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AWS Cost Explorer:

What It Is, How It Works, and the Better Way to Manage Your AWS Costs

Managing your AWS cost and usage data is annoying at the best of times. That is, when you’re not blowing $72,000 by accident in the span of just two hours.

That’s why you need to be using AWS Cost Explorer.

As the only native way to visualize your AWS spending and usage, AWS Cost Explorer is a must-have for anybody that owns an AWS account. Yet, as with everything, Amazon does a pretty terrible job at explaining how it works, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how to get the most out of the tool.

That’s why this post will cover:

  • What is AWS Cost Explorer?
  • Core AWS Cost Explorer features
  • AWS Cost Explorer pros and cons
  • How to supercharge your AWS cost reports

Let’s get started.

What is AWS Cost Explorer?


AWS Cost Explorer is a tool that visualizes your account’s cost and usage data. With it you can easily see a full breakdown of your total AWS bill, including how much you’ve been spending on various AWS services and how much you’ve been using them.

It’s a great way to get started with managing your AWS costs, as the base reports that the Cost Explorer draws from can be intimidating in their native form. Those Cost and Usage Reports (CURs) are something we’ve written in detail about in the past, but to summarize, it can be incredibly difficult to interpret and understand your cost and usage data with these reports alone unless you’re already experienced with them.

That’s one of the main strengths of the Cost Explorer - it summarizes your CUR data into a dashboard that makes it easy to see what you’ve been spending money on, how high your costs for each service are, and how much usage you’re actually getting out of those tools.

There are a few issues with this tool that we’ll talk about later in this post, but overall it’s a fantastic starting point for anyone with an AWS account and a must-have if you’re running a small-scale operation that isn’t too complicated.

Core AWS Cost Explorer features

The main AWS Cost Explorer features are as follows:

  • 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

Visualizing your cost and usage data


The main draw to utilizing AWS Cost Explorer is the ability to visualize your cost and usage data as a bar or line graph. This makes it easy to present accurate data to the rest of your team, and even to help justify your spending to other teams such as finances or upper management.

As mentioned above, this data is drawn from your CURs and is broken into different sections for each AWS tool or service you use. So, EC2 instances are all grouped together, as are S3 buckets, Route 53, and so on.

It’s a simple, core base that AWS is sorely lacking otherwise. Being able to view your data at a glance is a massive improvement to tracking and managing everything yourself, especially if you’re, say, the CTO of a startup who doesn’t have time to go digging through every CUR personally.

Monthly and daily costs

The data AWS Cost Explorer presents can be managed in monthly or daily views. While it’s another simple feature, having the ability to granually analyze your cost and usage data is especially useful when you have a spike that you weren’t prepared for.

For general usage you can view the month-to-month data and get a good idea of how your operations are running and what elements are costing you more than others. However, if you start up a new experimental EC2 instance or notice that costs in one month are much higher than expected, you’ll need to have that daily view to keep track of operations and find out exactly how much you’re spending and what you’re spending it on.

12-month historical data

Source, image used under Pexels license

AWS Cost Explorer starts gathering data as soon as you enable it, but this doesn’t mean that it’s limited to present and future data from your accounts. By collecting the last 12 months of historical data from all of your AWS services, it can show you how the past year of your cost and usage data has changed and help you to bring some vital insight into your operations.

Ideally you’ll have signed up for AWS Cost Explorer as soon as you started using AWS services in earnest. Many personal and business users alike do so, as it’s the only native way to be able to understand your CURs without either already having experience with them or being personally responsible for all of the billed accounts. Even then, the visual nature of the Explorer makes it a much faster way to get that same knowledge.

However, being able to draw the last year of data in hindsight rather than starting your account from scratch is still a great feature.

12-month cost forecasts

Similarly to the historical data, AWS Cost Explorer also allows you to predict the next 12 months of costs based on current and past information. Like any prediction, these forecasts aren’t guaranteed to be fully accurate to your future bills, but to its credit you’re given a range of what your costs could look like rather than a hard figure.

There are a few issues with the forecasting, namely that this doesn’t account for any change that you’re going to make and that you can’t factor any known future expansions into the forecast. It’s simply a prediction of your costs based on historical usage.

For example, if your S3 cost and usage data has remained consistent over the last 12 months but your EC2 stats have increased by 10% each month, the forecast will show S3 costs staying consistent and your EC2 costs continuing to rise.

This feature is really handy when your costs and usage fluctuate in a predictable way. Seasonal bumps in costs will be accounted for as long as they’re present in your historical data. You can also set alarms and budgets based on these forecasts to help avoid any nasty surprises. 

Filtered graphs and views

Source, image in the public domain

When viewing your cost and usage data you need to be able to cut out the noise and focus on what’s important. That’s why AWS Cost Explorer comes with filters to let you narrow down the specific data that you’re shown.

This lets you view your costs from individual services, instance types, usage types, linked accounts, regions, and more. It’s particularly handy when you notice a spike in your costs and you need to pin down exactly what’s caused it so that you can make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

As you might imagine, filtered views are also great for presenting your CUR data to the rest of your team without having to dig through your entire account to get to the point.

