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Oracle Cloud lures developers with 'Always Free' services

Oracle Cloud Infrastructure lags rivals, but the company hopes that a broader set of free services will draw interest from a critical constituency – developers.

Oracle has added 13 more services to the Always Free tier of its public cloud IaaS in a bid to attract more developers and thus seed business for the broader platform.

The company introduced the Always Free offering for Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) in 2019. Initially, it included foundational services such as compute, storage and Oracle's flagship database. The new additions include instances based on Arm-based Ampere A1 processors, Autonomous JSON Database, NoSQL database, the APEX application development toolkit, logging, Oracle's service connector hub, application performance monitoring, load balancers, virtual private network, OCI's Security Zones feature and OCI Bastion, among others.

The Always Free tier caps usage on the services but aims to provide enough resources to build viable production applications. For example, the Autonomous JSON database Always Free tier allows up to 1 OCPU and 20 GB storage, while the APEX free offering supports up to six simultaneous users. The Always Free tier for OCI Logging provides 10 GB storage per month.

Oracle is trying to gain market share for OCI against rival cloud providers -- in particular AWS. While AWS has a free tier, "it's so complicated that nobody can understand it," said Dan Gerrity, senior vice president of developer services for OCI. This can lead to users running up charges unintentionally, as some complained in a lengthy Twitter thread last month.

OCI Always Free has guardrails in place, Gerrity said. "You can't use resources that cost money, so you can't make a mistake." AWS didn't respond to a request for comment.

But Oracle's Always Free rollout had its bumps, as well. For example, initially Oracle didn't include load balancers in the tier, Gerrity said. "If a developer is going to build a proof of concept, they need a load balancer."

Oracle used to give really opinionated guidance about how to build an application. We're going to get back into that business.
Dan GerritySenior vice president of developer services, Oracle Cloud Infrastructure

The company also intends to revert to prior form. "Oracle used to give really opinionated guidance about how to build an application," Gerrity said. "We're going to get back into that business. We're going to tell people how to build a modern app."

Oracle has targeted six classes of applications for the Always Free tier resources, including as mobile web, messaging-based apps, event-driven apps and database apps. The additional 13 services make it possible for this wide variety of applications to be built with the Always Free tier, according to Gerrity. "If you want to build a modern app, you can do it with Oracle, and here's the proof," he said.

Beyond resource limits, Always Free apps are restricted to one OCI zone and thus don't allow for resiliency and failover scenarios, which are critical for any mission-critical production application. Oracle's intent is to get customers that built proofs of concept with Always Free to upgrade and pay for those capabilities while scaling their applications up and out, generating revenue for OCI.

The Always Free tier has seen more than 100% usage growth in the last year, Gerrity said. He declined to provide a specific number of developer signups.

OCI is Oracle's second effort at building a public cloud. Its first attempt, now dubbed OCI Classic, was based in part on OpenStack and failed to gain many customers. OCI also provides the infrastructure for many of Oracle's SaaS applications, but it remains well behind AWS, Microsoft and Google in IaaS and PaaS. Oracle hopes that courting developers effectively will help it gain share on the infrastructure and platform layers.

Every cloud vendor wants to do the same thing, of course. That makes free tiers a must, said Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research.

"All vendors need to do that -- even AWS --- for new services [in order to] juice the pump," he said.

"It's hard to find the right balance with what is enough for a developer to learn and evaluate, and for an enterprise to evaluate a prototype. That's where the value is."

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Oracle has aggressively built out new regions and services for its second-generation public cloud.

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