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What the CIA private cloud really says about Amazon Web Services

Bernard Golden | Aug. 7, 2013
When the CIA opted to have Amazon build its private cloud, even though IBM could do it for less money, a tech soap opera ensued. Lost amid the drama, though, is a perfectly reasonable explanation why Amazon Web Services makes sense for the CIA--and why a disruptive AWS represents the future of the cloud.

These are the three things to note about the CIA decision.

1. In the cloud, easy-to-deploy applications rule
It's no secret that AWS has grown fat on developers stampeding to its service, enticed by its ease of use and the rapid availability of resources. Meanwhile, most of Amazon's competitors provide a gussied-up hosting service with a smidgen of self-service. More critically, most of those competitors continue to sell to their established buyers: IT operations. The motivations, judgment criteria, and agility expectations of the two groups are completely different.

With its choice, the CIA came down-decisively-on the side of applications, so much so that it was willing to pay a 50 percent premium to buy the offering that best enables applications.

This decision should put a shiver up the spine of every cloud provider in the country. It's a clear message that application owners are driving deployment decisions, and the criteria that applications groups judge cloud computing by will be the important ones going forward.

2. For AWS, smart software trumps enterprise gear
Just as Amazon targets a different user base with its offering, it pursues a different path in how it designs and operates its cloud environment. Most cloud providers tout the quality of the kit used to build their cloud: Name-brand servers, routers, storage arrays and so on. Amazon is notoriously cheap, on the other hand, and refuses to pay premium prices for its gear. More critically, it uses very different design assumptions about what it takes to deliver a cloud computing environment.

Amazon assumes that it will be operating its offering at vast scale and can't afford to use designs that can't grow to support that assumption. As an example of how this plays out, unlike most cloud providers, Amazon uses Layer 3 networking rather than Layer 2, because the latter ends up tied to VLAN topologies that don't scale. James Hamilton, a-or perhaps I should say the-AWS data center architect, uses a series of interesting presentations to discuss high-scale infrastructure requirements and approaches.

The design approach goes beyond just using inexpensive kit to save money. It's driven by Amazon's recognition that, at large scale, hardware fails constantly, no matter how cheap or expensive. If you're going to run a robust, highly available environment, then you can't depend on the underlying hardware.

The obvious alternative is to use redundancy to avoid hardware-caused service outage. That, of course, requires more sophisticated coordination to ensure there are sufficient redundant resources available, that data is replicated to those resources, that CSP-provided services are operated on redundant devices to avoid service outages, and so on. Consequently, Amazon operates its inexpensive hardware with a layer of extremely smart software that coordinates the environment. Think of it as Amazon's Cloud Operating System.


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