20 March 2014

(You might want first see the introduction to this series of posts if you jumped in here randomly.)

Deep dive

In previous posts I’ve discussed about what are spot instances and what is the spot market and what you can use spot instances for and how. In this post I’m going to write out my thoughts on what is the reason for spot market, its rationality and where actually do spot instances come from.

Purpose of the EC2 spot market

Why does spot market exist in the first place?

Spot instances were announced on December 14th, 2009. After that there has been several technical updates that brought spot instances to the same level as other instance types (such as EMR support, VPC support). There has been two major published changes on the spot market itself. First, the spot market price algorithm was changed on July 1st 2011 and secondly a default bid price cap was introduced late 2013. These are the visible changes that have the name “spot instance” on them.

What does this tell us about the purpose of the spot market?

Not yet much. But it is telling us something:

  • The spot market is meaningful to AWS.
  • AWS wants us to use spot instances.

But what about the purpose? Why did AWS go to the complication of providing spot instances (more code, more work, more bugs) and operating a spot market (apparent loss of pricing control) on top of that? Why didn’t it just say “spot instances at 50% price of regular ones” and leave it at that?

I have not seen that AWS would have directly stated the purpose of spot instances. All of the official information I’ve seen carefully skirts about the purpose of spot instances and spot market. The initial announcement tells that “[you can] bid on unused Amazon EC2 capacity” and the current spot instance landing page that “you simply bid on spare Amazon EC2 instances”. There are plenty of whys for the customer, but no why for AWS itself.

I believe the groupthink of the Internet is mostly in line with the following hypothetised (aka naive) purpose:

Spot market is for AWS to sell excess capacity to make at least a bit of more money out of resources that otherwise would remain unused (incurring both operational and capital costs).

This seems sensible and straightforward. Yet it does not tell about the purpose of a spot market. Dmitriy Samovskiy makes a good point about that — why are they “spot” instaces and not “discounted” instances? It is entirely possible that AWS would have priced “discounted instances” at -50% and left it at that (adding the “may-be-terminated-at-any-time” clause). Instead the spot market exist, with its high price volatility, spot price differences between regions and a potential to pay up to $999.99/hour per instance. All of this is bound to make a lot of people wary of spot instances.

Think about it. If prices were set at a fixed 50% (or 40%, or 30%) then the element of market variability would be removed. I think a lot of people would be more comfortable with fixed discounts over the variability of spot market prices.

There’s this thing called “efficient market hypothesis” in finance theory that posits that financial markets are “efficient” at setting prices on traded assets. That is, the public price reflects supply and demand in a true manner. So one possibility is that maybe — maybe AWS thinks that it can increase its income on spot instances by letting “the market” decide instaneous spot prices instead of a fixed discount?

I wouldn’t trust that. After all, the spot instance market is not a real market. Bids are not open. Supply is hidden. Even the pricing algorithm is unknown — assumptions about it being a true bidding market have been shown to be false in the past. (All of this this and more has been pointed out years back in blogosphere as well as in academia).

So what is then the purpose of the spot market?

I don’t know.

I am sure that part of its purpose matches the naive assumption — it is generating income for AWS that otherwise would have been lost. Later below I’ll talk about other partial purpose (that surprisingly ties spot market to reserved instances), but I’m not sure about that being the totality either.

In the end I don’t know what is the purpose of the spot market. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be useful. After all, you can get substantial savings on operational cost using spot instances! You don’t have to theoretize about the purpose of rain to benefit from it, either (in case you’re a farmer).

I just don’t believe that the naive hypothesis is all there is to.

Is the market rational?

The answer is absolutely clear and simple for this one: yes and no.

See both above and earlier post. The spot market pricing algorithm is not known. I’m not going to call any market rational whose price is potentially set by a random number generator and the market players are finding causality in places where there is none.

Yet if you make the assumption that the spot market price is at least mostly a market-driven proxy of supply and demand (and leave the algorithm in the hands of the benevolent AWS) and ask questions about the behavior of the bidders, then the answer is yes. Yes, at least most of the bidders are making rational choices.

The question of AWS spot market’s rationality is a common question (see here, here and here). Although the famous $999.99 spike was probably a genuine human mistake (e.g. not rational), it is still useful to ask why anyone would bid over the price of an on-demand instance. A lot of people think it is not logical. Yet this does really occur all the time. Is the net full of loonies or not?

(Yes it is. But let’s consider the spot market only, shall we?)

