Table Of Contents
What Does Amazon Athena Do? What Are The Benefits Of Using Amazon Athena? What Are Some Amazon Athena Limitations? Amazon Athena Pricing: How Much Does Athena Cost? How Does Amazon Athena Compare To AWS Redshift, Microsoft SQL Server And AWS Glue? Amazon Athena Vs. Microsoft SQL Server How To Optimize AWS Athena Costs Quickly And Accurately Why High-Performing Engineering Teams Choose CloudZero

Amazon Athena is heralded for its simplicity, pay-per-query pricing, and speed. Others say Athena has its fair share of limitations, which could affect your overall analytics experience and quality of analyses. So, what is what?

In this post, we’ll share what Amazon Athena does, compare it to Amazon Redshift, and share how to understand and control your Athena costs in AWS (with just one tool).

Table Of Contents

What Does Amazon Athena Do?

AWS Athena is best described as an interactive query service that’s capable of seamlessly using standard Structured Query Language (SQL) to analyze data stored in the Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3).

Picture this:

amazon anthena

Credit: How Amazon Athena works

Amazon Web Services (AWS) introduced Athena to simplify the whole process of analyzing raw Amazon S3 data in massive volumes. You do not have to load Amazon S3 data into Amazon Athena and then transform it for analysis. And that makes the service ideal for teams that want to perform ad hoc, quick, or complex data analyses.

Also, you can use Amazon Athena to process structured, semi-structured, and unstructured sets of data.

AWS Athena is also serverless and built to scale automatically. The fact that Athena is serverless means you won’t be required to set up or manage any infrastructure.

Auto-scaling enables you to run complex queries in parallel on large data sets and quickly return results.

This serveless architecture also enables AWS to charge Athena users for only the queries they run. This makes the service cost-effective option for organizations leveraging Amazon S3 for data research, online analytical processing, and log analysis, as a few examples.


What Are The Benefits Of Using Amazon Athena?

Amazon Athena features deliver powerful benefits for Amazon S3 users, including the following:

  • Easy to use Amazon Athena doesn’t require complex Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) processes, so even users with basic SQL skills can use it. Even business analysts and other data professionals can adopt it, as standard SQL queries are very simple and straightforward.
  • Flexible – Amazon Athena’s open and versatile architecture doesn’t restrict you to a specific vendor, technology, or tool. You can, for example, work with a wide range of open-source file formats, as well as switch freely between query engines without adjusting the schema.
  • Highly available query service – Athena runs queries with compute resources distributed across multiple facilities as well as multiple devices within each facility.
  • Built for Amazon S3 – S3 is Amazon Athena’s primary data store, a durable, highly available data store.
  • Query your data almost instantly – Athena enables you to start querying your data in a few seconds. Simply point Amazon Athena to the data you’ve stored in S3, specify the schema, and begin querying it with Standard SQL.
  • It’s serverless – You do not manage the underlying compute infrastructure, setting you free to focus on optimizing the outcomes. You won’t have to worry about setting up clusters, regulating capacity, or loading data.
  • Pay your fair share – It’s pay per query, so you pay only for the queries you run — not the underlying infrastructure, etc. The service doesn’t charge you for compute instances. Instead, you only pay for the queries you’re running
  • Built on Presto and Trino – The interactive query service leverages Presto with ANSI SQL support. It also supports a variety of data formats; JSON, Apache web logs, CSV, Parquet, TSV, Text files with custom delimiters, ORC, Ion, and Avro.
  • Integrated with Amazon’s Glue Data Catalog by default – This means you can create a central repository for metadata across multiple services, discover schemas across data sources, add new and updated table and partition definitions to your Catalog, and manage schema versioning.

Glue offers fully-managed ETL capabilities. That means you can use it to transform your data or restructure it into columnar formats for better performance and cost optimization.

Also, Athena engine v3 launched over 90 query performance improvements, 50 additional SQL functions, and 30 new features, making the service all the more useful.

What Are Some Amazon Athena Limitations?

Like every service out there, Athena may not be ideal for every use case. Here are some limitations you may have to contend with.