You can’t natively save your filters to return to them later without having to set everything up again. However, you can bookmark your view once it’s set up to let you return to that exact setup as a browser bookmark. It’s not perfect, but it’s a useful workaround for this limitation.

Savings Plans reports

Everyone who uses AWS should be looking for ways to reduce their costs. There’s almost always something that you can be doing to this end, whether it’s by utilizing a specific Savings Plan, purchasing Reserved Instances to later sell on, or by simply axing services that you don’t use anymore.

AWS Cost Explorer comes with the ability to separately analyze the cost and usage data for your Savings Plans, letting you see just how much you’re saving and whether you’re fully utilizing the plans that you’ve bought.

You won’t get any recommendations on new plans to take out to save money or how to optimize your current ones, but it’s nice to be able to separately view their data nonetheless.

Reservation reports

The Reservation reports provided by the Cost Explorer are similar to the Savings Plans reports, except these relate to your Reserved Instances. These reports allow you to separate your RI data so that you can see whether or not you’re utilizing your reservations and also set a target for their usage. That way you can see whether or not you’re meeting expectations or if you need to adjust your usage.

It’s a good way to see whether you’re better off selling some of your RIs and either taking the hit to your resources or utilizing a cheaper method of getting the same instances.

AWS Cost Explorer pros and cons

Source by Andy Hay, image used under license CC BY 2.0

Now that we’re done with the features, let’s assess the pros and cons of using AWS Cost Explorer. These are:

  • It’s the only native way to visualize your CUR data
  • It’s (mostly) free
  • Data is only updated once per day
  • Reports only span the last 12 months
  • Forecasts don’t account for changes
  • There is no RoI data
  • It doesn’t offer cost reduction suggestions
  • It doesn’t explain the business reason for spending

The main benefit of AWS Cost Explorer is that it’s the only native way to visualize your CURs and to make them more understandable. CURs are vital to managing your AWS costs and contextualizing your usage, but with the reports being so difficult to read it’s important that Amazon provides this solution to the problem.

The other major benefit is that the explorer is (mostly) free. While you have to pay per request for the use of the API (eg, if you’re running a third-party app that uses that data) and for hourly or resource-level data updates, all of the tool’s features come at no cost. This makes it a great solution for getting to grips with your AWS cost and usage data without having to pay a cent.

However, this also reflects the start of the downsides.

Aside from paying for hourly updates, your data is only imported once every 24 hours. This means that you don’t have an immediate warning if, say, you accidentally burn through $72k in just a few hours. It’s a huge danger if you’re not ironclad on what any change you make will do or if you don’t have total control over all of your costs.

Speaking of the hourly updates, they will cost you $0.01 per 1,000 UsageRecords month (per 1,000 lines of usage per month). It’s not a huge sink unless you’re running a large operation, but it’s extra money for something that is vital in allowing you to react to surprise cost spikes. You also won’t be able to use the AWS Cost Explorer API unless you pay $0.01 per request. This is less of an issue unless you’re running third-party software using the data, but it’s still worth noting.

A lesser issue is that your historical data is only drawn from the last 12 months. While this will give you enough to get a general sense of your cost and usage trends, if you’re running any kind of long-term operation it’s vital to have historical logs of all of your data available in case you need to draw from previous experiments or patterns to predict a future endeavor.

Speaking of predictions, the forecasts offered don’t account for anything but your cost and usage data. This means that they don’t take into account what the RoI for any of the services are, only what they’re costing you and how much usage you’re getting from them. As a result, if you plan to make any changes the forecasts immediately become inaccurate, and you aren’t able to prioritize particular services over others in your budgets either.

If you’re looking for suggestions on how best to reduce your costs then you’re out of luck, as AWS Cost Explorer offers no tips based on your data. It’s up to you to analyze everything and figure out how you can save the most money, which is a tall task considering just how many options there are.

Finally, it’s key to remember that there’s no direct correlation between the resource-level AWS spend that AWS Cost Explorer shows and the software features in use that are driving the spend. As such, short of logging all behavior on your account and cross-referencing it with the cost and usage data, there’s no way to show exactly what actions were being carried out and what value those actions brought to your company.

For example, let’s say that you have a huge spike in costs due to an abnormally high amount of data transfer fees. The explorer won’t show you what data was transferred to incur those costs, only that something was transferred. This can make it difficult to see whether your costs (abnormal or no) are even necessary in the first place.

But there is a better way…

How to supercharge your AWS cost reports

When c​loud hosting costs frequently equal 20 to 35% of a software company’s revenue, you need to be able to reduce costs wherever possible.

Aimably lets you easily manage, alter, and optimize your AWS account without any personal analysis required. It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re running; our tools and services offer tailored advice specifically to suit your needs.

Our AWS Cost Reduction Assessment analyzes the same CUR data that AWS Cost Explorer draws from, but we go the extra mile to show you what you need to do to reduce your costs as much as possible without affecting your business’ performance. With instant visual summaries that are easy to understand, comprehensive data analysis, and even a prioritized to-do list of actions to take, you can’t do better than Aimably.

Get started with the best way to manage your AWS costs and usage today!

AWS Total Cost of Ownership