Amazon ECS vs. Amazon EKS: The Ultimate Showdown
Cloud providers offer a broad set of products to enable scalability while moving faster and minimizing costs. As the cloud infrastructure sector leader, AWS comprises more than 175 services and products in a broad range of computing, networking, database, storage and security.
This article will focus on the two featured AWS weapons for microservices and cloud architecture: Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS) and Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS). Both services support various compute options and have rich integration points to work with the other AWS services. However, there are critical differences between these services in design and operations. When comparing providers for your container workload, you’ll need to consider your system architecture, business requirements, and overall workload complexity. In this post, though, we’ll focus on ECS versus EKS.
Let’s explore the history and mindset of both services to see which service offers a winning performance.
Amazon Elastic Container Service
Amazon ECS is a container management service designed to run, stop, and manage containers on a cluster. Containers are defined as part of “task definitions” and are driven by ECS in the cloud. Amazon EC2 instances are suited for long-running tasks, while AWS Fargate works for serverless tasks. The following diagram summarizes how ECS works:
ECS starts with the container registry to store images. ECS manages the container and services based on task definition and runs them on the infrastructure. With its easy-to-use API, you can create secure and reliable microservice applications and run them on AWS.
Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service
Amazon EKS is the managed Kubernetes service of AWS used to run upstream and certify Kubernetes on AWS infrastructure. EKS provides a managed Kubernetes control plane to define Kubernetes workloads reliably and securely. You can connect nodes from various AWS compute services — such as EC2 or Fargate — to run the Kubernetes workloads. The following diagram shows how EKS works:
When you create a new Kubernetes cluster using EKS, it establishes the control plane and Kubernetes API in the managed AWS infrastructure. This allows you to deploy workloads using native Kubernetes tooling, including — but not limited to — kubectl, Helm, Kubernetes Dashboard, Terraform, or Kubernetes Operators.
Now, let’s look at the similarities of both services before diving into the differences.
ECS and EKS are both managed services of AWS, focused on containers and microservice applications. Therefore, they share some architectural and AWS-related characteristics. The three essential features are as follows:
Managed services is a method used in cloud infrastructure to remove the burden of operating services and let you focus on your core applications. Both ECS and EKS are managed services in AWS, so you don’t need to monitor and operate them. In other words, you can assume that ECS API is always reliable, highly available, and reachable for you. Similarly, the Kubernetes control plane and API will always be up and running, even updating automatically to the latest releases. There is no need to monitor or operate at the infrastructure level; however, if you are looking for a solution to monitor your applications running on ECS and EKS, check out Thundra’s monitoring features.
It is possible to manage where the containers run with both ECS and EKS. On both services you can choose one or a mixture of the following compute options in AWS:
- AWS Fargate: Suitable for serverless applications
- EC2 Instances: Suitable for applications to run on virtual machines with a wide range of options and capacity
- AWS Outposts: Suitable for applications to run on-premises
- AWS Local Zones: Suitable for applications that should run closer to the end-users
- AWS Wavelength: Suitable for low-latency mobile edge applications
The decision of the computing platform is based on cost, performance, high availability, and reliability. The computing platforms mentioned above have substantial differences in management complexity and financial commitment. Understanding the differences between EC2, Fargate and Lambda is an important step in selecting the right computing platform for your organization.
AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) is AWS’s solution to access services and resources securely. You can create users and groups, and assign permissions to them. The fine-grained access control system managed by IAM is available to both ECS and EKS. With IAM you can limit who can use and access the ECS tasks or Kubernetes workloads, and it ensures that the containerized microservices in both services are secure.
AWS provides almost the same level of service architecture, compute platforms, and security features for ECS and EKS. These features ensure that both services are reliable, production-ready and secure.
For all their similarities, these services have some fundamental differences. Let’s take a look and see which comes out on top.
There are four essential differences between ECS and EKS in terms of design and operations:
Running applications in the cloud is not free, but there are ways to decrease costs. In both ECS and EKS, you will pay for the resources used by the workloads. In other words, you will pay for EC2 machines that run your ECS tasks or Kubernetes pods. However, the main differentiator between ECS and EKS is that there is no additional charge for using ECS. On the other hand, you will pay $0.10 per hour for each EKS cluster you have. This means an additional payment of nearly $72 per month for each Kubernetes cluster you are operating. While it may seem minimal, if you are planning to have multiple clusters — such as for each team member or availability zone — the additional payments will add up.
In terms of pricing, if you are going small and exploring microservice options, then using ECS will not cost you extra. However, if you are ready for the Kubernetes-level of scalability, the additional $72 payment will be nothing compared to your EC2 costs.
Microservices and distributed applications are not straightforward to develop, deploy or operate when compared to monolith applications. If you are looking for a simple solution to create microservices, ECS is the ultimate one. It is a simple API to create containerized workloads without complex abstractions. On the other hand, Kubernetes is a control plane itself, able to run containerized workloads, and EKS is another layer to create Kubernetes clusters on AWS infrastructure. Because of this, more expertise and operational knowledge are needed to build, deploy, and manage applications on EKS compared to ECS.
Portability in the cloud is moving from one cloud provider to another with minimal disruption. The key to portability is the interoperability among cloud providers. When it comes to our ultimate comparison, ECS is a proprietary technology by AWS, while EKS is based on the open source Kubernetes.
If you are developing applications in ECS, you will likely have a vendor lock-in issue in the long run. Unless it is a POC-level project, defining the whole architecture in another cloud provider — such as Azure Container Instances — is an entirely new project.
However, if you design your application to run on Kubernetes, you can run on any other Kubernetes cluster — including other cloud providers, on-premise setups, or your laptop. Kubernetes in EKS, or the abstraction layer that increases the complexity (as discussed in the previous section), now helps you package your containers and move to another platform quickly.
While choosing a new programming language or framework, one critical characteristic to look for is community support and resources. In this regard, the open source Kubernetes has undisputed advantages compared to ECS. ECS has limited community assistance, but AWS is there to solve issues with excellent corporate support. The three main advantages of running Kubernetes by EKS are:
- Community-based support, such as Github issues, Slack channels, or Stack Overflow
- Resources, such as blogs, tutorials, online courses (official Kubernetes training or Udemy courses)
- Community-maintained applications and tools, such as Helm Charts, Kubernetes Operators, or kubectl extensions
ECS and EKS are both reliable and competent container management systems provided by AWS. Although we have discussed their shared roots and critical differences, choosing one depends on your team and project. While it’s a decision each organization needs to make for itself, there are a few guidelines that will help you to decide.
EKS is a better option under three essential conditions. The first is if you are developing and operating large projects, where many team members will work on several deployments and products simultaneously. Second, EKS is a better option when multicloud or hybrid cloud options are on the table. And finally, if you already have Kubernetes-native applications and Kubernetes expertise in your team, EKS is the ultimate winner.
On the other hand, ECS is a better option if you are looking for a free control plane and easy-to-use API. Additionally, you should choose ECS if you are new to containerization and microservices, or if you have a small team and want to take fast actions with fewer things to manage. Finally, if you wish for an AWS-native solution to integrate easily with other AWS solutions, ECS is your best choice.