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As an e-commerce organization that had to prepare for seasonal traffic spikes, Amazon.com was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the cloud computing movement. “They kind of backed into being a cloud provider,” said Jeffrey Breen, CTO, Yankee Group. “They had all of this excess capacity because of their core business: e-commerce.”
Amazon had to prepare for peak traffic, but how could they monetize that excess capacity during non-peak times? With the rise of cloud computing, they found their answer, and Amazon Web Serviceswas born.
“It’s pretty close to an accidental empire,” said Dana Gardner, president and principal analyst of research firm Interarbor Solutions.
Amazon begs to differ
“The excess capacity point is a common misperception and not at all why we started Amazon Web Services,” said Kay Kinton, PR manager, Amazon Web Services.
“Developers here at Amazon have spent over a decade building out the infrastructure to run our own Web-scale application, Amazon.com. In that time we’ve learned a great deal about how to operate very efficiently at very high scale. We started Amazon Web Services because we feel that we can provide tremendous value to developers given the experience, expertise, and assets Amazon has acquired over the past fourteen years.”
(I don’t mean to put Breen and Gardner on the spot here. Both mentioned up front that this was a word-on-the-street sort of story, and they didn’t know the particulars. As far as I’m concerned, the main difference between the two versions is intention. Accidental or not, the major plot points remain the same.)
What to offer – capacity or services?
Regardless of the creation story, the fact is that Amazon’s business strategy since getting into cloud computing is anything but accidental.
In this era of “Webification,” where everything that can move to the Web does – and preferably as a service – being a cloud provider means many different things to many different people.
What it means to Amazon is, first and foremost, on-demand capacity. Be it server, storage or database capacity, Amazon will give it to you in a cost-effective and flexible manner.
What Amazon does not do is deliver applications. Amazon’s cloud offering is perfect for developers, less so for everyone else.
Is that, however, a bad thing?
“I don’t see their approach as a drawback,” Gardner said. “Compare what Amazon does to SaaS. SaaS is model of delivering applications. As Amazon sees it, cloud computing is about delivering capacity.”
To emphasize his point, Gardner compared Amazon to the early days of Microsoft. It may be difficult to remember, but at first Microsoft delivered an operating system and not applications. Lotus Notes, WordPerfect and others pioneered the application space. Only later, after Windows had a firm hold on the operating system market, did Microsoft start to divide and conquer everything else.
“The lesson is that you don’t want to compete with your customers, at least not at first,” Gardner said. “Why make a little bit of money on applications when what the market really wants today is cheap capacity?”
Isn’t it overkill to call it an empire?
While Amazon, along with Google, leads the cloud space, let’s be clear here: cloud computing is in its infancy. This fact alone prompts skepticism from many analysts.
“Amazon needs to decide whether cloud computing is a hobby or a business,” said Nik Simpson, an analyst with the Burton Group.
“At the moment their entire infrastructure is hosted, I think, in two data centers, one of which is much larger than the other. If one data center goes down, do they have the capacity to handle everything in the other?”
As Simpson sees it, while Amazon has a ton of capacity, they may be missing the boat on some of the things that the enterprise demands, such as high availability and failover. For SMBs and developers testing projects, the low cost makes this a reasonable tradeoff. Yet for enterprise customers curious about the cost savings associated with Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service(S3), the risk may trump the low cost.
Amazon, predictably, believes it is already enterprise ready. Amazon argues that they offer failover capability, noting (in Amazon-speak) that they “currently expose 6 different ‘Availability Zones’ to customers in two different regions.”
Amazon also touts its 99.95% uptime SLA, as well as a number of enterprise customers, such as Eli Lilly, the Washington Post, NASDAQ, eHarmony and Virgin Atlantic’s new travel website, VTravelled.com.
How many hoops does Amazon have to jump through to be considered “enterprise class?”
“We think that people are choosing to use the cloud because they’ve found building their own reliable infrastructure difficult, expensive, and in the end, well, unreliable,” Kinton said.
“Computers, networking equipment, and even whole datacenters can and do fail. All computing systems have to deal with failure. . . In most cases, given the focus we put on this and the scale at which we can operate, the cloud can provide better tools for insulating customers from failure than could reasonably be engineered by any single customer. In essence, one should design for failure as a normal and expected part of operation instead of as a rare and surprising event.”
For example, an Amazon EC2 “instance” has the same failure characteristics as does a server in a datacenter. When an EC2 “instance” fails, replacements can be instantly provisioned through an API call. Alternatively, they can run concurrently for redundancy. Amazon EC2 also provides “Elastic IP addresses.” These allow customers to remap an Internet address from a failed instance to a working one.
“Because tornadoes, fires, or a variety of other disasters can, and do, hit even the most hardened data centers (or their connectivity), EC2 instances can be launched in different Availability Zones – separate pools of infrastructure with independent location, power, cooling, and connectivity,” Kinton said.
“Amazon S3 stores objects in multiple Availability Zones, yielding durability beyond that of traditional RAID storage with an onsite tape backup. Amazon SimpleDB Domains are stored the same way. We’ve also recently released new features that provide monitoring, auto-scaling and elastic load balancing for even greater resilience in building applications.”
Facing stiff competition
Whether you believe Amazon Web Services is ready for primetime or not, one thing is clear: they’ll need to fend off plenty of competitors to stay on top.
First, there are the other Fortune 500 players, such as Microsoft, Google, Oracle and IBM crowding into the space. (IBM recently entered a cloud partnership with Amazon, which muddies the waters a bit.)
Then there are the major Internet players like Salesforce.com, Akamai and SAP. Finally, a slew of startups loom on the horizon.
The cloud space is so crowded (or the term is being used so promiscuously) that there are now scores – arguably hundreds – of cloud computing vendors. Plenty of vendors, start-ups and organizations claim to have a cloud presence.
Full speed ahead
However the space shakes out, Amazon intends to plow ahead with its cloud vision.
“[An] interesting data point is that the bandwidth for just two Amazon Web Services (Amazon EC2 and Amazon S3) has exceeded the bandwidth for all of the Amazon.com global websites,” Kinton pointed out. “Additionally, our storage service, Amazon S3, now holds over 64 billion objects and regularly peaks at 100,000 requests per second.”
That sounds like a pretty good head start on the competition to me. Amazon clearly intends to develop a cloud ecosystem, along the lines of what Salesforce provides around its main offerings, which is pretty much table stakes these days if you want to play in the big leagues.
Recently introduced services include one-on-one support options; beta testing of AWS Import/Export, which helps accelerate the movement of large amounts of data into and out of AWS using portable storage devices for transport; a pay-as-you-go content delivery service; and Amazon Marketplace Web Service, which allows sellers to “exchange programmatic data with Amazon which will ultimately help sellers gain efficiency and grow their businesses.”
Amazon may not quite have a cloud empire, but it’s more than ready for battle.