AWS Lightsail is the closest thing AWS has to shared hosting. It is their quick, easy and inexpensive off-the-shelf hosting that has SSH access and many of the benefits of using a more expensive EC2 instance.
It is an affordable entry in cloud computing, but is it any good?
I decided to try out Amazon’s cheapest hosting offering by moving a WordPress blog from some shared hosting to Lightsail. I have tried EC2 in the past so this was not my first experience with AWS, but I was curious to see what their new more consumer-based hosting was like.
Creating an Instance
When you create an instance of Lightsail you chose how big or small you want it. You also chose whether you want just the OS, or you can have an app pre-installed with Bitnami (“App+OS“). The options for the app include a pre-installed WordPress blog, LAMP, MEAN, LEMP or several other applications. Alternatively, you can choose “OS Only” where you currently have the choice of either Windows or Linux flavors: Amazon Linux, Ubuntu, Debian, FreeBSD, openSUSE and CentOS.
I went with the PHP 7 LAMP stack option in the smallest size ($3.50 per month). I chose this option because I wanted to make sure WordPress was exactly the way I wanted it. And I wanted to see what the LAMP option was like.
In the price you also get a dedicated IP which makes setting up a breeze before pointing the domain name at the new instance, definitely a nice touch.
The LAMP 7 option came with PHP 7.1. But it’s possible to upgrade. All the elements of LAMP come pre-installed (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) but you’ll want to configure them to your needs.
The main thing you can say about the setup is that it was lightening fast. Within seconds I had a fully operational instance. In the past, when setting up some hosting you might have assumed it would take at least a couple of days. Because the dedicated IP is plainly visible on the AWS console, you can immediately see the default index page in your browser.
First Look at Lightsail App+OS
The main difference between the “App+OS” option and a normal VPS is Bitnami. You notice right away is that the default username is “bitnami” and after logging into the Linux console you get a large “Bitnami” logo at the top of the screen.
So, what is this Bitnami?
Amazon AWS has so many quirks that you might assume that Bitnami is an AWS thing, as is their own Amazon Linux, but it is quite widely used in cloud computing (including Oracle Cloud and Google Cloud Platform).
With the “App+OS” Bitnami a lot of the things you normally have to do to set up a LAMP stack are already done for you. For example, Apache is pre-installed with most/all modules and even MySQL is pre-installed. However, to find your root login for MySQL you’ll need to look for it, see below.
With Bitnami other slightly unusual thing you notice upon logging into SSH or SFTP is the directory structure, the apache.conf does not look the same as normal, and where are the virtual host files?
Bitnami uses httpd-app.conf, httpd-prefix.conf and httpd-vhosts.conf files, as described here.
This is unusual and I imagine many people who do not want to use Bitnami would want to use the “OS Only” option. While it may take a little longer to set up, once that’s done you have a “normal” Bitnami-free Linux instance.
Transferring a Website to Lightsail
Having gone with the LAMP (PHP 7) option I basically followed my guide from here to move a WordPress blog over to different hosting. With minimal setup to do it was mainly a case of setting up the database, installing WordPress then using WP-CLI to install the plugins and theme.
As the instance was just going to be hosting one website I didn’t have to worry at all about the virtualhosts as everything was set up to just work from the off.
My first question was how do I login to MySQL. The login info for MySQL did not appear to be anywhere in the AWS console. To find the password for the root user you need the Bitnami Application password. From the home directory (where you arrive after logging in) just type…
$ cat bitnami_application_password
Transferring everything across, most things just worked. While PDO worked fine in normal PHP pages, I had to tweak the php.ini to get PDO to work from a script run with cron. For me, I just had to uncomment the .so file for PDO which was almost the last line of the php.ini.
After changing something like the php.ini you’ll have to restart. The following command seems to stop everything (apache/HTTPd, PHP and MySQL, ), then restart everything; perfect for making sure everything gets restarted all at once but not very graceful (from here)…
$ sudo /opt/bitnami/ctlscript.sh restart
To just restart apache you’d just add “apache” to the end…
$ sudo /opt/bitnami/ctlscript.sh restart apache
While some things are very different in Bitnami, it’s basically just a Linux instance. The Linux version I got with the LAMP (PHP 7) option was actually Ubuntu 16.04, so if you want the latest version of Ubuntu (18.04 is currently the latest LTS), or a different flavor of Linux, chose the “OS Only” option. I am most comfortable with Ubuntu/Debian and a lot of the standard CLI functions are exactly the same as Ubuntu.
Nano comes pre-installed and was the default editor for the crontab.
$ crontab -e
BTW, cron needs the full path to php, i.e. something like…
* * * * * /opt/bitnami/php/bin/php -f /opt/bitnami/apache2/htdocs/scripts/index.php "name_of_method()"
$ sudo service cron reload
The timezone is quite important because it can also affect your keyboard layout when typing into the Linux terminal. Changing the timezone is based on Ubuntu 16.04, so something like this would work to list the timezones, select a timezone then check which timezone you’re using…
$ timedatectl list-timezones
$ sudo timedatectl set-timezone America/Vancouver
Now, that the Linux timezone is set, you may also need to update the timezone PHP uses by updating this line in the php.ini…
For all the PHP timezone variables, click on your region from the PHP timezones page.
Something else that is the same as Ubuntu is updating and upgrading…
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get upgrade
Once you get used to the quirks and the different directory structure with Bitnami, most things seem the same as a typical Ubuntu instance.
Issue(s) with AWS Lightsail
The first “upgrade” was a large one which took a while. It took so long in fact that either putty went inactive, or my computer went to sleep, or both. After this, the website went down and I had no access to SSH. What I seemed to have to do was not “reboot” the instance, but “stop” and “start” the instance from the AWS console. After this, I had a different public IP address but I was able to fix whatever had happened with the upgrade.
If the restart is the opposite of graceful, stopping and starting was similarly very ungraceful, comparable to doing the same thing with any VPS instance.
Apart from some minor changes that will probably be easy to get used to, I did not have many issues at all.
AWS Lightsail App+OS: Conclusion
Bitnami saved some time during setup, but honestly, any time I saved was probably offset by time spent figuring out what was going on with Bitnami.
I’m not 100% sure that the speed of setup of Bitnami is worth the changes it makes to the Linux operating system. For something like this example, a WordPress blog, that isn’t going to need a lot of administration, the “App+OS” option was fine though.
If you are a purist and don’t mind setting up the Linux instance with everything you need there is always the “OS Only” option which I don’t believe uses Bitnami. This would be better for a website where you’re going to want to make more changes to the Virtualhost file and/or possibly upgrade to an EC2 instance in future. If you are already a full stack LAMP developer you’ll probably be wanting to use that option for any actual development. App+OS seems to be mainly for people who do not want to get too involved with the “L” or “A” parts of LAMP.
AWS Lightsail with the App+OS option is perfect for someone who just wants to have a cheap WordPress blog running on AWS, as I did here. For a brand new blog, choosing the “WordPress” option would simplify the whole process even more.
So far so good. The instance seems fast for a WordPress blog, it certainly is compared to the previous shared hosting. And, very affordable.