Should your startup use Heroku?

Note: For the purpose of this piece, Heroku is synonymous with other analogous services like EngineYard and Clever Cloud. AWS is synonymous with Microsoft Azure and Google Compute Engine (although they aren’t quite the same).

Projects and companies usually consider the tradeoffs in using Heroku or AWS in early stages. The focal point of this consideration is usually time; Heroku allows you to focus on your app by removing the need to maintain web infrastructure.

What do we mean by web infrastructure? This may include but is not limited to: database hosting/backups/replicas, static file hosting, web server & asynchronous work server configuration and scalability, configuration management, managing dependencies for software, and deployment of updates to your application.

Simply enumerating web infrastructure tasks doesn’t give a clear picture for why we’d consider Heroku. Let’s assume for every 9 hours you spend working on your application, you spend 1 hour of time building and maintaining your web infrastructure. Assuming 48 working weeks in one year, you’ve spent 4.8 weeks on infrastructure.

This is the typical walkthrough most engineering teams have when choosing Heroku. But it’s not quite as simple as it seems. We’ve enumerated key benefits of choosing either Heroku or AWS below.

In favor of a managed service (Heroku)

A theme emerges - using Heroku makes it hard to encounter a serious human error. This is far more valuable than it sounds. See this list for a list of famous outages of prominent web services and their causes.

In favor of directly interfacing with services (AWS)

We can summarize the benefits of using AWS as having more flexibility and tools.

An evolving landscape

A plethora of open source tools for making AWS infrastructure management easier too, such as Ansible, Puppet, Chef, and Salt.

Is it possible to get the best of both worlds? A startup called Convox has a great value proposition, to bring the best of Heroku while still being able to use AWS directly.

A bit of anecdotal advice on this entire matter is to not obsess over this too long - pick a system after understanding the tradeoffs and use it cleanly. Successful projects have a track record of using a variety of platforms.


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