Launching on AWS

Alces Flight Compute can be launched on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) public cloud platform to give you instant access to your own, private HPC cluster from anywhere in the world. You can choose what resources your cluster will start with (e.g. number of nodes, amount of memory, etc.), and for how long the cluster will run.


There are some things that you need to get ready before you can launch your own cluster on AWS. They are:

  • Check client prerequisites to make sure you have the software you need - see What is Alces Flight Compute?
  • Get yourself an AWS account; this might be your personal account, or you may have a sub-account as part of your institution or company
  • Create an SSH keypair for yourself in the region you want to run in. Follow this guide if you’ve not done this before.
Your AWS account must have appropriate permissions to do the following:
  • Launch instances from a CloudFormation templates
  • Create a VPC (virtual private cloud)
  • Create subnets and allocate IP addresses
  • Create an IAM permission

More details on AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) are available here.

Creating your Cluster

Method of Launching

The simplest method of launching a cluster is by using the AWS Marketplace - clusters launch using an AWS CloudFormation template which asks the users a number of simple questions in order to configure their cluster environment. This method is documented on this page, and is the fastest way to launch your own, personal HPC cluster environment.

Advanced users may also wish to launch a cluster one instance at a time, or deploy a single login node to be used interactively. Follow this guide for information on how to manually configure a cluster by launching individual instances - Launching a single Alces Flight instance on AWS.

Users can also use one the example CloudFormation templates as the basis of their own cluster deployments. This allows more customisation of your cluster, including choosing how many nodes can be launched, configuring different types of EBS backing storage and choosing different availability zones for your compute nodes. For more information, see - Launching Alces Flight on AWS using a CloudFormation template.

How much will it cost?

The Alces Flight software appliance itself is free; however, you’re likely to incur costs when running a cluster on AWS resources. Charges typically fall into the following categories:

  • EC2 charges for running instances (your login and compute nodes)
  • EBS charges for shared cluster filesystem capacity
  • S3 charges for storing data as objects
  • Data-egress charges for network traffic out of AWS
  • Miscellaneous other charges (e.g. IP address allocation, DNS entry updates, etc.)

Most charges are made per unit (e.g. per compute node instance, or per GB of storage space) and per hour, often with price breaks for using more of a particular resource at once. A full breakdown of pricing is beyond the scope of this document, but there are several tools designed to help you estimate the expected charges; e.g.

Finding Alces Flight Compute on AWS

Sign-in to your AWS account, and navigate to the AWS Marketplace. Search for Alces Flight in the search box provided to find the Flight Compute product.

Alces Flight in AWS Marketplace

Click on the Continue button to view details on how to launch.

Launching a Personal HPC cluster from AWS Marketplace

Follow these instructions to launch your cluster:

  • After clicking the Continue button from the main product page, select the Custom Launch tab in your browser.
  • Scroll down the page and select your local AWS region in the Select a Region section
  • Choose Personal HPC compute cluster from the Deployment Options section
  • Under the Launch section, click on the Launch with CloudFormation Console button to start deploying your cluster.
Alces Flight in AWS Marketplace

As well as an Amazon Machine Image (AMI), Flight Compute subscribers are provided with a CloudFormation template (CFN template) that can be used to launch your own cluster rapidly after answering a few setup questions. Advanced users can also use the AMI directly with their own CFN templates to provide more customised environments for specialised requirements. This documentation is designed to assist new users when launching with the CFN template provided on the AWS Marketplace page.

How to answer CloudFormation questions

When you choose to start a Flight Compute cluster from AWS Marketplace, you will be prompted to answer a number of questions about what you want the environment to look like. Flight will automatically launch your desired configuration based on the answers you give. The questions you’ll be asked are the following:

  • Stack name; this is the name that you want to call your cluster. It’s fine to enter “cluster” here if this is your first time, but entering something descriptive will help you keep track of multiple clusters if you launch more. Naming your cluster after colours (red, blue, orange), your favourite singer (clapton, toriamos, bieber) or Greek legends (apollo, thor, aphrodite) keeps things more interesting. Avoid using spaces and punctuation, or names longer than 16 characters.

  • ComputeAutoscaling; enter a 0 (zero) in this box to disable auto-scaling of your cluster compute nodes, or enter a 1 (one) to enable auto-scaling.

  • ComputeSpotPrice; in this box, enter the maximum amount you agree to pay per compute node instance, in US dollars. Entering 0 (zero) in this box will cause Flight to use on-demand instances for compute nodes. See the section below on On-demand and SPOT instances for more details.

  • ComputeType; use the drop-down box to choose what type of compute nodes you want to launch. All compute nodes will launch as the same type. Different types of nodes cost different amounts to run, and have different amounts of CPU-cores and memory - see the available instance types for more information. Node instances are grouped in the following ways:

    • Type (compute/balanced/memory/gpu):
      • Compute instances have 2GB of memory per core, and provide the fastest CPUs
      • Balanced instances have 4GB of memory per core, and are good all-round performers
      • Memory instances have 8GB of memory per core, and are useful for high-memory jobs
      • GPU instances have Nvidia CUDA GPU devices installed
    • Size (small/medium/large/dedicated):
      • Small, medium and large instances have 2, 4 or 8 CPU cores, and a fraction of a 10Gb Ethernet network link
      • Dedicated instances have access to a dedicated 10Gb Ethernet network link
  • FlightCustomBucket; enter an S3 bucket containing customisation information for your cluster. Leave this option blank if you have no existing customisation data, or you are starting a new cluster.

  • FlightCustomProfiles; enter the names of the customisation profiles to use, separated by spaces. Leave this option blank if you have no existing customisation data, or you are starting a new cluster.

