Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Building an online service on a shoestring budget

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash
Although I have been working professionally as a software engineer since I was 18 years old I have always had hobby projects I have been working with on the side and I generally take a somewhat perverse pleasure in figuring out how to build and launch these things on as small of a budget as possible. This post is an attempt to go through some of the things I have found that have helped me be productive and successfully build and launch several hobby projects.

I am particularly going to assume that this is for hobby projects and that the skill and time of the participants are free. If you are paying any salary that will dwarf anything you might save by aggressively using free tiers of online services. I am also going to assume your team is small (Less than 5).

What not to skimp on

First, let us go over the things you should not skimp on. The most important thing here is to not use any equipment or software from your day job. The reason for this is that if you do then your employer can usually claim ownership of any IP produced with their equipment. Also check your employment contract to make sure your employer doesn't have a clause to claim ownership to anything you do. That said, if you live in California, even if your employment contract does claim this it is not enforceable as long as you don't use company equipment, time, IP and you are not directly competing with your employer (See labor code 2870 for details).

One more of the things I would advise you to do is to enroll in school if you are not already. Being enrolled in a Community College only costs a few hundred dollars a year and will provide you with free licenses to a huge amount of tools for software development. Telerik, IntelliJ, Autodesk, and many more give students a free non-commercial license to almost their entire catalog of tools and libraries. Granted, once you get to the launch stage you will need to buy real licenses for your tools, but it will still save you tons of money in the development phase. You might even learn something doing it.

Basic development tools

I believe that if code isn't checked into a source repository with change tracking it basically doesn't exist at all. So, the first thing to do when starting a project is to pick a source code repository. GitHub is the giant in the field and they are fantastic. Not only do they give you free private repositories they also give you 2000 minutes a month of build executions (GitHub Actions). If you are building open-source applications you even get unlimited build executions for free.

Next you probably want to choose a cloud provider. I would pick one of either AWS or Azure. If you can go Serverless then I would go with AWS since they have a perpetual free tier for everything you need to launch a Serverless service. If not, then Azure Bizspark is a great program if you qualify. AWS also has a program for $300 to spend getting your prototype ready. Another tip for getting started on AWS is to get a new account for any new project. This is because they have an additional massive free tier that only lasts for 1 year after opening the account. It is also generally best practice to only run 1 microservice per account. Once the freebies are over you can tie your accounts together using AWS Organizations and SSO to help you keep track of them all (Doing this will usually invalidate the free tiers so wait a year after account creation to do this).

You also likely need a web UI testing tool. I use Cypress which has a free tier and is overall very good. They only allow 500 test suites per month so you can't run canaries in the free tier, but it should be sufficient for any deployment-based testing. They also provide a dashboard where you can see which tests have succeeded and failed with videos of the test execution so you can easily troubleshoot failures, something that is very useful when you integrate it into your CI/CD pipeline.

How to build your software

The key thing you want to avoid if you are launching something on the cheap is fixed infrastructure. If possible, use serverless functions instead of hosts or containers to host run your code. With some thought, almost everything you build can be run in a true pay-per-use manner. For instance, with AWS you should aim to use API Gateway, Lambda, SQS, and DynamoDB. As your service scales, you might consider moving off some of these for cost reasons but these primitives are also able to scale to thousands of transactions per second without any change to infrastructure if done right and none of them have a fixed cost. You generally don't want to use services such as Kinesis, Elasticache, Opensearch, relational databases, hosts, or containers since these all come with minimum fixed costs even if your service has no usage.

Useful services with good free tier

Here are a couple of other services worth noting with useful features and good free tiers.

  • Google Analytics is ubiquitous for site analytics. It is having privacy issues in the EU though with several countries declaring it illegal recently. Another option that I use that with more of a privacy focus is Clicky.
  • Also useful from Google is Firebase which provides a lot of features such as a basic user database, usage analytics, and monitoring among others. It is a great choice if your primary use case is a mobile app. It is pretty inflexible for building complex applications or services though and you probably want to go with a normal cloud provider for that.
  • Cloudflare is Web Application Firewall and has a very useful free tier. They also provide a privacy-focused and less annoying CAPTCHA service called Turnstile.
  • Blogger is a free blogging platform. It will generally not let you build your entire website like Wordpress will, but if all you need is blogging it does that well and allows you to use custom domains for free. 
  • Crisp is a great platform for providing support for your site and they have a nice free tier for getting started.
  • Auth0 provides a platform for helping you do auth of your users and has a decent free tier to get you started.
  • Most of the payment processors such as Square, Stripe, and Braintree only charge a percentage with no setup costs. Their fees are very similar, I prefer Stripe myself only because they have fantastic developer documentation.

Launching and running a service

As you first start out I tend to not think too much about schedules and deliverables. The reason for this is that I do this for fun and the best way to kill the fun is to start making yourself a slave to delivery commitments and launch dates. That said as you get closer to launch I really do think you need a way to keep track of remaining tasks and open bugs etc. In my opinion, Jira from Atlassian is by far the best and most comprehensive tool for this and as long as you have a small team everything you need is available for free.

You will need monitoring of your service before you go live. Both AWS and Azure have built-in monitoring tools and they work well. Also worth mentioning again in this space particularly is Firebase which does have some monitoring and analytics capabilities. Another service in this area that has a good free tier is New Relic. One thing that neither AWS nor Azure has is paging for when things actually go wrong. The tool that I found here that has a very functional free tier is Pager Duty, that said you are likely to want to upgrade from the free tier pretty soon as your service takes off to be able to have more control over your escalations.

Your service will likely need a single place to aggregate everything that is going on in one place such as task completions deployments and any issues and here Slack is hard to beat and have a great free tier.

Be frugal, not cheap

As a parting word, I would like to point out that although figuring out how to build and launch your service cheaply don't let that stand in the way of building your service right. Never pick the cheap option over the correct option, you will always regret it in the end.

For me, one of the main reasons why building things in a frugal way when I am working on hobby projects is that it allows me to have fun doing them longer because I don't have the pressure of needing to be done and launched fast because I am bleeding money during the development phase.

Being frugal during the development phase might also allow you to retain a larger portion of your equity if you actually launch your service because it will reduce the amount of help you will need to get started before you get a customer base. As an example, one of my previous projects Your Shared Secret literally has $0 per month of fixed cost. My more recent project Underscore Backup is not quite that cheap but has a fixed cost of less than $50 per month. Most of that cost is for CloudWatch alarms, KMS keys, and Dashboards.

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