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AWS Cost and Usage Report vs Cost Explorer:

Detail, Visibility, and the (Secret) Better Option!

You need to know your AWS costs inside and out to optimize your operations. The problem is that the options AWS offers are both deceptively similar, and yet both leave you lacking.

That’s why we’re here to tell you everything you need to know when considering using an AWS Cost and Usage Report vs Cost Explorer.

From getting as much information as you can about your costs to being able to understand what you’re being shown, we’re going to cover the ins and outs of both services so that you can understand the pros and cons of using each. You’ll even go one step further in finding out what a better alternative to either option is!

This post will cover:

  • What is an AWS Cost and Usage Report
  • What is AWS Cost Explorer
  • AWS Cost and Usage Report vs Cost Explorer
  • What is the best way to manage AWS costs?

Let’s get started.

What is an AWS Cost and Usage Report


An AWS Cost and Usage Report (CUR) is essentially a list of all of the cost and usage data related to and created via your AWS account. Most commonly these are used to export a billing report directly into an Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) bucket, but they can also be exported as a spreadsheet to allow you to analyze the raw data yourself.

But beware! CUR files become far too large for conventional spreadsheet analysis very quickly, as most customers report millions and millions or rows per month. Using an analysis engine like Amazon Athena on top of these data sets becomes crucial for deep cost reviews.

Conveniently, you can set up your resulting billing report in S3 to be updated with further CUR data between one and three times per day. It’s a great way to make sure that you always stay updated on your cost and usage data within your analysis program without having to manually trawl through every report. At the very least this would mean that you can dip into your reports whenever you need to and see an accurate view of what your statistics currently look like.

Other than enabling you to see your cost and usage data, CURs are handy due to letting you break down your costs in a few ways. This means that you don’t have to search the report for the single figure or sets of statistics that you’re interested in - you can cut right to what you’re interested in and start to draw insight immediately. The categories you can break your costs down by are:

  • Hour
  • Day
  • Month
  • Product (EC2, S3, EBS, etc)
  • Product resource
  • Custom tags defined by you

That last category - custom tags - is where things get really interesting and valuable. Functioning in a similar way to AWS Cost Categories, by assigning tags to various elements you can massively increase your ability to allocate costs, identify the team accountable for costs, and much more.

For example, let’s say that you have a single AWS account, from which you’re running cloud services that are powering several different operations. Perhaps you’re hosting your own app, storage for that app’s public data and usage, and some dedicated servers for your team to use in a private cloud network. Some of these will use the same AWS products to power operations, like EC2, but it’s useful to have a clear separation of what cost and usage data is related to each. That way you can see how much each is costing on its own without the information from the other two muddying the waters.

In this case, tags are your saving grace. By allocating each of your services with tags that tie them back to their respective products, you can easily sort your CUR data to show, say, how much of your costs are due to the public app running or how much your private servers are actually getting used.

We’ve written a whole post on the topic if you’d like to know all of the fine details about AWS Cost and Usage Reports.

What is AWS Cost Explorer

Source, image used under Pexels license

AWS Cost Explorer is, at its heart, a tool for visualizing a limited subset of your CUR data via graphs. Cost Explorer takes your CUR data directly and translates them into customizable views that you can use to keep an eye on your operations without having to interpret results yourself.

These are its features:

  • Visualizing your cost and usage data
  • Monthly and daily costs
  • 12-month historical data
  • 12-month cost forecasts
  • Filtered graphs and views
  • Savings Plans reports
  • Reservation reports

As you can see, most of the cost explorer’s usability comes directly from the CUR data that it displays - it’s more akin to a translation and simplification of the existing data rather than adding anything new to your arsenal. While there’s nothing wrong with that (being able to quickly see your daily costs is certainly useful), it does mean that the better your CURs and, particularly, your data tags are organized, the more effective AWS Cost Explorer will be.

However, there are a few features that make this tool stand out. The first aspect is that you can receive 12-month cost forecasts, letting you get a rough prediction of what your costs will be providing that trends remain consistent. This forecast is based on events in your CUR data’s history, so the longer that you’ve been running a consistent operation, the more accurate said forecast will be. If your apps are prone to random, unpredictable traffic spikes (for example, if you’re in event management), the cost forecasts won’t be nearly as reliable.

Additionally, you can retrieve historical data within the past 12 months using the Cost Explorer. That may not seem novel, but with the AWS CUR, once you configure a report to be delivered, you start receiving data for the calendar month of configuration date, while nothing prior is accessible.

The Savings Plans and Reservation reports are another step up from Cost and Usage Reports, as these take the data from your AWS account and help you to find ways to reduce your costs without affecting your setup. It isn’t foolproof - if your current setup could be improved with a few changes that could make you eligible for better plans or reservations then they won’t be included (bar a few minor suggestions based on your cost and usage data). Still, it’s better than nothing, and your CURs won’t contain any such recommendations at all.

Cost Explorer is also useful for the simple fact that it’s (mostly) free. API requests for the data will still cost you, so if you’re running a third-party app that uses the data then you’re going to run up your bills further, but the tool’s basic features are completely free to use.