Earlier I’ve pointed out that the total costs of running a spot instance can easily be less than the cost of using equivalent on-demand instance even when you bid at 10x the on-demand price. Thus at least for those cases where you can expect (based on past history, which of course is not indicator of future blah blah blah) likely savings with high bids then it is entirely rational to bid at >1x prices.

But then what about c3.2xlarge in us-east-1? See the graph below:

c3.2xlarge in us-east-2

Daily average and maximum prices for c3.2xlarge spot market prices in us-east-1. Solid line is the weighted daily average price, lineless blocks are the maximum daily bid price and colors represent different zones.

Although not we have the benefit of hindsight, I think anyone bidding for c3.2xlarge during January 2014 would have quickly realized that they are not getting an instance at on-demand prices. Why then?

The c3 class of instances was announced in November 2013 and from the very beginning demand for them was high. In fact, demand was higher than supply. For anyone familiar with economy 101 this is a case of supply vs. demand where the price of a good should rise when demand is higher than its supply. Yet the on-demand instance pricing is [not elastic](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elasticity_(economics) and cannot be changed rapidly by AWS to match the unexpected demand (AWS can change the price, but I don’t think they want to increase the price for PR reasons).

You can see where this is going, right? Spot market price is elastic, and in this case it clearly shows that when demand outstrips supply, the per-unit price increases. In the graph above you can see that c3.2xlarge prices have started to fluctuate and on average, have gone down since late February. This is most likely due to AWS being able to introduce capacity faster than the demand has increased. (An alternative interpretation is that a lot of those interested in c3.2xlarge have become disillusioned at its (un)availability and gone elsewhere.)

But why would anyone pay >1x cost for an instance? There are, after all, plenty of other instance types (even in the c3 class) that are available at on-demand prices from either on-demand or spot markets. Why?

I have no idea what goes in bidder’s heads. But there are a few possibilities that are entirely rational that come to my mind:

  • Someone values uninterrupted service over savings. See BrowserMob’s bidding strategy at 4:00 in this video. They clearly put a large weight into getting the resources now even at higher price than later and cheaper.

  • Someone tests how their application runs on c3 instances. They might be contemplating moving a production environment over (c3 is cheaper than m1… at regular prices). Doing a time-limited performance evaluation even at the overpriced spot market prices isn’t going to break your bank and would provide you with valuable information for the future (e.g. will you buy c3 reserved instances or not).

I’m sure there are others, but eventually they all boil to the same conclusion: buying at high cost in the spot market is rational if doing so offers larger potential benefits than waiting to buy at regular prices later.

Spot market price drivers

Although we don’t know the actual spot price algorithm, it is possible to observe it and see whether its behavior correlates with other, known events.

When talking about the spot market algorithm the first stop most definitely has to be a paper called Deconstructing Amazon EC2 Spot Instance Pricing by Beh-Yehuda et al (2011). The researchers did a very thorough analysis of AWS spot instance market and the spot price behavior. Even though most of the analysis is using data prior to the 2011 pricing mechanism change and thus is not valid today it is still a good read. Especially the bit in epilogue where the researches state that

“While these radical qualitative changes [June 2011 pricing mechanism change] are further evidence of the former prices being artificially set, the October prices are consistent with a constant minimal price auction, and are no longer consistent with an AR(1) hidden reserve price.”

So … AWS didn’t use a “market” algorithm before, but they seem to be using one today. As a working hypothesis I’ll take it that there is some market-based price algorithm that takes some inputs and outputs a spot instance price. What are the inputs?

  • One thing that we know is that “the Spot price will raise when our [AWS] capacity lowers.” and “the increase in the m2.2xlarge Spot price today [the $999.99 price spike event] was related to an sudden increase in demand for On-Demand m2.2xlarge instances which significantly depleted the unused capacity.” (source).

    Available EC2 instance capacity affects spot price.

  • From looking at the c3.2xlarge spot price graph it should be also obvious that demand has an effect. When considering also quotes above it is possible to infer that:

    Demand for EC2 instances affects spot price.

  • There is also a *minimum bid price* set by AWS. If you try to bid below this you'll get a `price-too-low` error with a message *"Your Spot request price of 0.02 is lower than the minimum required Spot request fulfillment price of 0.403."* (numbers naturally vary). **There is a minimum spot price**, which varies by instance type and region. (I am not sure about zones.)

    (Updated 2014-03-25) Wrong wrong wrong! The price-too-low message is really only talking about current spot price. My bad. However there still appears to be minimum spot prices which I go through in the next post in this series.

