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November 6, 2023
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Ecosystem

Amazon ECS vs. EKS. vs. Fargate: a comparison of container management services

The main difference between them? ECS and EKS are container orchestration services for Docker and Kubernetes that simplify the deployment, management, and scaling of containerized apps. Meanwhile, Fargate is a serverless compute engine that works with both ECS and EKS, removing the need to manage underlying server infrastructure.

Graphic featuring Amazon ECS, EKS and Fargate logos

Introduction

Containers have become essential in modern software development. They encapsulate applications in self-sufficient environments with consistent performance across different computing ecosystems. They also enable microservices architectures that improve scalability, resilience, and development velocity.

While containers bring plenty of benefits, managing them (especially at scale) can be daunting. Fortunately, there are solutions out there that simplify the management and orchestration of containers. In this article, we’ll compare three such technologies, all part of the AWS ecosystem: Amazon ECS, EKS, and Fargate (all managed services). By the end of the article, I hope you’ll have a good understanding of their similarities, differences, and strong points, and you’ll be in a better position to decide if any of them is adequate for your use case. 

Note: This article is best suited for readers who have at least a basic level of familiarity with Docker, Kubernetes, and the broader AWS ecosystem

If you’re here because you’re planning to build an event-driven application, I recommend the “Guide to the Event-Driven, Event Streaming Stack,” which talks about all the components of EDA and walks you through a reference use case and decision tree to help you understand where each component fits in.

What is Amazon ECS?

Amazon Elastic Container Service (ECS) is a fully managed container orchestration service that simplifies the deployment, scaling, and management of Docker-based applications, primarily on AWS cloud infrastructure. You might even hear people refer to ECS as Amazon’s Docker-as-a-Service platform. ECS seamlessly integrates with other AWS tools, streamlining the development lifecycle of containerized apps.

AWS Elastic Container Service (ECS) overview. Source.

Key Amazon ECS features and capabilities

  • Task definitions act as blueprints for your applications. Each task definition allows you to specify parameters such as the Docker image to use, how much CPU and memory to use with each task/container, and the command that the container runs when it starts. 
  • No control plane, nodes, or add-ons for you to manage.
  • Distribute traffic across containers via Application Load Balancers, Network Load Balancers, or Classic Load Balancers.
  • CI/CD (monitor changes to a source code repo, build a new Docker image, push the image to a repo like Docker Hub or Amazon ECR).
  • Integrations with Amazon CloudWatch, AWS CloudTrail, and AWS Config for monitoring and logging.
  • Integration with AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) to assign granular permissions for each container.
  • Integrates with AWS Copilot CLI, which allows you to build, release, and operate containerized applications from your local development environment. 
  • Supports various launch types: Fargate (serverless approach to host ECS workloads), EC2 (suitable for large workloads), and External/ECS Anywhere (run containerized apps on your on-prem server or virtual machine that you register to ECS).
  • Different options to interconnect your ECS applications: service discovery via AWS Cloud Map, and Amazon ECS Service Connect (where you define names for service endpoints and use them in your client app to connect to dependencies).  
  • Supports workloads that use Local Zones, Wavelength Zones, and AWS Outposts for scenarios when low latency and local data processing are critical. 

What is Amazon EKS?

Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (EKS) is a managed service that allows you to deploy, run, manage, and scale Kubernetes clusters without the need to set up or maintain the underlying Kubernetes control plane. EKS is compatible with standard Kubernetes tooling and plugins (e.g., Helm, K9s, Terraform), and it offers both cloud and on-prem deployment options. 

Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (EKS) overview. Source.

Key Amazon EKS features and capabilities

  • Scalable, highly available, and managed K8s control plane that runs across three availability zones.
  • In addition to the control plane, an EKS cluster has a set of worker machines (nodes). There are several different types of nodes: Fargate (serverless, eliminating the need to manage underlying instances), managed node groups (they automate the provisioning and lifecycle management of EC2 instances for EKS clusters), and self-managed nodes (you have complete control over EC2 instances within an EKS cluster). 
  • Integrated console which acts as a single place to organize, visualize, and troubleshoot Kubernetes applications running on EKS. 
  • Numerous add-ons available, including Amazon VPC CNI plugin for Kubernetes (provides native VPC networking for your cluster), Kube-proxy (maintains network rules on each Amazon EC2 node, and it enables network communication to K8s pods), Dynatrace (used for monitoring), and HA proxy (load balancing and traffic management).
  • Supports Application Load Balancers, Network Load Balancers, and Classic Load Balancers.
  • Command-line tool (eksctl) that allows you to create an EKS cluster in a straightforward way.
  • Robust networking and security capabilities, such as IPv6 support, service discovery via AWS Cloud Map, service mesh (through AWS App Mesh), VPC native networking (via Amazon VPC container network interface/CNI and Project Calico), and integration with AWS IAM for granular access permission control over your K8s control plane nodes.
  • EKS automatically adds an AWS cost allocation tag to every EC2 instance that joins a cluster so you can easily track cloud costs in the AWS Billing Console. Additionally, EKS supports Kubecost, which allows you to monitor costs across K8s resources like pods, namespaces, nodes, and labels. 
  • Integrations with AWS CloudTrail and Amazon CloudWatch for monitoring, logging, debugging, and auditing. 

