed for things like machine learning, video encoding, batch processing or other CPU-intensive operations. Meanwhile, memory-optimized machines are more suitable for RAM-intensive applications like real-time big data processing or high-performance databases. Needless to say, these are aimed at specific types of businesses and you can get away with a standard machine if all you want is to host a blog or a standard eCommerce platform.

Specialized machines are more expensive, with CPU-optimized servers ranging between $40 and $640 per month. The pricing system for the memory-optimized virtual machines is a bit more complex but there’s a good reason for that. Users have the option of choosing the amount of SSDs included with each package so the prices will vary depending on how much storage you choose to add. As a point of reference, the absolute cheapest memory-optimized machine goes for $90 per month.

AWS Paid Tier

The cheapest Lightsail virtual server will set you back only $3.50 per month, which is definitely a steal in spite of the underwhelming specs. Similar to DigitalOcean, you can upgrade a few times in small increments until you reach the $20 tier. Unlike DO, however, there are only three more tiers after that, the last of which costs $160 per month. AWS gives you a few more resources than DigitalOcean for the same price for the first few tiers but after the $20 mark, you’ll get a machine that’s pretty much identical to what DO offers.

It’s worth noting that all the prices I’ve mentioned earlier only apply to the Lightsail servers hosted on Linux. AWS also offers Windows-based servers, however, these are significantly more expensive. Just to give you an idea, prices here range between $8 and $240 per month for the same amount of resources. These prices are higher than those of DigitalOcean, however, comparing the two wouldn’t be fair since DO only offers Linux-based servers.

As far as EC2 is concerned, the pricing system here is a bit more complex. This is because of the scaling features mentioned in the previous section. With EC2 you pay per hour instead of per month depending on how many resources your machine uses. The price per hour depends on the type of machine, its operating system, the data center it is located in, and a few other factors. Let’s just say AWS has a monthly calculator resource to help you figure out how much you can need to pay. Long story short, however, EC2 charges more per hour compared to DigitalOcean for Linux-based machines with similar specs.

AWS Free Tier

A great thing about AWS is that you can make use of the platform without paying anything thanks to the company’s free tier. There are over 60 products on the AWS platform that are part of the free tier, including Lightsail and EC2. Not all the products that are part of the free tier are actually free, though. The way the system works is that each of the 60+ products is part of one of three categories – always free, 12 months free, and trials.

Lightsail is part of the trials category. More specifically, you get to try the product for free for the first month but you can only opt for the basic Linux (usually $3.50/mo) or Windows (usually $8/mo) plans. Meanwhile, EC2 is part of the 12 months free category, which is pretty self-explanatory. The stipulation here is that you can only choose between Linux t2.micro instance usage or Windows t2.micro instance usage. In layman’s terms, that’s a machine with 1 GB of RAM, 1 CPU, and EBS storage. In other words, you won’t really be able to upgrade your server with these free plans. That said, a full year or even just a month of free cloud hosting is definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Pricing – DigitalOcean is a great choice if you’re looking for a cloud hosting provider that offers a straightforward and easy to understand pricing system. The company has some of the best prices out there for virtual machines and there are plenty of upgrade options to choose from. That said, Lightsail has a slightly cheaper entry point for Linux servers and you also get the first month free. EC2 is comparatively a lot more expensive so I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you’re someone who can actually make good use of the scaling features.

Key Features

I’ve already covered some of the main features offered by both providers but there are a few more I want to touch upon. The features are just as important as the price, perhaps even more important in many instances. We’re not going to delve too deep in this section as there are a lot of features that are not relevant to someone who is trying to decide between these two companies. Instead, we’re mainly going to focus on a few key features that you can expect to receive from both providers.

Location Coverage

DigitalOcean has servers in 8 locations across the globe. The company has two data center hubs in New York and San Francisco along with an additional North American one, which is located in Toronto. Just across the pond, DigitalOcean has data centers in Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands. The last two data centers are located in India and Singapore. The company’s location coverage is overall pretty solid, with data centers located in most key markets around the world. However, there are a few notable exceptions like Japan and Australia.