  • AWS has a default maximum bid limit of 4x on-demand price but this is a soft limit and can be raised or removed. The maximum relative bid price varies, but in the data set I have there are several instane types with >50x spot prices. This implies that there are bids at that level and potentially higher.

    It is not known whether there is any spot price upper limit.

    (If anyone is brave enough to do a short bid at 10000x price level I’m interested in hearing about the results.)

In the next section I’ll talk about my hypothesis about where spot instance capacity comes from, but from Dave@AWS’s quotes and other observations it should be clear that spot market price is affected by demand on all instance types, including on-demand and reserved instances. That is, an increased demand for on-demand instances may affect spot market price even when no changes occur in the spot market bid pool.

It seems reasonable to assume all of the above affect prices. But this doesn’t remove the possibility of other price drivers. It is entirely possible that AWS would artificially push the spot price up (to maximize their profits — 50x0.99 is more than 100x0.20) or depress the price (to make spot instances more appealing?). Or an increase in the capacity is fed to the pricing engine slowly to prevent rapid price fluctuations. Or a decrease in capacity is pre-factored so that it is removed in steps instead of a large drop (and matching rapid price increase). Or …

Where do spot instances come from?

Note: Most of this section is pure speculation. I am presenting a hypothesis about AWS’s division of instance resources which may be completely wrong. However as far as I’m concerned it is a hypothesis that is in line with actual observations.

The official statement from AWS is that the capacity for spot instances is “spare Amazon EC2 instances” (source). A bit more verbose is Dave@AWS’s commentary in the AWS forums:

“To answer your second question, you asked what other capacity pools could be a part of Spot. Behind the scenes, our goal is to have all of Amazon EC2’s unused capacity integrated into Spot. By optimizing the use of these instances, we hope to be able to pass along more savings over time to our customers. Selling our unused capacity means we may leverage unused capacity from other pools like On-Demand or other parts of our capacity that can be temporarily sold but may need to be reclaimed at a later time. It would take precedence over On-Demand, because we do not have the ability to reclaim On-Demand instances, so they cannot be sold there.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Let me go through behaviors associated with the main instance types:

Instance typeGuaranteed availabilityArbitrary termination
On-demand instanceNoNo
Reserved instanceYesNo
Spot instanceNoYes

(Notice how reserved instances and spot instances are complementary to each other.) Although AWS may have other (internal?) capacity pools with other access constraints, I think that “unused” capacity at any moment can be divided into two sets: one that can be used for on-demand instances and one that cannot be used for on-demand instances. This is because of the semantics of reserved instances.

“Reserved Instances provide a capacity reservation so that you can have confidence in your ability to launch the number of instances you have reserved when you need them.” (source)

When you purchase a reserved instance you have no obligation to run it, but AWS has an obligation to provide you with a reserved instance any time you want to run it. This means that any reserved instance that is not running could be sold, but not as an on-demand instance since AWS cannot evict an on-demand instance at will. See the figure below (which doesn’t have too many non-negations):

ec2 capacity pools

At any moment in time AWS’s total capacity is split into running instances and unused capacity. Running instances are further divided by type into reserved instances, on-demand instances and spot intances. The pool of unused capacity has a portion which cannot be sold as on-demand instances (because if it was sold and a lot of powered-off reserved instances were started it might not be able to provision resources for all those reserved instances). Thus there is unused capacity that can only be sold as spot instances.

This also means that there can be unused spot instance capacity even when on-demand instances cannot be provisioned. So finally we can explain why c3.2xlarge instances could be purchased from spot market even when you couldn’t buy on-demand instances: there was a pool of c3.2xlarge reserved instances already sold that were not powered on.

When reserved instances are powered on I think this is what happens:

  1. If there is unused capacity, it is used to provision the reserved instance. End of story.

  2. If no unused capacity was available, the spot market is notified that it needs to release capacity from the spot pool.

  3. Spot market algorithm recalculates the spot price based on the new (reduced) total capacity. If this changes the spot market price then it’ll terminate those spot instances whose bid price fell below the spot market price. The released instance capacity is allocated back to the reserved instance.

    What happens if the change of the capacity does not change the spot price? I’m not sure. It might be that the spot market algorithm will forcefully increase the spot price. As well it might not. The exact wording from AWS is “If the Spot price exceeds your max bid or there is no longer spare EC2 capacity in a given Spot pool, your instances will be terminated.” which I think leaves open the possibility that a spot instance is terminated also on capacity decrease even when the bid price doesn’t change.

