25 March 2014

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

Warning: This article is really about splitting hairs. If you think watching paint dry is boring then this post most probably isn’t for you.

In my previous post I stated that AWS has set minimum spot instance prices and incorrectly asserted that these minimums are can be seen in the price-too-low error when submitting low bids. This is wrong (I’ve updated the earlier blog post slightly to avoid spreading the wrong fact), as the “minimum” bid price given is actually the current spot price. Oh, how could I miss that.

How to find a minimum spot price

Thus there is no direct way to get the minimum spot price in any market. But it is possible to infer these indirectly from spot price history data? I looked at the minimum spot prices in all regions and instance types (picking the lowest of all zones) and plotted it getting the graph below (the dataset spans 2013-12-08 to 2014-03-09):

minimum spot prices by instance type in all regions

Minimum spot market prices by instance type and region. The minimum is calculated over all the zones in the region. Note that cc1.4xlarge is missing due to a limitation in the source data, not that it doesn’t have bids.

Take a look at the graph for a few seconds. Go ahead. Don’t skip ahead until you’ve taken a bit of time to look at the dots. Okay, let’s continue then. I think you have also noticed there are patterns. There is a distinct pattern for several instance types in the data — m3.xlarge, m3.2xlarge, t1.micro for example, but also continuing over the m1 and m2 classes. There may be another pattern with some c3 instance types and maybe yet another for m3 too, but let’s stick with the most obvious one for now. I’ll label the set of “similar” minimum price pattern the “suspect” group. Below is a plot with all of the “suspect” instance types (minimum relative prices) plotted on top of each other:

minimum spot prices of selected instances overlaid by region

Minimum spot price for instance types m3.xlarge, m3.2xlarge, t1.micro, m1.large, m1.xlarge, m2.xlarge, m2.2xlarge, m2.4xlarge, m1.small, m1.medium, c1.medium and c1.xlarge. Different colors correspond to different instance types. Y-axis positions are slightly jittered.

This graph requires a bit of thought to understand so bear with me. These are relative minimum spot prices so although the absolute minimum spot price differs from region to region these should be comparable to each other. In the graph there are two things that you need to be considered:

  • Similarity between regions. It is quite clear that ap-southeast-1, ap-southeast-2 and us-west-1 are almost identical to each other. With eyes squinted us-west-2 has a cousin-style similarity to these three but all of the others are definitely dissimilar.

  • Levels of the relative prices. You can find the cheapest spot instances (for the instance types discussed) in us-east-1 whereas ap-northeast-1 and eu-west-1 are clearly more expensive (err… less cheap?). All of the others seem to have roughly similar average minimum level.

What I find very interesting is the identical levels and structure between the three topmost regions. Here’s the raw data from these three regions in a tabular format:

us-west-2 ap-southeast-1 ap-southeast-2
c1.medium 0.028 0.028 0.028
c1.xlarge 0.112 0.110 0.110
m1.small 0.010 0.010 0.010
m1.medium 0.021 0.020 0.020
m1.large 0.042 0.040 0.040
m1.xlarge 0.083 0.080 0.080
m2.xlarge 0.056 0.059 0.059
m2.2xlarge 0.112 0.118 0.118
m2.4xlarge 0.224 0.236 0.236
m3.xlarge 0.092 0.088 0.088
m3.2xlarge 0.183 0.175 0.175
t1.micro 0.004 0.004 0.004

Lowest observed spot instance prices in dollars in the regions us-west-2, ap-southeast-1 and ap-southeast-2 between 2013-12-08 and 2014-03-09.

These values are in dollars e.g. they are not relative prices. First of all both ap-southeast regions have exactly the same observed minimum spot prices. The us-west-2 region has several instances where prices are identical to ap-southeast regions, some where prices are slightly higher and some slightly lower. However it should be noted (as can be seen in the earlier graph with relative prices) these differences are very small compared to differences to some other regions.

Regardless how you slice and dice these numbers I find it exceedingly unlikely that these very similar relative and absolute minimum spot prices in multiple regions would be result of pure chance. At least from practical point of view there are minimum spot prices.

How are minimum spot prices set?

If this really is so, it raises another question: How are these minimum spot prices determined? Have they been set by AWS itself, or are they an artifact of external bidders during the data period?

And if they are set by AWS, then by what policy does AWS set them?

One possibility is that they are calculated from region’s on-demand prices. Yet at least for the three regions considered above this does not hold. The ap-southeast regions have same on-demand prices but us-west-2 has substantially lower prices. Yet it has very similar minimum spot prices. For example the c1.medium instance type has an observed minimum spot price of $0.028, yet its price in ap-southeast regions is $0.183 compared to $0.145 in us-west-2.

