Aug 10, 2011

Amazon EC2 terminology – AMI vs. EBS vs. Snapshot vs. Volume


I have been poking around Amazon EC2, and am a little confused on some of the terminology. Specifically with regard to AMI, snapshots and volumes, and an EBS

Please correct me if I am wrong, or fill in any serious gaps in my following statements:

  • An AMI (Amazon Machine Image) is a full ‘disk’ capture of an operating system and configuration. When you launch an instance, you launch it from an AMI

  • An EBS (Elastic Block Storage) is a way to persist the state of any modifications you made once booting from a given AMI. In my mind, this is sort of like a diff on the final state of your instance vs the AMI.

  • A snapshot is … well, I’m not sure. I can only assume it is a snapshot of a specific instance, but it is not clear to me how this differs from the state stored in an EBS. How is a snapshot different from creating an EBS AMI from an existing instance?

  • A volume is … it would seem mounted disk space into which an AMI/EBS pair is loaded? I’m not sure on this one either. I can see (from the AWS Console) that you can create a volume from a snapshot, and that you can attach/detach volumes, but it isn’t clear to me why or when you would do that.


An AMI is, as you note, a machine image. It’s a total snapshot of a system stored as an image that can be launched as an instance. We’ll get back to AMI’s in a second.

Lets look at EBS. Your other two items are sub-items of this. EBS is a virtual block device. You can think of it as a hard drive, although it’s really a bunch of software magic to link into another kind of storage device but make it look like a hard drive to an instance.

EBS is just the name for the whole service. Inside of EBS you have what are called volumes. These are the “unit” amazon is selling you. You create a volume and they allocate you X number of gigabytes and you use it like a hard drive that you can plug into any of your running computers (instances). Volumes can either be created blank or from a snapshot copy of previous volume, which brings us to the next topic.

Snapshots are … well … snapshots of volumes: An exact capture of what a volume looked like at a particular moment in time, including all it’s data. You could have a volume, attach it to your instance, fill it up with stuff, then snapshot it, but keep using it. The volume contents would keep changing as you used it as a file system but the snapshot would be frozen in time. You could create a new volume using this snapshot as a base. The new volume would look exactly like your first disk did when you took the snapshot. You could start using the new volume in place of the old one to roll-back your data, or maybe attach the same data set to a second machine. You can keep taking snapshots of volumes at any point in time. It’s like a freeze-frame instance backup that can then easy be made into a new live disk (volume) whenever you need it.

So volumes can be based on new blank space or on a snapshot. Got that? Volumes can be attached and detached from any instances, but only connected to one instance at a time, just like the physical disk that they are a virtual abstraction of.

Now back to AMI’s. These are tricky because there are two types. One creates an ephemeral instances where the root files system looks like a drive to the computer but actually sits in memory somewhere and vaporizes the minute it stops being used. The other kind is called an EBS backed instance. This means that when your instances loads up, it loads it’s root file system onto a new EBS volume, basically layering the EC2 virtual machine technology on top of their EBS technology. A regular EBS volume is something that sits next to EC2 and can be attached, but an EBS backed instance also IS a volume itself.

An regular AMI is just a big chunk of data that get’s loaded up as a machine. An EBS backed AMI will get loaded up onto an EBS volume, so you can shut it down and it will start back up from where you left off just like a real disk would.

Now put it all together. If an instance is EBS backed, you can also snapshot it. Basically this does exactly what a regular snapshot would … a freeze frame of the root disk of your computer at a moment in time. In practice, it does two things different. One is it shuts down your instance so that you get a copy of the disk as it would look to an OFF computer, not an ON one. This makes it easier to boot up 🙂 So when you snapshot an instance, it shuts it down, takes the disk picture, then starts up again. Secondly, it saves that images as an AMI instead of as a regular disk snapshot. Basically it’s a bootable snapshot of a volume.

Related posts:

  1. Resizing Fedora 15 EBS Backed Image on Amazon EC2
  2. Ec2 micro instance ami
  3. How do i create a instance-store based AMI from an ebs instance?
  4. Bad to Detach AWS EBS volume before Unmounting?
  5. Amazon EC2: Migrate to another instance using the console

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