If anyone has had their spot instance terminated even when the bid price equals spot price I’d be delighted to hear about your experiences.

(It is possible that there are also other pools of resources that are available for spot market use. Maybe new servers are first assigned to a “burn-in pool” which is sold only via the spot market. Maybe AWS has internal testing pools that are available for customers when not needed. I have not seen anything that would suggest so, though.)

Market efficiency and reserved instances

If my hypothesis about that powered-off reserved instance capacity is sold in the spot market then (I claim) that spot market is essential for AWS to maximize its income from reserved instances.

You could say that a working spot market is a requirement for reserved instances.

Think about it. If AWS was not able to resell unpowered reserved instances then it would be making loss with reserved instances. The c3.8xlarge light usage reserved instance upfront cost is $2666. It has 32 (virtual) cores and 60 GiBs of memory so I think that c3.8xlarge represents almost a physical single server (each E5-2680v2 has 20 threads, which I guess maps to an EC2 core) and I’m pretty sure it’ll cost more than $2666.

If AWS was not reselling unpowered reserved instance capacity then anyone buying a light utilization reserved instance would most likely end up costing AWS concrete and real money. At the minimum it would make the gross margin on those physical servers very low.

Open questions

I have a hypothesis. Good hypotheses can be tested with tests that either falsify the hypothesis or give results that are in line with earlier predictions.

Actually, to be accurate, I have two hypothesis. The first one is that spot market price is affected by supply and demand for all types of EC2 instances (also that there is a minimum spot price and there is no maximum spot price but we know the first for a fact and I’m not sure the second one is meaningful to explore at all).

The second one is that unused but purchased reserved instance capacity is re-sold as spot instances.

I’ll infer from these that the spot market should behave in the following manner (all of these apply to each region, instance type and availability zone separately):

  • Unpowered reserved instances and stopped on-demand instances should not affect spot price.
  • Purchasing reserved instances (without powering them on) …
    • … should not affect spot price.
    • … should decrease unused on-demand instance capacity. (This of course may not be visible in any way.)
    • … should increase unused spot instance capacity.
  • Powering reserved instances on …
    • … may increase spot price.
    • … may cause spot instances to be terminated (even when spot price remains unaffected).
    • … should not affect availability of on-demand instances.
  • Powering reserved instances off …
    • may decrease spot price.
  • Provisioning new on-demand instances or starting stopped on-demand instances …
    • … may increase spot price. (We already know via AWS forum comments about the $999.99 spot price spike that demand for on-demand instances can affect spot market prices. It is not clear what the mechanism here is though — does AWS preferentially give capacity to on-demand requests?)
    • … may cause spot instances to be terminated. (See previous.)
  • Terminating on-demand instances or stopping on-demand instances may decrease spot price.

That’s a lot. How could these be tested? First and foremost, testing any of these is potentially expensive as you need to provision instances and put in bids for spot instances and you’ll need to pay up for all of that. (These might also violate AWS’s Acceptable Use Policy.) It might be possible to infer some of this data from actual spot market logs and/or other monitoring data, though how I don’t know.

  • Buy one or more reserved instances. Start reserved instances. Based on the hypothetised behavior this should cause the spot market price to either increase or remain the same.

    (Given that there are other people powering instances on and off this would show up only as a statistical result from many iterations. This applies to all other tests too.)

  • Power off reserved instances. This should cause the spot market price to decrease or remain the same.

  • Purchase spot instances at spot market price or slightly above. See how often their termination is associated with spot price increases. (Some of them should not be.)

  • Purchase spot instances at spot market price. Power on reserved instances. There should be a correlation between starting your reserved instances and termination of your spot instances.

  • Start on-demand instances. This may be correlated with spot price increase.

  • Stop on-demand instances. This may be correlated with spot price decrease.

Of course testing any of these is fraught with difficulty. Starting and stopping one instance is unlikely to affect the spot market price (the system would have to be near a transition point) and any result could be swamped badly by random effects (other users). You could reduce environmental noise by choosing relatively unused region, zone and instance type but in that case you’d probably have to purchase a significant number of instances to see any effect.

How does this affect you?

Not really much. You shouldn’t try to second-guess future behavior of spot prices.

If my hypothesis is correct, then you might want to keep in mind that the spot market price is affected by events that occur outside the spot market. That is even an apparently stable market can change suddenly without any change in the bidding pool.

But you already knew that spot market is volatile, didn’t you? No new news, then.

Here’s the next post in the series.

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