  • The optimization is limited to queries – For example, data you’ve already stored in Amazon S3 cannot be optimized, not the underlying data. Even when you try to transform the Amazon S3 data using AWS Glue, you still have to be cautious not to disadvantage other services that are accessing the same data.
  • Shared resources – According to Amazon’s Service Level Agreement (SLA), all AWS Athena users across the globe share the same resources when running their queries. This multi-tenancy approach might trigger resource strain from time to time, which could lead to fluctuating query performance.
  • Lacks data manipulation operations – Since AWS Athena is just a query service, all you’ll find here is a query engine. It doesn’t come with a built-in Data Manipulation Language (DML) interface for inserting, deleting, and updating data.
  • There are no indexing options available – In the absence of indexing, Athena’s operation load increases, potentially affecting its performance. For example, you can expect challenges in operations such as consolidating large tables.
  • Partitioning is essential for efficient queries – Not only do you have to partition the data, but you must also manage the partitions to meet your optimal performance requirements. For instance, every 500 partitions scanned will bump up your querying time by a second.
  • It doesn’t support Presto federated connectors, stored procedures, or parameterized queries – You’ll need Amazon Athena Federated Query to connect data sources.
  • Time outs An Athena query can time out when the table has thousands of partitions.
  • Hidden files – It treats source files that begin with a dot or with an underscore as hidden.
  • 32 megabytes is the maximum row and column size.
  • There is no support for querying data in S3 Glacier and S3 Glacier Deep Archive storage classes in Athena.

Next, we’ll compare how Amazon Athena stacks up against alternatives.

Amazon Athena Pricing: How Much Does Athena Cost?

Consider this.

Pricing for Amazon Athena SQL queries is pay per query (per query billing). The cost starts at $5 per TB of data scanned. You are charged only for the number of data bytes scanned by the queries you execute, rounded to the nearest megabyte (MB). A minimum charge of 10 MB per query is required.

Pricing for Amazon Athena SQL Queries with Provisioned Capacity is a little different. The cost starts at $0.30 per DPU hour calculated per minute. You pay for Data Processing Units (DPU). The DPUs determine the combination of resources needed to run queries and assign them to workloads. A DPU offers 4 vCPUs and 16 GB of memory. Also:

  • The service charges you for the capacity you need and the duration it is active in your account.
  • There’s an 8-hour minimum requirement.
  • There are no charges for scanning data.
  • You can start with 24 DPUs and, when your needs change, scale up or down in increments of 4 DPUs.
  • Your capacity will be held until you no longer require it, and you are free to cancel it at any time.

Amazon Athena’s Apache Spark pricing also follows the per DPU-hour billed per minute approach. It starts at $0.30 per DPU-hour calculated per minute. Billing is based on the duration the Apache Spark application takes to run — in 1-second increments, rounded up to the nearest second.

Oh, another thing. There are additional charges, such as Standard Amazon S3 charges for reading, storing, and transferring data.

Also, expect separate charges for data not stored in S3 (running SQL queries on federated data sources) and standard Glue Data Catalog pricing for using the Amazon Glue service.

How Does Amazon Athena Compare To AWS Redshift, Microsoft SQL Server And AWS Glue?

AWS Athena vs. AWS Redshift

There are many factors that come into play when comparing Amazon Athena to Redshift.


Amazon Athena

Amazon Redshift


Serverless, interactive query service.

Data warehousing platform on the AWS public cloud

Use cases

Simplifies analyzing petabyte-scale data sets where it lives

Helps analyze exabyte-scale data sets using Massively Parallel Processing (MPP) to support fast querying

Types of Data Supported

Structured, semi-structured, unstructured

Structured, semi-structured

Data formats supported

CSV, TSV, Ion, JSON, Text file with custom delimiters, Apache web logs, Parquet, Avro, ORC

You can convert results to columnar format to optimize performance and costs

Various data types for Redshift tables, including numeric, character, Boolean, datetime, VARBYTE, HLLSKETCH, Super data types

Columnar data store

Compatibility with open-source frameworks

Presto with ANSI SQL, Trino

PostgreSQL 8.0.2

Supports User Defined Functions (UDFs) with scalar and aggregate functions

Working with Amazon S3 data sets

Creates separate tables, minimizing the impact on raw S3 data sets

No ETL processes required

You need to first create a cluster for uploading data and creating tables before querying data sets

Requires ETL processes before querying

Start up speed

Almost instant (seconds)

Minutes (15 to 60 minutes)


Starts from $5 per TB of data scanned

Starts at $

Table: A quick side-by-side comparison of Amazon Athena vs Redshift

What does this mean?

Well, AWS Athena is a serverless service that doesn’t require any additional infrastructure to scale, manage, and build data sets. It runs directly over Amazon S3 data sets as a read-only service, setting up external tables without manipulating the S3 data sources.

Amazon Redshift, on the other hand, is a petabyte-scale data warehouse service that’s based on PostgreSQL. The queries here don’t just run directly. Instead, Redshift relies on clusters, for which you’ll be required to bring in the data extracts and create tables before proceeding with your query.