As one might expect, Amazon has data centers pretty much everywhere. However, not all of them support the company’s cloud hosting services so we’re only going to talk about those that do. Lightsail is available in four locations across North America, including Ohio, Oregon, North Virginia, and Canada. Four additional data centers can be found across the EU in Ireland, Germany, the UK, and France. Finally, AWS has five data centers in the Pacific Asia region, which can be found in India, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. EC2 is available in a few additional regions, including South America and the Middle East.

Managed Databases

If you’re looking to add managed databases to your cloud hosting package, you’re in good hands with both of these companies. Managed databases at DigitalOcean start at only $15/mo but can reach up to a couple of grand per month if you want to go for one of the higher tiers. DO supports MySQL, Redis, and PostagreSQL and gives you the option of adding additional standby nodes. DigitalOcean’s managed databases are a bit expensive considering that you don’t get that much storage to work with compared to other providers. However, the company does offer some nice features to go along with them, including end-to-end security, free daily backups, and automated failovers.

AWS managed databases also start at $15 per month and can reach up to $115/mo with the standard plan. There are only four tiers to choose from here so the scalability is not as good compared to DigitalOcean, which offers seven tiers. However, each of the four tiers has a high availability plan that comes with extra instances for failovers or redundancy. The bad news is that the high availability plans cost twice as much as the standard ones. All plans with the exception of the cheapest one include data encryption.

Additional Storage

If you want to add more storage to your cloud hosting package there’s a way of doing that without having to upgrade to a more expensive plan. Both DigitalOcean and AWS offer an optional service that allows users to add various amounts of SSD storage to their servers in exchange for an extra monthly fee. The price is the same in either case – $0.10 per month for every GB of extra storage you add. That said, there are some limitations in regards to the amounts of storage you can add.

In the case of AWS, the minimum amount is 8 GB so that’s an extra $0.80 per month. If you want to scale faster, you can add blocks of 32, 64, 128 or 256 GB. If you want to scale as fast as possible, you’re going to spend an extra $25.60/mo on storage or more if you add multiple blocks of 256 GB.

DigitalOcean only works with blocks of 100 GB so you’re looking at a minimum extra fee of $10 per month. DO’s scaling system is more straightforward as the company lets you add a whopping 16 TB of storage in one go. Naturally, it costs a small fortune to add that much extra storage but this is a feature that a lot of big companies might appreciate. In addition to block storage, DigitalOcean also offers Spaces Object Storage, which costs just $5 per month for 250 GB.

Automated Backups

Strangely enough, Amazon Lightsail doesn’t seem to offer users the option of creating automated backups of their servers. Automated backups are available via Amazon EC2, however, you’ll need to work with S3 storage buckets and Bash scripts in order to make it happen. Although you can find instructions online on how to do it, this system is clearly not meant for beginners.

DigitalOcean does offer automated backups, however, they only occur once a week. Not ideal but definitely better than nothing. This isn’t a free service, though. Each successful backup is charged at 5% of your virtual machine’s monthly cost. Given that you are charged 5% per week, that amounts to an extra 20% each month. In other words, if you’re going for the cheapest $5 hosting plan, you’re going to need to pay an extra $1 per month if you choose to enable automated backups.

Key Features – DigitalOcean and AWS are fairly evenly matched when it comes to key features, though each company has its own strengths and weaknesses. AWS has better location coverage but DigitalOcean offers a more reliable and easy to use system for automated backups.

Performance

DigitalOcean is known for offering very solid servers but how does the company stack up against a giant like AWS in terms of performance? At first glance, it may seem like Amazon’s extensive infrastructure should allow it to outperform smaller competitors with ease, however, that’s not exactly the case. The two companies are surprisingly evenly matched in many departments according to data gathered by VPSBenchmarks.

The data shows that DigitalOcean has a significantly faster set up time when compared to Amazon Lightsail. DO’s servers are faster as well, with the best average local response time clocking in at just 52 ms while Lightsail’s best result was 59 ms. DigitalOcean also outperformed Lightsail by quite a significant margin in terms of CPU performance and endurance, remote response times, and network transfer speeds. Lightsail can actually hold its own pretty well against DigitalOcean at the $20 and $40 tiers but was absolutely crushed at the most basic $5 entry package.

