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Amazon, the mother of all clouds

Peter Wayner | March 14, 2013
There are currently 21 products available on Amazon Web Services, and only one of them is the classic EC2 machine.

Ah, Amazon -- did Jeff Bezos choose that name to symbolize the largest bookstore in the world or did he realize that he would one day create an enterprise cloud service that was as large and complex as the river basin? After spending some time with his enterprise infrastructure service, I think he saw this coming.

Selling servers by the hour was a bold idea when the Amazon cloud business launched a few years ago, but it seems quaint compared to all the options for sale today. There are currently 21 products available on Amazon Web Services, and only one of them is the classic EC2 machine, an abbreviation of the full name, the Elastic Compute Cloud. The original S3 (Simple Storage Service) now has cousins like the Simple Workflow Service and SimpleDB, a nonrelational data store. Then there are odder innovations like Amazon Glacier, a very cheap storage solution that takes hours to retrieve the data. Yes, hours. Not milliseconds, not seconds, not minutes -- but hours.

It's impossible to summarize it all in a paragraph or even an article. Amazon Web Services would require a book, but that tome would be out of date by the time it was printed because the service changes quickly. The best news is that Amazon is constantly looking at costs and generally lowering prices as it finds a way to deliver the product for less. Some prices have gone up occasionally over the years, an effort to make the prices reflect reality.

Amazon has also found plenty of supporters. A number of big companies such as Netflix are proud of using Amazon's servers, and plenty of startups are glad they didn't need to set up their own data centers to reach for the gold ring of IPO riches. Some customers brag about spending $1 million or more a month, an amount that would be more than enough for most companies to justify setting up an in-house facility and team. Clearly, Amazon is delivering a whole lot of value.

A smorgasbord of possibilities

The vast array of options is probably what keeps people coming back. When I started setting up a few test machines, it was clear Amazon had expanded the options until they no longer seem like commodities. There are at least 16 different sizes of machines. The instances generally bundle more RAM with more CPU cores and more disk space, but you can also choose lopsided versions that are heavier on the RAM, the CPU, or the I/O.

The size is just the first feature you can choose. There's back-end storage that can be mounted and you can fiddle with the amount of disk space. If you like, you can add EBS (Elastic Block Store), which is disk space that lives in the racks near you. This can be faster or slower and backed by more or less RAID protection.


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