ECS vs. EC2: Are They the Same or Different?

Container Orchestration or Compute Service?

Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers a range of cloud computing services to meet enterprise needs. Included in its service offering is the elastic compute service (ECS) and elastic compute cloud (EC2). Choosing between these two services can be difficult, as one focuses on virtualization while the other manages containerization.

In the following article, we will explore the differences between Amazon ECS and EC2 to help you better understand which service is right for your use case.

What is Amazon EC2?

Amazon EC2 stands for “elastic compute cloud.” EC2 allows enterprises to access cloud computing resources on demand. There are over 500 instances to choose from, with the latest processor, storage, operating system, and networking technologies.

Amazon EC2 is akin to a managed virtual machine (VM) service, where preconfigured VM instances can be deployed without the management burden. Enterprises can also upload on-premises VM configurations to EC2 with automated conversion and deployment in the cloud via VM export/import.


What Separates EC2 from Regular Virtual Machines?

EC2 instances are billed on a per-second or hourly basis, with pay-as-you-go (PAYG) pricing to alleviate upfront costs. AWS also controls the VM configuration and infrastructure, so enterprises can directly access compute resources without the headache.

This is beneficial when elastic scaling kicks in for a group of EC2 instances. AWS will automatically scale up resource allocations to maintain performance and stability, while also scaling down during quieter periods to reduce operating expenses (OpEx).

The biggest issue for most enterprises is data continuity. EC2 data is only retained while the instance is live, and decommissioning leads to data being wiped. Luckily, enterprises can retain EC2 instance data using elastic block store (EBS), or backup EC2 data to an Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) bucket.


What is Amazon ECS?

Amazon ECS stands for “Elastic Container Service.” Where EC2 uses virtualization and virtual machines (VMs), Amazon ECS is used to manage Docker container applications. It is a fully managed container orchestration service that functions in similar fashion to Kubernetes. Amazon ECS orchestrates Docker containers running via Amazon EC2.

Rather than deploying a new EC2 instance to scale up, Amazon ECS uses container clusters. Each cluster contains multiple EC2 instances, governed by the Amazon ECS orchestrator to facilitate scaling and failovers.

In summary, ECS allows companies to deploy containerized applications and orchestrate them easily, without the infrastructure management burden.

What Are the Key Differences Between Amazon ECS and EC2?

The largest difference for EC2 is that it deploys isolated VM instances with auto scaling support, and ECS deploys scalable clusters of managed Docker containers.

Enterprises can use ECS to scale web applications, perform batch processing, and run services in a hybrid environment to deliver better services to users.

EC2 can function without the need for Docker containers. For this reason, it can offer greater flexibility with wide-ranging OS support and hardware configurations. This flexibility comes with an additional management burden, which the ECS orchestrator helps enterprises to avoid.

Scaling Vertically vs. Horizontally

A more technical explanation for VM instances vs. clusters is scaling vertically and horizontally. Horizontal scaling involves adding additional nodes, and vertical scaling involves adding more power to current machines.

  • Scaling Vertically – Adds additional computing power to an existing instance or node. A node is used to control a cluster of Docker containers, where more containers can be added to a cluster to scale vertically.

  • Scaling Horizontally – Does not add computing power to existing instances or nodes. Instead, it creates a new instance and evenly re-distributes any workloads between the group of instances.

Scaling vertically increases the availability of computing power, but applications become dependent on a single node or cluster group. If the node fails, or the cluster controller malfunctions, an entire application or website can go offline until remediated.

Scaling horizontally creates more complexity, but spreads service dependency across multiple instances. If one instance fails, another instance can absorb the workload while remediation takes place.

Amazon EC2 and ECS Use Cases

ESC and EC2 often work together, but they don’t need to. EC2 runs in many great instances and environments with ECS alongside it. Here are a few of their use cases:

Use cases for Amazon EC2:

  • Select and deploy a Windows Server or Linux distro machine image (MI) to run enterprise applications.

  • Create and deploy custom applications to the cloud.

  • Create a highly configurable environment or instance type with security, data protection, identity access management (IAM), and networking rules applied.

  • Leverage the flexibility to define minimum, desired, and maximum capacities, or use auto scaling groups to govern application resource utilization.

Use cases for Amazon ECS:

  • Deploy containerized applications using Docker without Kubernetes as an orchestration layer.

  • Support a transition from monolithic architecture to microservices.

  • Add Amazon ECS Anywhere to deploy containers in multi-cloud environments, such as Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and Microsoft Azure.

  • Load balance between multiple clustered servers using AWS Elastic Load Balancers (ELBs).

What Amazon ECS Launch Type Should DevOps Teams Use?

While there are many EC2 launch types, there are two Amazon ECS launch types that DevOps teams can choose from. Users can choose an ECS launch type when they run a standalone task or create a service to determine the infrastructure that the tasks and services are hosted on.

  • EC2 – This launch type allows for the deployment and management of EC2 instance clusters. It offers full control over instances and clusters, albeit with a higher management burden.

  • AWS Fargate – This is a serverless version of EC2, where Amazon controls the infrastructure and configuration so enterprises can focus on running their applications and tasks.

For larger workloads with high CPU and memory requirements, enterprises can better optimize for price-to-performance using Amazon EC2.

Otherwise, AWS Fargate is much better suited to workloads that require low overhead. Fargate is also perfect for burst processing workloads and batch processing. Since AWS Fargate automates scaling with per-second billing, it can significantly reduce costs compared to EC2.

Need Help Choosing Between AWS EC2 and ECS?

Trianz is an AWS Advanced Consulting Partner with extensive experience managing EC2 and ECS workloads. Our team of consultants can help you determine which Amazon services are ideal for your application workloads, and systematically modernize applications for greater performance, functionality, and cost efficiency.

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