Could the minimum spot prices be based on operational costs? This seems more plausible since there seems to be similarity in the minimum prices between regions for the same instance generation — that is, instances running on so-called “first generation” hardware (compared to “second generation” of m3 and “new generation” of c3 classes) such as m1, c1, m2 and t1 had somewhat similar prices between regions. For c3 class instance types this similarity is even more striking:

minimum spot prices for c3 instance types

Minimum spot price for c3 class instance types. Different colors correspond to different instance types. Y-axis positions are slightly jittered. (The reason why you are not seeing many discs is because most of them are exactly on top of each other.) sa-east-1 is missing from this graph as it didn’t have c3 instance types during the period covered by the data set.

Note that apart two outliers (more on these below) the relative prices for c3 instances between all of the regions are almost exactly the same. Again although absolute minimum prices differ the relative minimums (percentage of the on-demand price) is almost exactly the same for almost all regions for almost all c3 instance types.

In plain English this means that for all c3 instance types the minimum bid price is a fixed percentage of that region’s on-demand instance price.

That’d be a mighty coincidence if there was no minimum and all of this similarity was result of different bidders all over the world?

Okay. There’s the question of the two outliers above: c3.large in ap-southeast-2 at $0.001 and c3.8xlarge in ap-northeast-1 at $0.060. Getting c3.8xlarge at 1/40 of the on-demand price seems like a great bargain. If AWS enforced minimum prices I’d expect them to be set in all regions. Was it left out accidentally for these two cases? If so, it was around for quite a while (the $0.060 price for c3.8xlarge was hit in 2013-12-10, 2013-12-12, 2014-01-03 and 2014-01-04 for a total of 338 minutes at that price and the $0.001 for c3.large on 16 distinct days between 2013-12-22 and 2014-02-03 for a total of 13.4 days.)

For the outliers I have two explanations:

  • It’s an accident. For some reason the minimum was set incorrectly for these two instance types.

  • There is actually no minimum spot price. Reconciling this view with the observed very similar minimum relative prices in multiple regions is difficult, though. One possibility that comes to mind is that maybe — maybe someone itself is bidding in all spot markets for spare capacity at a very low price and these low prices reflect those bids when there is very little demand by other customers.

    Yet even this outlandish scenario raises new questions. Why would this hypothetical all-excess-capacity-sucking entity bid at different prices or even at different percentages of on-demand prices? Why not bid at absolute $0.001 or at relative 10% in all regions for all instance types? If someone was really doing this then it seems reasonable that more than one market would have seen such a lull in demand that such a consistent low bid would become visible. This hasn’t happened (at least not in the data I have).

What else could be gleaned from this data?

  • Minimum relative prices for 1st generation instances are more spread out than for c3 instance types. Actually, the c3 relative prices are very tightly packed.

    I’m definitely not sure, but this might reflect the underlying hardware and its operational costs. I think AWS has learned a lesson or two from first generation instances and its hardware. It seems reasonable that they have better understanding on how to optimally pack instances into a single server and how to operate them.

    The earlier generation instances run on multiple different types of hardware (it is know they have different CPU types, at least, see Is the Same Instance Type Created Equal? Exploiting Heterogeneity of Public Clouds by Ou, Zhuang et al, 2013) and it seems that the capacity progression in m1, m2 and c1 classes is not always a simple 2x step from instance type to another (potentially leaving “unfilled gaps”). These might explain why older instance types have more “spread” in their relative minimum prices than the newer ones.

  • Japan and Europe (ap-northeast-1 and eu-west-1) have consistently higher minimum relative spot prices than most other regions. OTOH, ap-southeast-1 is the odd one out since with old instance types it had identical relative prices with two other regions, but for c3 instances it stands out as substantially more expensive (“less cheap”).

    This might be due to relatively higher operational costs in these regions and that the on-demand prices are not entirely based on operational costs. That is, they take into account competition, willingness of the market to accept the given price level as well as any desire by AWS to establish a (dominant?) market presence. All of these may provide a rationale to price on-demand instances at relatively lower gross margin level than in other, more established regions.

  • Also it is interesting that us-east-1 doesn’t stand out as “cheaper” for c3 instances in the same way it did for 1st generation instance types.


So as a conclusion to the question whether there are minimum spot prices and who sets them I think the answer is that from a practical point of view there are minimum spot prices. If you are bidding in these markets you have to understand that there appears to be a minimum bid price you have to use to have any chance of getting an instance, ever. Although not conclusive, I find the most plausible scenario for these minimum prices that AWS is setting minimum spot prices based on operational costs, but using different formulae for different instance generations.

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