AWS Simple Workflow vs AWS Step Functions vs Apache Airflow

There are a number of different services and products on the market which support building logic and processes within your application flow. While these services have largely similar pricing, there are different use cases for each service.

AWS Simple Workflow Service (SWF), AWS Step Functions and Apache Airflow all seem very similar, and at times it may seem difficult to distinguish each service. This article highlights the similarities and differences, benefits, drawbacks, and use cases of these services that see a growing demand.

What is AWS Simple Workflow Service?

The AWS Simple Workflow Service (SWF) allows you to coordinate work between distributed applications.

A task is an invocation of a logical step in an Amazon SWF application. Amazon SWF interacts with workers which are programs that retrieve, process, and return tasks.

As part of the coordination of tasks, execution dependencies, scheduling, and concurrency are managed accordingly.

What are AWS Step Functions?

AWS Step Functions enables you to coordinate distributed applications and microservices through visual workflows.

Your workflow can be visualized by state machines describing steps, their relationships, and their inputs and outputs. State machines represent individual steps in a workflow diagram by containing a number of states.

The states in your workflow can perform work, make choices, pass parameters, initiate parallel execution, manage timeouts, or terminate your workflow.

What is Apache Airflow?

Firstly, Apache Airflow is a third party tool — and is not an AWS Service. Apache Airflow is an open-source workflow management platform for data engineering pipelines.

This powerful and widely-used open-source workflow management system (WMS) allows programmatic creation, scheduling, orchestration, and monitoring of data pipelines and workflows.

Using Airflow, you can author workflows as Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs) of tasks, and Apache Airflow can integrate with many AWS and non-AWS services such as: Amazon Glacier, Amazon CloudWatch Logs and Google Cloud Secret Manager.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Let’s have a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of each service.

AWS Simple Workflows pros and cons:

AWS Step Functions pros and cons:

Apache Airflow pros and cons:

Use Cases

Here’s an overview of some use cases of each service.

Choose AWS Simple Workflow Service if you are building:

  • Order management systems
  • Multi-stage message processing systems
  • Billing management systems
  • Video encoding systems
  • Image conversion systems

Choose AWS Step Functions if you want to include:

  • Microservice Orchestration
  • Security and IT Automation
  • Data Processing and ETL Orchestration
  • New instances of Media Processing

Choose Apache Airflow if:

  • ETL pipelines that extract data from multiple sources, and run Spark jobs or other data transformations
  • Machine learning model training
  • Automated generation of reports
  • Backups and other DevOps tasks


Each of the services discussed has unique use cases and deployment considerations. It is always necessary to fully determine your solution requirements before you make a decision as to which service best fits your needs.

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Neal Davis

Neal Davis

Founder of Digital Cloud Training, IT instructor and Cloud Solutions Architect with 20+ year of IT industry experience. Passionate about empowering his students