As such, you could say that AWS Athena is best reserved for instances when you need to use Presto and ANSI SQL to launch ad-hoc queries on Amazon S3 data sets. It should be able to work on structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data formats.

Then AWS Redshift, contrastingly, is ideal for analyzing large structured data sets — as it’s capable of generating results much faster than Athena. This means you can, for instance, apply it in real-time data analysis, clickstream events, and log analysis.

Keep in mind, though, that Redshift is costlier since it charges for both compute and storage.

AWS Athena vs. AWS Glue

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Amazon Glue vs Athena:


Amazon Athena

Amazon Glue


A serverless, interactive query service for large-scale data sets

A serverless data integration service that supports full-on Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) operations at scale

Use cases

Simplifies analyzing petabyte-scale data sets where it lives for big data analytics

Helps create, edit, and retrieve tables in order to perform analytics tasks

Also support batch ELT, and streaming data processing methods

Data file types supported

CSV, TSV, Ion, JSON, Text file with custom delimiters, Apache web logs, Parquet, Avro, ORC

CSV, Ms Excel, Parquet, JSON, ORC


Starts at $5 per TB of data scanned

Starts at $0.44 per DPU-hour billed per second

Table: A comparison of Amazon Athena vs Glue

Since its initial release in August 2017, AWS Glue has been operating as a fully-managed Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) service. It comes with three primary components:

  1. A flexible scheduler for handling job monitoring
  2. An ETL engine that’s capable of generating Scala or Python code
  3. A data catalog that acts as the central metadata repository

With these tools, AWS Glue helps you in discovering data sets, as well as transforming and preparing them for search and querying.

So, you should be able to use AWS Athena along with AWS Glue. The latter’s Data Catalogue will create, store, and retrieve table metadata (or schema) to be queried by Athena.

Amazon Athena Vs. Microsoft SQL Server

Here’s a quick overview of the differences between Microsoft’s SQL Server service and Amazon Athena.


Amazon Athena

Microsoft SQL Server


A serverless, interactive query service for large-scale data sets

A relational database management system for a wide variety of purposes

Use cases

Simplifies analyzing petabyte-scale data sets where it lives for big data analytics

DCL, TCL, DDL, and DML operations

Supports a variety of applications, including Business Intelligence (BI), Analytics, and transaction processing

DatabaseDML operations


Presto with ANSI SQL support

Transact-SQL (SQL) on top of standard SQL

Data file types supported

CSV, TSV, Ion, JSON, Text file with custom delimiters, Apache web logs, Parquet, Avro, ORC



Starts at $5 per TB of data scanned

Free for Express to $15,123 for Enterprise SQL Server 2022

Table: A quick, side-by-side comparison of Athena vs Microsoft SQL Server

How To Optimize AWS Athena Costs Quickly And Accurately

Despite Athena’s favorable pricing, its billing process isn’t as straightforward as you’d expect. You’ll see how much you’ve spent — but it’s often difficult to see how and why.

One-time and short-term AWS users may be okay with that. But the stakes rise when it comes to long-term usage. If you intend to adopt the service for the long haul, you need a proper cloud cost management platform.

Why High-Performing Engineering Teams Choose CloudZero

CloudZero’s AI-powered engine works like a comprehensive observability platform rather than a mere cost tool.

With CloudZero, you can capture, analyze, and automatically map your cost data to the people, products, and processes that incurred them. Consider this:

Transform cloud spend into business metrics

That means, you can accurately pinpoint your unit costs, such as cost per individual customer, per team, per product, per environment, per project, and more. You can also drill down to hourly granularity to ensure you not only see the big picture but also the fine details that make a huge difference.

Also, while other tools will demand that you have perfect tags, CloudZero works even if you have messy tags. Yet, you’ll be able to view accurate costs across tagged, untagged, and untaggable resources — and cost per individual cost center in shared environments.

Tagging dashboard

CloudZero also empowers you with real-time cost anomaly detection. Whenever your costs are trending, we’ll send you timely, noise-free, and context-rich alerts so you can tell exactly what to correct to prevent overspending.

These are just a few of the CloudZero benefits that Drift has used to save over $3 million on AWS. And, Demandbase recently used CloudZero and reduced its annual cloud bill by 36%, justifying $175 million in financing.

You’ll also be joining Remitly, MalwareBytes, and Skyscanner in taking control of your cloud costs within days — not months. to experience CloudZero for yourself.