In November 2022, Salesforce moved forward with plans to eliminate the array of free services it had long offered through Heroku, including Heroku Dynos, Heroku Postgres and Heroku Data for Redis. As such, many developers and software development teams find themselves forced to decide whether the value of these once-free services justify the added cost.
However, it may also prove beneficial to explore alternative deployment platforms that offer users arrays of capabilities and services comparable to Heroku's for free: Back4App, CapRover, Fly.io, OpenShift, Render and Vercel.
What happened to Heroku?
Heroku is a cloud PaaS used to deploy, run and manage container-based applications, with all its services hosted on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud. Although developers could deal directly with a public cloud provider, like AWS, Heroku's user dashboard and CLI features can simplify and accelerate app deployment, simplify management and improve scalability. Through abstraction, Heroku relieves its users of the complex management tasks associated with large public cloud architectures.
One of Heroku's most popular features is its fleet of lightweight Linux containers offered through the Heroku Dynos service. These containers -- known as dynos -- are isolated, virtualized and designed to execute application processes via user-provided commands, and many users especially enjoyed the benefit of regularly running small collections of these useful containers for free through the free, introductory tier of Heroku Dynos.
Since Salesforce's reconfiguration of its pricing model, Heroku Dynos now offers users six tiers of what they call Dyno Types. Each tier of Dino Types offers incrementally higher levels of memory allocation, feature sophistication and, of course, monthly cost. Starting with the least comprehensive -- and cheapest -- option, these Dyno Types are currently identified as Eco, Basic, Standard, Performance, Private and Shield.
Alongside Heroku Dynos, Heroku Postgres and Heroku Data for Redis also fell under the banner of free-tier options embraced by developers and software teams. However, like Heroku Dynos, the free version of Heroku Postgres was eliminated, and the SQL database service is now only available through six paid options, some of which mirror the names of Heroku Dynos' tiers: Mini, Basic, Standard, Premium, Private and Shield. Heroku Data for Redis, meanwhile, also offers Mini, Private and Shield tiers of pricing, with the addition of two distinct Premium tiers that are each parsed out into subtiers of memory allocation levels that marginally scale the service's monthly cost.
What does this mean for Heroku's users?
Heroku's historic supply of free dynos and data services provided a dependably cost-effective vehicle for low-level app development, feature experimentation and QA testing for countless organizations. Such efforts now incur a higher cost, which likely presents a minor inconvenience for some. But those who used these services in large-scale scenarios or high-priority projects could potentially offset development budget planning, incur project or management cost overruns, and impact the flexibility of testing schedules.
For example, a project team that depended heavily on the benefits of free tiers of Heroku services may fall behind schedule for development of an anticipated release of new and highly competitive application features if budget constraints don't allow the team to retain these services by simply paying the new costs. Similarly, some QA teams may curtail certain testing processes that relied on free service tiers, possibly affecting software quality and opening the door to more bugs and failures.
What does it cost to stay with Heroku?
For some, the value that Heroku services provide them -- and perhaps the degree to which they desperately depend on the platform -- is significant enough to warrant exploring ways to continue using Heroku's capabilities while staying comfortably within budget. While Salesforce no longer offers free versions of Heroku Dynos, Heroku Data for Redis or Heroku Postgres, it still promotes a collection of these same dynos and data services through "low-cost" service tiers that those who wish to stay aboard the platform may find fall within their comfort zone of spending.
For one, the Heroku Eco Dyno Type tier offers users access to 1,000 dyno hours per month for $5, with the plan refreshing on the first day of each month, as opposed to the exact date you subscribed. Note, however, that this pool of 1,000 dyno hours is shared across all Eco dynos that reside in your account, making it best for experimentation or running apps with limited use. The next tier, Basic, enables users to run slightly more sophisticated dynos capable of handling small projects or concept builds; this service costs $0.01 per hour, with a maximum of $7 per month if the dynos run 24/7.
Likewise, Heroku Data for Redis and Heroku Postgres offer Mini tiers designed to act as entry-level tiers for those interested in using Heroku services more broadly. For the price of approximately $0.004 per hour -- max $3 per month -- Heroku Data for Redis offers a multi-tenant instance for small projects and concept designs, including analytics and log metrics. The Mini option for Heroku Postgres comes at a cost of approximately $0.007 per hour -- max of $5 per month.
While it's true that the monthly subscription fees for the more basic versions of Heroku services aren't wildly expensive, there are some stipulations within each service plan surrounding use and fee charges that are worth keeping close track of before singing up. And, as history shows, there's always the potential for these pricing models to change abruptly. This is one characteristic of paid plans that make finding free options a worthwhile pursuit, which we review next.
Alternatives to Heroku's bygone free services
For users who are determined not to pay for Heroku's once-free container and data services, there is a respectable ecosystem of application, server, container, database and cloud deployment services, among many other platforms with unique capabilities, that offer no-cost trial subscriptions or simply provide certain services unconditionally for free.