It’s all too easy to label AWS Cost Explorer as a simple reskin of the data from your CURs, but you can now see that isn’t the case. If nothing else, the sheer jump in accessibility is a massive boon to your operations, and for visibility over your cost and usage data to the rest of your team.

Check out our full post on the topic if you’d like to know more about AWS Cost Explorer.

AWS Cost and Usage Report vs Cost Explorer

Source by Bruce Mars, image in the public domain

Until now we’ve touched on a few of the points when considering an AWS Cost and Usage report vs Cost Explorer. Now it’s time to stack up their pros and cons, when you should use each, and whether there’s a better way to manage your AWS costs than either option (spoiler: there is).

For those looking for a simple summary, here you go:

  • Cost and Usage Reports provide more detail
  • Cost and Usage Reports require further analysis
  • Cost Explorer shows a simplified view of your data
  • Cost and Usage Reports can be stored indefinitely for a permanent history
  • Cost Explorer only displays up to 12 months of historical data
  • Cost and Usage Reports cannot retrieve historical data
  • Cost Explorer offers 12-month cost forecasts
  • Cost Explorer provides savings suggestions
  • Cost Explorer can cost you to use

Let’s start with the most obvious point in our AWS Cost and Usage Report vs Cost Explorer summary.

CURs contain all of your cost and usage data, which is both a boon and a curse. The wealth of data allows you to see everything you could possibly need in terms of what features are costing you money, how much they’re charging, whether you’re utilizing the things you’re paying for, and so on. However, this comes at the expense of readability - without prior experience with analyzing CURs you’ll be left with an unintelligible list of data that you can make neither hide nor hair of. This is especially true if you’re in a management position and don’t have time to analyze your CURs to see whether what you’re spending is worth it for the amount you’re using the services.

Cost Explorer, meanwhile, is incredibly easy to use and view your data with. It’s the only native method for visualizing the data from your CURs (for better or worse), so if you’re just looking to get a summary of everything without searching for a specific figure or question in mind, it’s perfect to use. The graphs it produces are also the best way to convey cost and usage data (and the trends therein) to the rest of your team; they won’t need a degree in AWS to understand what you’re showing them, as they would with a raw CUR.

Source, image in the public domain

That sword swings both ways. It’s easier to understand, but you’re offered much less detail for your cost and usage statistics. Plus, any custom tags that you’ll need to use to granularly create and adjust graphs will need to be applied before the data is even exported to a CUR, and even longer before it ends up in Cost Explorer. If you don’t have a perfect tag setup, you’ll be left with broken graphs or be led to inaccurate conclusions due to errant data being included by your own specifications.

Another AWS Cost and Usage Report vs Cost Explorer aspect that gets complicated is the available history of the data. CURs offer a complete history of all of your data, but only beginning with the date you first configured the CUR. On the other hand, Cost Exploalways provides access to a 12-month history of spending, but never for longer. This is also true when it comes to any forecasts or savings recommendations, as only the last 12 months of data will be included in their calculations.

Speaking of which, the final differences are that Cost Explorer offers both 12-month cost forecasts and savings recommendations, while your CURs don’t. The forecasts are useful, but you should always remember that these are only based on existing data and don’t account for any changes you’re planning to make. Think of them as rough estimations rather than reliable guides of what you’ll be spending.

The savings recommendations from Cost Explorer are similarly welcome, especially as there are few services in AWS that offer similar advice. All of the suggested actions you can take are only based on CUR data, so don’t dive in and apply all of their advice without considering the ramifications of doing so, but it’s a welcome change from AWS’ pricing plans being so obtuse that it’s hard to tell where you should start.

Let’s sum it up quickly.

When considering whether to consult an AWS Cost and Usage Report vs Cost Explorer, you need to weigh accessibility against the level of information you need. CURs provide unparalleled detail, whereas Cost Explorer excels at presenting your basic information in an understandable way.

But there is a way to get the best of both worlds…

What is the best way to manage AWS costs?


Instead of focusing on providing you with dashboards and data sources, here at Aimably we’re focused on solving the real world problems that arise from cloud costs. Most often, customers seek to use AWS cost data to perform cost reductions and to assist in financial planning. To address these important jobs, we offer two services that blow both CURs and AWS Cost Explorer out of the water. These are our:

Our Invoice Management Software takes the vast sums of data from your Cost and Usage Reports and presents all of it in a way that’s easier to understand than even Cost Explorer. Whether you’re looking to verify that your bills are correct, looking into what you’re paying for various services, or you’re trying to present your cost information to your financial team, it’s a one-stop shop for everything you need.

Meanwhile, our Cost Reduction Assessment will do all of the heavy lifting for presenting you with all of your available options to reduce your costs. We’ll analyze all of your data in relation to your business’ goals and functions in order to show you the best ways that you can slash costs without reducing performance. You’ll even get a risk assessment for each option so that you can see exactly how each of these actions will affect your operations.

Click here to surpass AWS’ tools and take control of your costs!

AWS Total Cost of Ownership