AWS Deployment Tools: Choosing the Right Application Service

The right application deployment tools can make the process more effective. But choosing can be a challenge.

It’s no secret that coding and deploying complex web applications is a tricky business. Visualizing the most efficient process and structural design needed to get your product out the door can be the toughest task of all. So choosing the right tools to help you along is critical. But which tools to choose is often by no means obvious.

AWS offers three distinct services aimed at simplifying and automating project deployment and management: Elastic Beanstalk, CloudFormation, and OpsWorks. Why three deployment tools? Because each service offers its own unique features and workflow style that’s ideal for different sets of contexts.

Since I’ve personally always found distinguishing between the use-cases of each of these services a little intimidating, I’ll share what I’ve learned over time (AWS has a FAQ offering an overview of their set of deployment tools from an OpsWorks perspective). Hopefully, you’ll add your own hard-earned observations in the comments.

Deployment tools: Elastic Beanstalk

Elastic Beanstalk is probably the easiest of the three to describe. For all intents and purposes, all you need to do is provide your application code created in one of a dozen or so platforms (Ruby, PHP, Node.js, Docker, etc.) and Beanstalk will pretty much invisibly build the necessary AWS infrastructure around it. You don’t need to get your hands dirty in administration but, to allow all that to happen, you give up some flexibility and control.

Ideal customer: development teams that don’t want to know about anything that even smells like IP addressing schemes.
Greatest strength: simplicity.

Deployment tools: CloudFormation

CloudFormation is all about JSON formatted templates. AWS describes it as a “building block service that enables customers to provision and manages almost any AWS resource.”

You have to choose your environment tier (web app or worker) and the AWS resources your application will use (EC2 instance and EBS volume types, RDS engine, etc), so you’ll definitely have more configuration work up front. But the payoff comes in the power of fully scripted deployments and, (as I’ve seen it described) an effectively automatically documented infrastructure. CloudFormation also allows you to directly integrate Git repos into your workflow.

Ideal customer: people with projects for which the ability to reliably and predictably reproduce an environment is important.
Greatest strength: scripting (templates).

Deployment tools: OpsWorks

Conceptually, OpsWorks is probably the hardest of these three services to properly digest. It’s built on a framework of stacks and layers. The project, at the top level, is defined by its stack which, in turn, is made up of layers. Each layer is essentially one or more EC2 instances running a pre-defined service like, for instance, a PHP/Apache web server. OpsWorks built-in layers, which on their own are somewhat narrow in scope, can be customized using chef recipes…but that could add a significant learning curve to the mix. I think it’s fair to characterize OpsWorks as the most hands-on of AWS’s three deployment services, and therefore the most complex.

Ideal customer: developers who need to quickly model application configurations. Being able to easily swap layers in and out can speed up and improve that process.
Greatest strength: a balance of the simplicity of Elastic Beanstalk and the flexibility of CloudFormation (if that description is helpful).

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