  • InitialNodes; enter the number of nodes you want to start immediately in this box in your auto-scaling cluster. Flight Compute will add more nodes when jobs are queued, and shutdown idle nodes when they have no jobs to process. This parameter is ignored if auto-scaling is disabled.

  • Keypair; choose an existing AWS keypair to launch your Flight cluster with. If there are no keypairs in the list, check that you’ve already generated a keypair in the region you’re launching in. You must have the private key available for the chosen keypair in order to login to your cluster.

  • LoginSystemDiskSize; choose the size of your login node disk, which acts as the shared filesystem for your cluster. Requesting a larger size will give you more space for your data, but will cost more to run.

  • LoginType; use the drop-down box to choose the AWS instance type for your login node. Larger sizes will perform better, while smaller sizes will be less expensive to run. Your login node is always created as an on-demand instance.

  • MaxNodes; enter the maximum size that your cluster will scale to, up to a maximum of 32 nodes.

  • NetworkCIDR; enter a network range that is permitted to access your cluster. This will usually be the IP address of your system on the Internet; ask your system administrator for this value, or use a web search to find out. If you want to be able to access your cluster from anywhere on the Internet, enter “” in this box.

  • Username; enter the username you want to use to connect to the cluster. Flight will automatic create this user on the cluster, and add your public SSH key to the user.

AWS Marketplace CloudFormation template questions

When all the questions are answered, click the Next button to proceed. Enter any tags you wish to use to identify instances in your environment on the next page, then click the Next button again. On the review page, read through the answers you’ve provided and correct any mistakes - click on the Capabilities check-box to authorize creations of an IAM role to report cluster performance back to AWS, and click on the Create button.

Your personal compute cluster will then be created. While on-demand instances typically start within in few minutes, SPOT based instances may take longer to start, or may be queued if the SPOT price you entered is less than the current price.

On-demand vs SPOT instances

The AWS EC2 service supports a number of different charging models for launching instances. The quick-start CloudFormation template included with Alces Flight Compute in AWS Marketplace allows users to choose between two different models:

  • On-demand instances; instances are launched immediately at a fixed hourly price. Once launched, your instance will not normally be terminated unless you choose to stop it.
  • SPOT instances; instances are requested with a bid-price entered by the end-user which represents the maximum amount they want to pay for them per hour. If public demand for this instance type allows, instances will be launched at the current SPOT price, which is typically much lower than the equivalent on-demand price. As demand increases for the instance type increases, so the cost per hour charged to users also increases. AWS will automatically stop any instances (or delay starting new ones) if the current SPOT price is higher than the maximum amount users want to pay for them.

SPOT instances are a good way to pay a lower cost for cloud computing for non-urgent workloads. If SPOT compute node instances are terminated in your cluster, any running jobs will be lost - the nodes will also be automatically removed from the queue system to ensure no new jobs attempt to start on them. Once the SPOT price becomes low enough for your instances to start again, your compute nodes will automatically restart and rejoin the cluster.

The CloudFormation templates provided for Alces Flight Compute via AWS Marketplace will not launch a login node instance on the SPOT market - login nodes are always launched as on-demand instances, and are immune from fluctuating costs in the SPOT market.

Using an auto-scaling cluster

An auto-scaling cluster automatically reports the status of the job scheduler queue to AWS to allow idle compute nodes to be shut-down, and new nodes to be started when jobs are queuing. Auto-scaling is a good way to manage the size of your ephemeral cluster automatically, and is useful if you want to run a number of unattended jobs, and minimise costs after the jobs have finished by terminating unused resources.

Your Alces Flight compute cluster will never scale larger than the maximum number of instances entered at launch time. The cluster will automatically scale down to a single compute node when idle, or be reduced to zero nodes if you are using SPOT based compute nodes, and the price climbs higher than your configured maximum.

If you are running jobs manually (i.e. not through the job-scheduler), you may wish to disable autoscaling to prevent nodes not running scheduled jobs from being shutdown. This can be done by entering 0 (zero) in the ComputeSpotPrice when launching your Flight Compute cluster via AWS Marketplace, or using the command alces configure autoscaling disable command when logged in to the cluster login node.

Accessing your cluster

Once your cluster has been launched, the login node will be accessible via SSH from the IP address range you entered in the NetworkCIDR. If you entered as the NetworkCIDR, your login node will be accessible from any IP address on the Internet. Your login node’s public IP address is reported by the AWS CloudFormation template, along with the username you must use to login with your keypair.

To access the cluster login node from a Linux or Mac client, use the following command:

  • ssh -i myusername@
  • is the name of your public SSH key you selected when launching the cluster
  • myusername is the username you entered when launching the cluster
  • is the Access-IP address reported by the AWS console after your cluster has been launched

If you are accessing from a Windows client using the Putty utility, enter the username and IP address of the cluster login node in the “Host Name” box provided:

Putty login

The first time you connect to your cluster, you will be prompted to accept a new server SSH hostkey. This happens because you’ve never logged in to your cluster before - it should only happen the first time you login; click OK to accept the warning. Once connected to the cluster, you should be logged in to the cluster login node as your user.

Logging in to the cluster

Terminating the cluster

Your cluster login node will continue running until you terminate it via the AWS web console. If you are running an auto-scaling cluster, compute nodes will automatically be added and taken away up to the limits you specified depending on the number of jobs running and queued in the job-scheduler. When you have finished running your workloads, navigate to the CloudFormation console, select the name of your cluster from the list of running stacks, and click Delete stack from the actions menu.

Over the next few minutes, your cluster login and compute nodes will be terminated. Any data held on EBS will be erased, with storage volumes being wiped and returned to the AWS pool. Ensure that you have downloaded data that you want to keep to your client machine, or stored in safely in an object storage service before terminating your cluster.

See - Working with data and files for more information on storing your data.