What is AWS Fargate?

AWS Fargate is a fully managed serverless compute engine that supports both Amazon EKS and ECS. You can think of it as a Container-as-a-Service (CaaS) solution. With Fargate, you don't need to provision, configure, or scale clusters of virtual machines or servers to run containers. This allows you to focus solely on your application design and execution instead of having to deal with the underlying infrastructure too.

AWS Fargate overview. Source.

Key AWS Fargate features and capabilities

  • Integrations with other AWS services and components, like AWS VPC, Balancers, Amazon RDS, and Amazon CloudWatch.
  • Each ECS task and EKS pod runs in its own isolated compute environment, which enhances security.
  • Consistent and predictable CPU and memory performance for tasks and pods, as they don't share resources with others.
  • Fargate offers drift detection capabilities by integrating with AWS Config, which allows it to monitor and alert on configuration changes.
  • Allows setting granular networking policies for applications.
  • Supports both stateless and stateful workloads.
  • Provides the flexibility to customize task scheduling, allowing for precise control over how and where tasks are placed and executed.

Amazon ECS vs. EKS: Head-to-head comparison

The following table gives an overview of key differences and similarities between AWS ECS and AWS EKS. Note that I’ve excluded Fargate from this feature comparison. ECS and EKS are both container orchestration services, so it makes sense to compare them head-to-head. Meanwhile, Fargate is a complementary compute engine that works with ECS and EKS. Since Fargate is a different type of tool, there isn’t much point in comparing it to ECS and EKS (apples and oranges).

ECS vs. EKS: The basics

Attribute Amazon ECS Amazon EKS

Type of service

Container orchestration platform

Container orchestration platform

Type of container

Docker

Kubernetes

Smallest deployable unit

The smallest deployable unit is a task, which can be a single container or a group of containers that are scheduled together.

The smallest unit is a pod, which can consist of one or more containers that are deployed together.

Cluster management

AWS manages the cluster control plane, and there is no need for manual intervention in managing the orchestration layer.

AWS manages the Kubernetes control plane. However, you have to manage worker nodes (or use Fargate to offload the responsibility to AWS).

ECS vs. EKS: Scalability, security, and networking capabilities

Attribute Amazon ECS Amazon EKS

Scalability

Can scale to handle very large workloads.

ECS supports both horizontal scaling (changing the number of tasks) and vertical scaling (changing the task size).

ECS can automatically scale the number of tasks (containers) up or down using AWS Application Auto Scaling based on specified CloudWatch metrics. 

In addition, ECS capacity providers (Fargate or EC2 Auto Scaling groups) handle infrastructure scaling for tasks in your clusters. 

ECS may be easier to scale for users who prefer a more AWS-native solution and a simpler service model. 

Can scale to handle very large workloads. 

EKS employs the K8s Horizontal Pod Autoscaler to adjust pod counts based on CPU or custom metrics, and the Cluster Autoscaler to manage EC2 instances within node groups.

For vertical scaling, EKS can leverage the K8s Vertical Pod Autoscaler to optimize resource allocation per pod. EKS's integration with AWS Fargate allows for scaling without directly managing EC2 instances, offering a serverless option.

EKS offers more flexibility and granular control over scaling due to the extensive features provided by Kubernetes, such as custom metrics for the Horizontal Pod Autoscaler. However, this comes with the complexity of Kubernetes configuration and management. 

Monitoring

ECS integrates with several AWS tools for monitoring, auditing, and logging purposes: Amazon CloudWatch, AWS Trusted Advisor, AWS Config, and AWS CloudTrail.

You can also use third-party monitoring tools like Prometheus, Grafana, and the ELK Stack. 

You can use AWS solutions like Amazon CloudWatch, AWS Config, Amazon GuardDuty, and AWS CloudTrail to monitor EKS. 

You can also use third-party monitoring tools like Dynatrace, Datadog, Prometheus, and Grafana. 

Security

Key capabilities include:

  • Integration with AWS IAM for granular access control.
  • Amazon VPC support for network isolation.
  • Integration with AWS Secrets Manager for managing sensitive data.

Key capabilities include:

  • Kubernetes RBAC
  • Integration with AWS IAM, Amazon VPC support for secure networking.
  • Secrets management (via AWS Secrets Manager and KMS encryption).