The platform and service provider options listed here span a range of platform sophistication levels, stages of the deployment process and niche development scenarios. However, these quick overviews should provide at least a good starting point by demonstrating the types of options out there.
Finally, while it's difficult to say whether any of these options are decidedly better, worse or equal to Heroku's clearly proven fleet of services, it's certainly worth noting that the no-cost model these platforms and providers offer opens the door for users to make that determination for themselves without being forced into full commitment.
Editor's note: The platforms and services reviewed below are listed alphabetically; the order in which they appear should not be interpreted as a ranking system of any kind.
Back4App is a low-code backend as a service that has gained a strong reputation in the web and mobile development space. As an open source platform based on Parse, Back4App provides capabilities for container deployment, scalability control, push notifications and API management, including REST and GraphQL support.
Currently, its free plan permits users a monthly allotment of 25,000 requests, 250 MB of data storage, 1 GB of data transfer and 1 GB of file storage. Though the paid tiers of Back4App offer the ability to deploy across multiple major global regions, it's also important to note that the free edition limits users to deployment within the U.S.
CapRover is a free, open source framework for application and database deployment, as well as a web server manager. CapRover provides one-click integration for an impressive list of application types, including those written in Node.js, Python, PHP, ASP.NET and Ruby, and even blogging applications, like WordPress and Prisma 1.
This platform also excels from a data and database management perspective, working seamlessly with MySQL, MongoDB and Postgres. It is based on Docker, Nginx, Let's Encrypt and Netdata -- another factor that makes this a powerful no-cost PaaS.
Fly.io is a global application distribution platform used to deploy application servers as close to end users as possible with the goal of providing those users better application performance and lower latency. Using a hypervisor called Firecracker, Fly.io code runs through a global network of lightweight Linux kernel-based VMs known as microVMs.
The platform features a list of no-cost resources, including the freedom to create three shared instances of their smallest VM size (256 MB), 3 GB of persistent volume storage and 160 GB for outbound data transfer. Fly.io specifically said that it includes these "free allowances" as part of its paid plans, and it's somewhat hard to tell if there is any way to access them without also subscribing to a paid plan. On the bright side, the platform's paid plans start at just $1.94 per month for use of its lowest-tier application VM.
OpenShift is a unified platform used to build, modernize and deploy Docker-based applications at enterprise scale. Operated by the renowned software company Red Hat, the platform offers various application and container management services. Developers can create, deploy and scale containerized applications in the cloud, with dedicated support for things like runtime packaging and continuous integration efforts. While OpenShift certainly finds use across a diverse spectrum of organizational sizes, the platform's primary focus has always been on enterprise-grade application and infrastructure support.
Of course, this level of comprehensive service doesn't come cheap, with the price for many plans starting in the low hundreds. However, Red Hat does provide a few no-cost avenues for those who want to test OpenShift's features and assess its benefits. This includes a free 30-day trial of OpenShift's sandbox service, which offers access to a shared OpenShift and Kubernetes cluster, guided platform tutorials and pre-built applications for users to experiment with. For those more concerned with large-scale deployment scenarios, Red Hat also offers 60-day trials of both the fully managed and self-managed versions of OpenShift Container Platform.
Render is a unified cloud platform designed to support rapid web service and application deployment, offering support for things like static website development, cron jobs, custom domains, infrastructure as code and automated resource allocation. Its creators have unabashedly postured Render as a direct competitor to Heroku, citing faster response times and significantly lower pricing. However, while not necessarily proven, some claim that the remarkable performance Render displays for small-scale deployments may not always translate readily to enterprise-grade scenarios.
Nonetheless, Render is certainly poised to capitalize on the elimination of Heroku's free services by directly filling the gap. Much like Heroku once did, Render offers users a lineup of stripped-down services for free, including web service deployment instances (750 hours per month with 100 GB of bandwidth), PostgreSQL database instances (expiration date of 90 days) and singular, nonpersistent instances of Redis data stores.
Vercel is a front-end web development platform designed to support projects using popular frameworks, like Next.js, React, Vue and Angular. Some of Vercel's top features include simplified project management dashboards, one-click integration for headless content management systems, real-time analytics capabilities, serverless edge functions and a customized CLI. Though it does not advertise a specific price for its Enterprise service plan, indicating that price structures vary per customer, a subscription to the platform's Pro tier comes at a monthly cost of $20 per user.
However, Vercel's free service tier -- dubbed the Hobby plan -- includes a number of limited services geared toward personal, noncommercial development. This includes a maximum of 100 new deployments per day, 12 serverless functions per deployment, three Vercel projects connected to a single Git repository and two cron jobs per day. Though the Hobby plan lacks many of the enticing features found in the Pro tier, such as the ability to create an unlimited number of serverless functions and perform concurrent builds, Vercel provides a limited, 14-day free trial of the Pro plan for those considering the upgrade.