Beyond Cost Explorer: 10 Vantage Workflows for Costs

by Vantage Team

Cost Explorer is Amazon’s primary cost visibility tool. As such, it’s where most AWS users start with managing cloud costs. But as spend and account complexity grows, Cost Explorer is often pushed beyond its limits and asked to do more than it can.

Cost Explorer melting

The original vision for Vantage was to create a better Cost Explorer. Cost Explorer was never meant to be a robust, enterprise-grade reporting and cost-allocation engine. As more companies mature their FinOps functions, more limitations of Cost Explorer come up. This article is our way of answering a question we get a lot: How is Vantage different from Cost Explorer? Here are 10 things you can do with Vantage, but not Cost Explorer:

#1: Anomaly detection for every resource

Anomaly detection

Anomaly detection at the resource level

Cost Explorer provides anomaly detection but only at the service or category level. Vantage takes it one step further. Vantage shows which resources generated the anomaly because it has an ARN for the anomaly. To actually resolve the anomaly you won’t need to hunt around in the service to find the resource - such as an S3 bucket.

#2: Group by more than one dimension

Multi-dimensional grouping

It's only possible to group by one dimension in cost explorer

Cost Explorer allows users to group costs by only one dimension, which means any advanced multi-dimensional groupings need to happen in external apps, like Excel or Google Sheets. One popular view is “By Account and Service” where you can see the top AWS services generating costs across multiple AWS accounts. With Vantage you can group costs by many dimensions, including all your tags.

#3: Provide access to all users: finance, execs, and engineers

Cost Explorer access is either all or nothing. Because of this, most companies try to limit the number of people who have access to the billing console. But it’s important to share cost information with engineers in order to build a culture of cost accountability and mindfulness. But the information that an individual engineer needs might be different than the visibility that an accountant needs, and the last of granular access controls in Cost Explorer means the only solution is limiting access.

Beyond giving IAM users to finance and management, cost explorer’s view of blended costs ends up being one of the most confusing to evaluate. Third party consultants are even more difficult. The fastest path to spread a FinOps practice throughout the company is to invite users, managers, and third parties to view billing data in a third party platform. By sending alerts to Slack and email as well, you can spread knowledge and control of cloud costs throughout the company.

#4: Clarify what makes up “EC2-Other”

The EC2-Other cost category in Cost Explorer is basically a black box. With some masterful exploring, you can see that it encompasses costs such as EBS Volumes, EC2 T instance burstable credits, NAT Gateways, and Data Transfer fees. But Cost Explorer doesn’t make it easy to break these costs down.

EC2 Other

The 'EC2-Other' category in Cost Explorer, which blends costs from multiple categories and types together

Third-party tools like Vantage account for the importance of several important-but-hidden costs. Cost categories such as EBS Volumes and Elastic IPs, along with the rest of EC2-Other, are shown by default in Cost Reports within Vantage as separate line-items. Likewise, egress fees are associated with the associated NAT Gateways and EC2 Instances, whereas that connection is ambiguous within Cost Explorer.

#5: Drill into NAT Gateway costs

Per-resource costs and the ability to drill down into resources like NAT Gateways, is one of the biggest feature gaps in Cost Explorer today. As explained above, Cost Explorer splits EC2 costs into ‘compute’ and ‘EC2-Other’, and it’s hard to know which resources in EC2-other are responsible for driving up NAT Gateway spend. This is vital information when investigating a cost anomaly or trying to find cost saving opportunitiy. Cost Explorer falls short compared to a tool that gives you resource-level costs for every resource for which there is an ARN.

#6: Manage RIs for all services

If you use reserved instances for non-EC2 services (RDS, ElastiCache, OpenSearch, Redshift), you face an issue where teams in your org can spin up any old instance and if you do not have a reservation for it, the discount will not be applied.

Cost per Instance ID

Instance-level costs are only available for EC2

It’s helpful to look at which instances are being utilized across every service, but this is not possible in Cost Explorer. Instead, it requires going to the service itself or digging through CUR.

#7: Choose your view for amortization, credits, discounts and taxes

By default, Cost Explorer shows a “blended” view of costs which includes credits, discounts, refunds, and taxes unrelated to core usage. These costs are also “unamortized” meaning you’ll see big spikes each month when RI purchases or other committed use discounts are bought.

Of course, Cost Explorer does allow for changes to these options, including support for:

  • Blended costs
  • Unblended costs
  • Net unblended costs
  • Amortized costs
  • Net amortized costs

More sane defaults would be to include discounts and taxes in costs but strip away credits and refunds. And the amortized view is key.

#8: View cost categories from CUR

Even though cost category is exposed in Cost and Usage reports, it is not available in Cost Explorer. Instead, Cost Explorer Cost Categories are user defined categories and not things like compute, storage, and networking. Cost sub category is available in Cost Explorer, as the Usage Type Group.

#9: Select day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month

Below Cost Explorer graphs there is a table of costs which is typically displayed by month. Under this view you can group costs by month or by day - but not by week!

#10: Multiple payer accounts

This is not exactly a Cost Explorer limitation - and it only affects large organizations - but using multiple payer accounts for AWS means that Cost Explorer cannot view all costs on AWS.

Conclusion: Exploring vs Reporting

AWS originally launched Cost Explorer to be a simple way of checking costs. Since that time it has evolved considerably to handle a variety of basic cost management tasks. Because of this, users expect Cost Explorer to perform more advanced reporting and cost allocation tasks than it was designed for.

As the technical discipline of cloud finance advances, we’re excited to build tools for developers which are truly up to the task of managing cloud costs.