VPSBenchmarks also did a DigitalOcean vs EC2 comparison and the situation here looks a bit different. DO once again had a faster set up time, however, the difference this time around was only 3 seconds. The two companies are pretty evenly matched in terms of local response times, with a slight edge going to EC2 (50 ms vs 52 ms). DigitalOcean beat EC2 in the CPU performance and endurance departments but lost the network transfer speeds race by a significant margin. However, DO was quite a bit faster when it comes to remote response times, with an average best result of 326 ms compared to EC2’s 338 ms. DigitalOcean’s cheapest plan offered better bang for the buck but the two can go head to head for the most part at the higher tiers.

Although it may seem surprising to some, DigitalOcean tends to outperform not just Amazon Lightsail but EC2 as well. The benchmarks were last updated in late August 2020 so these results are very fresh at the time of this writing. Even when taking the price into consideration, DigitalOcean tends to come on top against both Lightsail and EC2.

Customer Support

Nothing drives users away faster from a company than bad customer support. Having access to reliable technical assistance is equally important to everybody, regardless of whether you’re an inexperienced webmaster trying to host a blog, a veteran developer or a huge enterprise. DigitalOcean and AWS have great support teams but the two companies go differently about helping their users.

DigitalOcean offers free 24/7 Developer Support but only works via a ticket system. Those who spend $500+ per month on the platform are given Business Support, which enables access to a team of customer success managers along with technical infrastructure support, and 3rd-party software support. Meanwhile, those who are willing to pay an extra monthly fee can get access to live support and other benefits as part of the Premier Support program.

AWS doesn’t have separate support teams for each product so you’ll need to access the main customer support portal if you need help with Lightsail or EC2. Every user has access to basic 24/7 support via tickets and AWS also offers three paid support tiers. Developer tier members can contact cloud support associates via email while customers in the Business and Enterprise tiers receive 24/7 phone, email and live chat access to cloud support engineers, along with a number of other perks. The pricing system for the paid tiers is a bit convoluted but basically, AWS charges a certain percentage of a customer’s monthly expenditure in support fees. The percentage ranges from 3% for the Developer tier all the way up to 10% for the Business and Enterprise tiers.

Customer Support – DigitalOcean and AWS are used to working with big companies and their customer support systems definitely reflect that. You can get basic ticket support for free with both providers but you’ll need to pay a pretty penny (especially in the case of AWS) if you want access to live support and specialized technical assistance.

Final Thoughts

Comparing DigitalOcean and AWS is not an easy task considering how different these two companies are. Despite focusing primarily on developers, DigitalOcean is clearly trying to cater to all types of users, which I really appreciate. DO is pretty accessible if you’re a newcomer compared to other cloud hosting providers and its entry fee is quite affordable. AWS isn’t doing too badly in the price department either, however, the platform is definitely a bit more difficult to use.

One of AWS’ biggest advantages is that it offers a free tier. You only get access to very basic virtual machines with this tier but it’s still a great offer regardless. As previously mentioned, AWS is comprised of over 60 different products so the free trial will enable you to work with a lot more than just Lightsail and EC2. Granted, If all you’re interested in is hosting a website, most of those other products will probably not be of interested to you.

As far as the performance is concerned, the benchmarks pretty much speak for themselves. In spite of Amazon’s impressive infrastructure that spans across four continents, DigitalOcean showed consistently better results, especially against Lightsail. EC2 customers don’t have to worry too much about performance for the most part, however, that component of AWS is a lot more complex and not really meant for beginners.

Cloud hosting, in general, isn’t very welcoming to inexperienced users but DO is clearly trying its best to make its platform accessible to everyone and it shows. That’s why I recommend going with DigitalOcean if you’re looking for an affordable and accessible cloud hosting solution that offers great performance. AWS is a fantastic option if you look at it as a full package. But if you’re only interested in the cloud hosting part, it’s not really the best pick unless you’re running a huge business and can make good use of the vast amount of products and services Amazon has to offer.

Overall – AWS may be the biggest cloud computing platform in the world right now but it’s mainly aimed at big enterprises. If you’re a regular user who wants good performance at an affordable price, DigitalOcean is the better option here.

Leave a reply
Comment policy: We love comments and appreciate the time that readers spend to share ideas and give feedback. However, all comments are manually moderated and those deemed to be spam or solely promotional will be deleted.