Thursday, April 21, 2016

Doing your taxes on AWS

I have been using a mac for about 10 years now.  A few years back I switched to using TaxAct to do my taxes and their installed product is PC only.  At first I used Virtual Box and an old Windows XP install I still had to do the taxes. Last year I had to rebuild the Virtual Box image of XP and spent half a day getting it configured properly, updated, and antivirus installed (security being paramount when doing taxes).   In my day job I use AWS regularly, at the end of that day I did a face palm to myself and said I could do this in AWS spinning up a Windows Server for the weekend, do my taxes and blow it away.  I'll have a fast up to date version of windows with no licensing issues.

So this year that is what I did.  I was expecting this to cost less than $5 for a windows server for the weekend, but due to my personal account still being eligible for Amazon's free tier pricing, I ended up with a charge of less than $1 for the work.  Initially I spun up a 2 CPU 4GB ram VM (t2.medium) that AWS charges $0.072/hour for, including the Windows Server 2012 license.   I got firefox installed, updated the machine, installed the tax software and started my taxes.

Then I noticed that Windows 2012 was so memory efficient I could probably get by with a server half that size.  So the next day I started a 1 CPU 2GB VM (with the same 40GB SSD drive mounted) and continued my taxes there with no problem.  AWS charges half the rate for the smaller VM.  Eventually I found I could run TaxAct without trouble in a 1GB VM, even though I can't imagine running a windows laptop with just 1GB of ram.   However that is only true if you are just running TaxAct, if you start any thing else like a web browser or Windows starts running update, then the 1 CPU 1 GB VM is just unusable. And I used that tiny VM just for the experience to write about it in this blog post. It was very usable, except when windows did updates.

When you just need a windows machine or a bigger windows machine for a few hours, I highly recommend considering AWS where you can rent by the hour.   My total bill was $0.62 due to the free tier usage on the last day of my tax prep.  Even if I had used the 2CPU and 4GB VM the whole time it would have been less than $2.

Given that I was working on my taxes I locked the machine down from a networking perspective using the AWS security groups (like firewall rules).   Definitely better than my struggles getting a Virtual Box windows machine created to use for a weekend of tax work.