Key networking capabilities

  • ECS tasks can be run in an Amazon VPC (each task can have a network interface and its own IP address).
  • Integrates with Amazon Elastic Load Balancing (ELB), including Application Load Balancer (ALB) and Network Load Balancer (NLB).
  • Uses AWS Cloud Map for custom domain names and service discovery within a VPC.
  • AWSVPC network mode for tasks to have dedicated ENIs, but it also supports two other modes: host mode (the most basic networking mode), and bridge mode (allows you to use a virtual network bridge to create a layer between the host and the networking of the container). 
  • EKS allows Kubernetes pods to directly use Amazon VPC network resources, with each pod receiving an IP address from the VPC.
  • Can leverage the Amazon VPC CNI plugin for Kubernetes, allowing Kubernetes pods to have VPC networking features like VPC flow logs, security groups, and network ACLs
  • Supports ELB, ALB, and NLB, plus ingress controllers for more complex load balancing configurations.
  • Uses native Kubernetes network policies for sophisticated traffic filtering and control.
  • Supports various add-ons that can enhance networking capabilities. Calico and kube-proxy are a couple of examples.

ECS vs. EKS: Ease of use, flexibility, and deployment options

Attribute Amazon ECS Amazon EKS

Ease of use

ECS offers a simplified orchestration experience, leveraging AWS-native concepts that integrate seamlessly with the AWS ecosystem. It's more accessible for those less familiar with container orchestration, with a gentler learning curve. 

Plus, the AWS management console streamlines the process of managing and orchestrating container deployments on ECS. 

EKS has a steeper learning curve than ECS. You need to have a good understanding of K8s to make the most of EKS. 

In addition, there are more moving parts to manage compared to ECS (for instance, worker nodes, pods, stateful sets, and ingress controllers). 

Similar to ECS, there’s a management console for EKS, but you will likely need to interact with Kubernetes-specific interfaces and tooling (like kubectl) as well, which adds complexity. 

Deployment options

ECS offers several deployment options:

  • Amazon EC2 (provides control over EC2 instances for tailored infrastructure management of containerized applications).
  • AWS Outposts (extends ECS to on-premises setups, offering a hybrid environment with AWS infrastructure and services).
  • ECS Anywhere (enables ECS to run on your own on-premises infrastructure, leveraging consistent AWS tooling and APIs).
  • AWS Local Zones (supports running ECS tasks in localized AWS environments for applications requiring low latency).
  • AWS Wavelength (allows ECS to deploy applications closer to users on 5G networks, reducing latency for mobile and edge devices).
  • Fargate (serverless option to run containers without managing servers, offering simplified scaling and resource allocation).

EKS offers several deployment options:

  • AWS cloud/EC2 (no need to install, operate, and maintain your own K8s control plane or nodes).
  • AWS Outposts (enables native AWS services, infrastructure, and operating models in your on-prem facilities).
  • EKS Anywhere (somewhat similar to Outposts; the difference is that you supply the hardware, and the K8s control plane lives in your data center).
  • EKS Distro (open source distribution of the Kubernetes software and dependencies deployed by Amazon EKS in the cloud. Unlike the other options, you don’t benefit from AWS support when using Distro). 
  • Fargate (serverless approach to provisioning compute capacity for EKS clusters without any need to maintain a fleet of EC2 instances). 

Compatibility and portability

ECS is primarily designed for AWS. While ECS uses Docker containers, which are portable, the full range of ECS services and integrations does not translate directly outside of AWS. Thus, migrating to or from ECS may involve a significant reconfiguration effort.

EKS is fully Kubernetes-conformant, meaning applications designed for EKS can be deployed to any standard Kubernetes environment with minimal changes. This cross-compatibility is a core advantage of EKS, facilitating straightforward migration of workloads across different clouds and on-premises environments.

Customization

ECS provides customization within the confines of the AWS ecosystem. For instance, you can create task definitions, which include the container definitions, volumes, and networking configuration. 

EKS offers a higher degree of customization compared to ECS. For example, you have the freedom to define your pods' specs, including containers, volumes, and compute resources, using Kubernetes manifests. 

In addition, you can use Kubernetes add-ons to extend and customize your cluster's functionality.

Integrations

Direct integrations with many AWS services, such as AWS IAM, CloudWatch, CloudFormation, and CodeDeploy. 


Limited number of integrations with third-party technologies. Examples include Jenkins and GitLab.

Like ECS, EKS integrates with numerous AWS services (e.g., CloudWatch, CloudTrail, AWS IAM, AWS App Mesh).


Unlike ECS, EKS supports numerous third-party integrations (in essence, it can work with almost any tool designed to be used with Kubernetes).  

Amazon ECS vs. EKS vs. Fargate: pricing and support

Being aware of how much you’re going to pay and what level of support you can rely on are critical factors when deciding to adopt a technology.

