AirBnB, Spotify, and Netflix are three of today’s fastest growing digital businesses.
Behind these successful firms there is a company that many aren’t familiar with and most will never know the scope of (beyond its infamous parent company). The company is Amazon Web Services – AWS, and as we will explore in this post, this company is driving the web more than anything else – and more importantly, determining what future online “highways” will look like.
The success of AWS and the “services-first” logic
AWS is the division of Amazon that sells cloud computing to the outside world – and to Amazon as well. Companies have two options: They can buy their own hardware, run it, and pay for maintaining and upgrading it no matter how much they use. Alternately (and this is the idea behind AWS), they can pay for the storage space, bandwidth, and processing power that they actually use. Considering these choices, it is no wonder that many companies are using Amazon Web Services to power their websites. As explained in The Guardian, AWS started as Amazon’s backend technology. Founder Jeff Bezos issued a mandate that every Amazon team should begin working with each other in standard, systematic ways. Every group needed to write its own interface on the Amazon cloud server to “speak” to another group. This meant no more emails asking for data. What Bezos did was to turn Amazon into hundreds of mini-companies, each with the expertise to remotely access servers to acquire the computing, storage, and database needs that any individual project required. Not only that, but each group had to have a services team to support the interface they created – the edict was “services-first.” Hence, Amazon Web Services was born.
That was 2002. When it began, many companies used AWS to buy space and time on Amazon’s servers. What Amazon invented for itself – namely storage, computing, database, and internal messaging – was now available for purchase on an “as used” basis. This type of usage structure was extremely appealing to start-ups and those with limited bandwidth requirements. Launched as a side business in 2006, Amazon Web Services was introduced to the marketplace at the perfect time. Random individuals, to start-ups, to billion-dollar companies like Slack could offload the need to run and maintain servers. [nymag]
The first two of these AWS services – storage and computing– can get almost any online company operational. These services were initially called Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) and EC2 (Elastic Computing Cloud), which are still the two main services of AWS.
From Netflix to NASA: The global influence of AWS
The scope of AWS is massive. In a Quora post last year, Chad Smith, AWS architect, provided a sense of the enormity of the AWS server network. At the time there were 16 regions, each made up of 2+ availability zones (AZ). Each AZ has 1-6 data centers and each center contains 40,000 to 80,000 servers. By the end of the same year, Oppenheimer estimated that AWS had 1.3M servers worldwide. No wonder that Gartner for the last 7 years has placed AWS in a Leader position in its Gartner Magic Quadrant for Cloud Infrastructure as a Service.
But how does this computing power translate to market dominance? In ways that are easy to quantify but difficult to fathom. Digg puts it this way. As of October 2017, Amazon Web Services had $4.57B in revenue – for ONE quarter! It is an $18B business and growing exponentially. The Verge reported that as of April 2018, just in North America, one percent of all consumer internet traffic goes to or from one of Amazon’s servers, and that an entire one-third of internet users access Amazon’s servers at least once per day.
While some companies are using it for casual storage, others are running massive websites on AWS. For example. Netflix uses it for almost all of its back-end infrastructure, including storing and streaming. Other impressive AWS customers include Adobe, Airbnb, Spotify, Yelp, and NASA. In fact, when healthcare.gov, the US website for the Affordable Care Act, ran into bandwidth issues, the US government made the smart move to AWS. There are thousands of smaller firms that use AWS and the ancillary services that are offered as part of the infrastructure. For example Polly, the text-to-speech engine that is integrated into the AWS architecture is how Doxee can turn animated movies into personalized videos with voiceovers that accurately “parrot” the human voice [click here to hear Polly speak Italiano like a native].
Issues with AWS infrastructure dominance
Anytime Amazon Services, i.e. Alexa, Amazon Video, or Amazon.com is used, AWS is also being used. And it is used a lot. Of course, the real test of the importance of something is measured in the impact of being without it. On February 28, 2017, a problem caused a few Amazon Web Services S3 servers to go down, not all of them. However, due to the massive amount of traffic they handle, hundreds of thousands of sites were affected.
A few days later in an Amazon post, they explained that an employee debugging a billing system accidentally took more servers offline than intended. This started a domino effect that took down two other subsystems and on and on. “Removing a significant portion of the capacity caused each of these systems to require a full restart,” the post stated. Amazon explained in the same post that they were making several changes to employee access and their software systems that operate the S3 servers. In the end, AWS is probably stronger for this event. But it opened many eyes to the dependence that everyone everywhere has on the stability of the AWS infrastructure.
The future of AWS is above the sky
Where AWS is going is impossible to predict but it looks like it is headed out of this world – literally. One of its many projects is a collaboration with Iridium, the company that builds satellites. As explained in a CNBC post, Iridium is partnering with AWS to develop “CloudConnect” for the Internet of Things (IoT) applications. As summarized by Matt Desch, Iridium CEO, “Now that Amazon has put our language into the cloud platform, they can extend their [AWS] applications to the satellite realm…The CloudConnect network will focus on where cellular technologies aren’t.”
One thing is clear. AWS is here to stay and will continue to be a very powerful, positive influence on our lives. It is behind our internet, which is fast becoming our gateway to living our lives more productively and with fewer hassles. It is hard to complain about that.