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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.

There are so many options that spinning up an Amazon machine is almost as complicated and as flexible as buying a custom server. It's a bit like a toy store because you have to resist the temptation to play with cutting-edge technology -- such as one of the machines jammed full of Nvidia Tesla GPUs ready to run highly parallel algorithms written to Nvidia's CUDA platform. The mind often boggles.

Decoding the pricing table will take some collaboration between the CFO and the CIO. Not only are there 16 different-sized machines, but you can pay to reserve them in advance. If you pay a portion up front, Amazon will cut the hourly price along the way. It's sort of like one of those warehouse clubs where a membership buys you a discount. If you're judicious it's probably worth it, but it will take you some time to predict how much you'll use the machines.

The options aren't just in the size or configuration of the machine. The startup process offers a number of sophisticated options for customizing the distro from the beginning. You can, for instance, set up a "security profile" that controls which ports are open or shut immediately. This saves you the trouble of logging in after creating the machine and configuring the ports manually, a feature that's essential if you're going to start and stop dozens, hundreds, or thousands of machines.

Benchmarking the cloud

I spent some time running benchmarks on the micro machine, Amazon's low-end model that's supposed to be able to handle bursts of extreme computation. It's intended for people who are either just testing some ideas or building a low-traffic machine. It costs only 2 cents per hour and comes with 613MB of RAM, an odd number that's probably an even fraction of some power of two minus a little overhead.

It was surprisingly hard to find a way to log into the machines. I couldn't get the public/private keys generated by Amazon to work with either PuTTY or the built-in Java-based SSH client. Yet it worked in seconds from my Mac's terminal. I wonder what kind of laptops are popular up at Amazon?

Little issues like this appeared fairly often during my time poking around the cloud. Amazon's Web portal is one of the more sophisticated tools available, offering more extensive diagnostics and hand-holding than the dashboards of competitors, but it is not always foolproof.

For instance, it offers a nice dialog box for helping you connect immediately to your instance with your SSH by formatting the command line. It worked some of the time for me, but it failed when it tried to get me to log into one of my Ubuntu instances as root, a problem that took five seconds to fix once I remembered that I was supposed to log in as "ubuntu." Any Unix user should be able to work around all of these tiny glitches. In fact they're only noticable because Amazon sets such a high bar with the quality of its portal.


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