Attribute ECS EKS Fargate

Pricing model

You pay for the AWS resources (EC2 instances or Amazon EBS volumes) you create to store and run your application. There is no additional cost.

You pay for the AWS resources (e.g., EC2 instances or Amazon EBS volumes) you use to run your worker nodes.

In addition, you also pay a flat rate of $0.10 per hour for each EKS cluster you create (this amounts to roughly $72 per cluster per month). This is the cost for the EKS control plane, and it's independent of the number of nodes or the cluster size. 

Overall, EKS has a more expensive pricing model compared to ECS.

If you decide to run ECS and EKS on Fargate rather than EC2, the pricing is different.

With Fargate, you are charged based on the vCPU, memory, operating system, and storage resources used from the time you start to download your container image until the ECS task or EKS pod terminates (note that storage resources and the Windows operating system are only available for ECS). You are billed on a per-second basis with a minimum of one minute. 

Bear in mind that if you are using EKS with Fargate, in addition to these costs, you would also be paying the flat rate of $0.10 per hour for each EKS cluster that you create.

Pricing example: Let’s assume you have 10 ECS tasks running Windows for 1 hour (3600 seconds) every day for one month (30 days), where each ECS task uses one vCPU and 2GB memory. In this scenario, you’d pay $27.45 for vCPU charges, $13.80 for Windows, and $6.00 for memory, for a monthly total of $47.25. 

Community & support

Support plans, documentation, and training provided by AWS. 

Smaller community than EKS (it primarily consists of AWS users and developers). 

Support plans, documentation, and training provided by AWS.

Larger community compared to ECS. In addition to AWS users and devs, the EKS community extends into the Kubernetes ecosystem, encompassing a wide range of open-source contributors, CNCF participants, and Kubernetes-centric third-party tool developers.

As a compute engine, Fargate itself doesn't have a distinct community; it's tied to ECS and EKS communities.

AWS supports Fargate through its documentation and AWS support plans.

Amazon ECS vs. EKS vs. Fargate: use cases and which one to choose

You can use Amazon ECS, EKS, and Fargate as a foundation for use cases like:

Choosing whether to use ECS or EKS (by themselves or with Fargate as the compute engine) depends on factors like your technological preferences, expertise with container orchestration tools, and appetite for infrastructure management.

When to use Amazon ECS

ECS is a good option if:

  • You’re familiar with Docker and prefer using it instead of Kubernetes.
  • You want to run Docker containers at scale without managing the orchestration layer.
  • You’re committed to using the AWS ecosystem.
  • You need tight integrations with AWS services like AWS IAM and Amazon CloudWatch. 
  • You’re looking for a relatively easy learning curve.
  • You have a simpler use case, and Kubernetes seems overkill.
  • You want to move your workloads into a managed service without a huge investment.

When to use Amazon EKS

EKS is a suitable choice if:

  • You prefer using K8s over Docker and you have some experience managing and deploying Kubernetes clusters.
  • You have workloads running on Kubernetes, but you want a managed service to simplify K8s management at scale.
  • You need integrations with other AWS services, like AWS CloudTrail and AWS IAM. 
  • You have a complex, enterprise-level use case.
  • You need granular control over container placement. 
  • You plan to run workloads across multiple cloud providers or on-premises, making use of Kubernetes' portability.
  • You want to leverage the vast ecosystem of K8 tools, plugins, and community contributions.

When to use AWS Fargate

Fargate is worth including in your tech stack if:

  • You’re using ECS or EKS (or considering them), and you don’t want to deal with managing the underlying server infrastructure.
  • Your existing workload is based on serverless technologies (or you plan to migrate to serverless tech in the future).
  • You’re happy to use AWSVPC as your networking mode (it’s the only option supported by Fargate).
  • A minimal server management strategy is critical to you.
  • You’re dealing with unpredictable or spiky workloads.

Related reading: Learn how Fargate compares to Lambda and when it's best to use each.

Alternatives to ECS, EKS, and Fargate

I hope this article allows you to understand the differences and similarities between ECS, EKS, and Fargate, and helps you decide if any of them are suitable for your use case. It’s worth pointing out that there are numerous other solutions that allow you to benefit from containerized apps, while simplifying the complexity of managing containers. Examples include Google Cloud Run, Azure Kubernetes Service, Red Hat OpenShift, Nomad by HashiCorp, Portainer, and Apache Mesos. I encourage you to check them out to see if they are a better fit for your needs.

Another alternative you could investigate is Quix, a fully managed platform that enables you to develop, release, and observe event streaming applications powered by Kafka, Docker, Kubernetes, Git, and containerized microservices. With Quix, you can focus entirely on building serverless event streaming applications instead of dealing with the headache of managing underlying containers. To learn more, check out the Quix docs.   

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