Cloud Services / Development / DevOps / Sponsored / Contributed

Developer Strategies: How to Use Free Cloud Services

16 Sep 2021 7:03am, by

Jeff Erickson
Jeff is director of tech content at Oracle. You can follow him on twitter @erickson4 where you will likely see posts on Zen, intriguing tech, soccer and open water swimming.

Here fishy, fishy. To entice developers to their platforms, cloud providers all offer free versions of a selection of their cloud services. The goal, of course, is to hook them with tasty functionality and keep them as paying customers for the long haul.

Free services from Oracle, Amazon, Azure, Google and others usually break down something like this: New customers can get a few hundred dollars of free credits to use full versions of cloud services until they burn through those credits. Existing customers can also get free short-term access to a smaller number of services to test and train on before deciding whether to buy.

But many of these vendors also offer a version of their services in a “free tier” that remains free forever. These can be powerful enough for developers to use as proof-of-concept projects or ongoing testing and analytics. Heck, you can even run WordPress or spin up a Minecraft server on some of them if you want to.

Here are three developers using these kinds of always-free services to build and maintain highly useful apps:

Build and Run a Data-Driven Website

In September 2020, Heli Helskyaho got a call from Finnish volunteers who were looking to collect COVID-19 exposure data in a blog and report it on Twitter. The volunteers’ first attempt to collect and present the data was too labor intensive, so they were looking for a better alternative. Helskyaho pointed them to Oracle Cloud’s Always Free Tier, which would allow them to build and host their site and would require no funding or licenses.

A few volunteers from Helskyaho’s firm jumped in to set up the always-free version of a database service on Oracle Cloud. The free service provided two databases, each with 1 OCPU and 20 GB storage. Crucially, the database service comes equipped with a popular low-code development environment, called Oracle Application Express, or APEX, for building and hosting the kind of web-based, data-driven application the volunteers envisioned.

They built two applications: one for inserting and maintaining exposure data, and another for viewing the data. The data maintenance application would require credentials, while the application for viewing the data would be available to the public.

To make it easy for volunteers, raw data is loaded from Excel spreadsheets into the ATP database by dragging and dropping them using Data Workshop in APEX, and the app does the rest on its own. Here’s how they built it.

The team used Oracle APEX SQL Workshop, Oracle SQL Developer and Oracle SQL Developer Data Modeler to design the database data model and store the data. All that was left to do was build a web application on top of the data. That went quickly using the low-code platform.

“Both applications went into production just 10 days after the decision was made to build them,” Helskyaho said. This was perfect timing, “because the number of [COVID-19] exposures suddenly grew.”

After the first version of the application went live, the team made several subsequent improvements. They registered a public domain for the exposure application: altistumiset.fi. The environment was also enhanced by adding an always-free load balancer and configuring the web traffic to go over SSL.

Figure 1 illustrates the architecture of altistumiset.fi on Oracle Cloud Free Tier.

They added several maps to the application so it would be easier for end users to understand the exposure situation in Finland. At first, the team was under the impression that adding maps would require some investment. While the team knew that the spatial functionalities (Oracle Spatial) in the database were free, they didn’t realize the map service (Oracle Maps Cloud Service) could be used from an Oracle APEX application completely free if used in combination with the maps.oracle.com API and available APEX plugins. This allowed them to integrate maps into the app without any cost.

Figure 2. The location map shows exact locations of exposures and the number of exposures in the area.

The map coordinates are stored within the database and when an address is inserted, a trigger automatically adds the location information into the table. The maps component then uses this data to correctly position the location on a map. There are two kinds of maps within the application: a location map that shows the exact points of exposure and a heat map that shows with different colors how each area is doing compared to other areas.

The Finnish volunteers will be able to run the site as long as it’s needed. Helskyaho goes more deeply into the technical story in this blog post.

Use Free Services for Ongoing Dev/Test 

The always-free nature of these services is extremely helpful to startups, said Peter Merkert, cofounder and CTO of retraced, whose technology helps clothing brands build fair and sustainable businesses. The company’s platform uses blockchain technology in Oracle Cloud Infrastructure to help apparel companies verify and communicate the sustainability of each step in their supply chains.

Merkert’s team started with Oracle Cloud Free Tier to build their solution on Oracle Autonomous Database and Oracle Blockchain, among other services. Knowing the database services were always free gave his team the confidence to build the business.

“Because with every other cloud provider, after a year — right at the delicate point when you finally start to get paying clients — a big bill arrives,” he said.

Now up and running with paying clients, retraced still uses some elements of the free tier.

“We use the free load balancer in our staging environment all the time,” he said. “And we constantly use a free tier Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse because you can connect it directly to Oracle Blockchain Platform.”

Using Autonomous Data Warehouse, “the SQL-side JSON stuff is easy and faster than querying the blockchain service.” And because he has data in an always-free Autonomous Data Warehouse, “sometimes we spin up the Oracle Analytics Cloud to investigate something or visualize it.” Because of the elasticity of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, “I can just spin it up for a few hours. It’s amazing.”

Build a POS, Then Test Before Upgrading

Several months before the COVID-19 tracking app in Finland, Canada’s Giovani Cani used free tier services to react to curveballs the pandemic threw at his business.

Cani leads a team that provides IT for orchestrating complex trailer yards at distribution centers and for delivering food and other goods to more than 260 grocery stores across Ontario, Canada. As COVID-19 curtailed face-to-face work, even as it caused a run on groceries, he needed to react fast, much faster than his current application architecture in the cloud would let him.

“It would take weeks, if not months, to build, test and deploy change requests,” Cani said.

Looking for an alternative, Cani spun up a free tier Oracle Autonomous Transaction Processing database and started tinkering with Oracle APEX. Within hours, his team had a working solution. In two days, his team had built a pilot application.

“It was equivalent to the one that had taken months to build on the other cloud,” Cani said.

The new application lets workers with handheld devices scan the bar code on a trailer and quickly enter details, such as contents, availability and refrigeration status, digitizing the workflow. Data gathered in the system is available in real time to all distribution centers, bringing more transparency and accountability to the operation. The data collected is time stamped, geotagged, searchable and kept for historical analysis.

The free tier “allowed us to explore, test and become comfortable with our proof of concept,” said Cani. “The business team was truly impressed with what we were able to deliver in such a short time frame. We then said, ‘OK, now let’s get the full, paid version and start growing the user base.’”

A year later, Cani’s team still uses the application it started on free tier with Oracle Autonomous Database and APEX, and continues to use free cloud services to try new features in the latest release of APEX before deciding whether to upgrade.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels.

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