A Guide to Amazon Web Services for Corporate IT Managers

There are several compelling reasons to employ AWS, even for those IT managers that haven't considered the cloud yet.

Amazon may be the world's largest bookstore, but in the past eight years it has quietly built up a series of more than a dozen cloud-based computing services as part of its Amazon Web Services (AWS) product offerings. Some of the services are older and better known, such as renting online storage using Simple Storage Service (S3) or setting up virtual supercomputers to work on knotty CPU-intensive computations using the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). But there are others that are newer that serve important niches, such as the ability to stream videos using CloudFront, tie Amazon's resources with your own data center with its Virtual Private Cloud service, bring up database servers with SimpleDB and Relational Database Services, and the ability to automatically add or subtract computing resources as they are needed with its Auto Scale and Elastic Load Balancer features. (See the summary chart for the complete list of all AWS services and links to more information.)

AWS certainly isn't the only cloud-computing vendor around: Google has its App Engine, Microsoft's Live and Azure are both coming of age, and Rackspace is one example of a managed services provider that is offering more Web services. What makes AWS fascinating – and perhaps the gold standard of cloud computing -- is seeing how it continues to evolve and complement its core offerings with additional services that can be knitted together to provide a very robust offering for IT managers that previously haven't given the cloud much of a second thought. And while it is challenging to evaluate cloud services because they are always being tweaked, enhanced, and augmented, now is the time to take a closer look at what Amazon offers.

There are several compelling reasons to employ AWS, even for those IT managers that haven't considered the cloud yet.

  • First, they are easy to learn and setup, with a limited number of programming interfaces and controls. There is copious documentation, including a constellation of support services, reams of sample code, and discussion forums galore on each of their services. Should this not be sufficient, Amazon has two different premium support plans for $100 or $400 a month. The higher plan includes round-the-clock live phone support and one hour response times. Few cloud-based vendors have a community this rich and helpful.
  • Second, they are designed to scale with your demands, making them ideal for peak load projects or to deal with unexpected heavy demands that your in-house servers weren't designed to handle. And given the size of Amazon's data centers to support its own operations, they can scale upwards better than many other cloud vendors that have smaller footprints across the planet. For example, when the National Archives released thousands of pages of Hillary Clinton's schedule, the Washington Post created 200 EC2 server instances to process the images so that reporters and the public could search them. The project took a little more than a day and cost the Post about $150, happening as one Post developer said, "at the speed of breaking news." Amazon even has a bulk-loading service called Import/Export, where you mail them a physical hard drive that they then connect to their network temporarily and upload your data. For getting started with datasets of hundreds of gigabytes, this can be very quick and cheap to setup. Some of the applications deployed using AWS can get rather sophisticated. Rather than purchasing their own server hardware, scientific instrument supplier Varian was able to run a complex series of several week-long mathematical simulations in under a day using Amazon's CycleCloud. They were able to dynamically scale their processing up to execute the simulation, then shut down when calculations completed.
  • Third, they are built for rapid deployment and heavily rely on automation. Talk Market, an online shopping vendor, integrated payment transaction controls directly into their own interface using Amazon's Flexible Payment Service. When vendors sign up with them, they are connected with a quick, free credit card payment processor using an Amazon Payments Business account.
  • Fourth, they operate around the clock and in different data centers around the world, too, making them appealing to global businesses or those that want to be thought of that way. Amazon has three main data centers in California, Virginia and Ireland, but not all components of AWS are hosted in all three, and some, such as Cloud Front media streaming, are hosted elsewhere such as Hong Kong and Japan. This could be an issue for some IT managers, who want to drive to see their data center, and in some cases don't know exactly where their data lives in the cloud.
  • Fifth, they are reasonably priced, especially when compared with traditional outsourced or managed hosting providers. When the IT staff at the Indianapolis 500 car races needed extra bandwidth to stream videos of its races, they turned to AWS and saved more than half of their hosting bills. Much of this was due to the flexible nature of Amazon's servers and how they could automate their on-demand needs. Snap My Life, a photo social media site, was also able to halve their costs using a variety of AWS offerings. Eric Quanstrom, vice president, marketing and strategy with Sorenson Media in Carlsbad, Calif., has been using a variety of AWS, including EC2, CloudFront and S3. "We have a heritage of providing cloud services going back to 2000. We see video ripe for the cloud and chose AWS because of their flexibility, scalability and reliability. It would cost us a lot more if we went with someone else, and CloudFront's points of presence and cost/performance were excellent. It also helps that they are looking at the market the same way we are."
  • Finally, they are becoming the industry standard and their interfaces are or will be incorporated into a variety of third party providers. One example is Linux distro vendor Ubuntu. They have an Enterprise Cloud offering that makes use of the same AWS programming interfaces, making it easier for developers to port their cloud applications to a private server running Ubuntu inside your corporate data center. Another is coming from Racemi, which plans on having tools that can import VMware virtual machines into and out of AWS later this year.

What are the downsides? Certainly security and having possession of all of your computing resources, but that isn't specific to AWS. This is where having the Virtual Private Cloud VPN service can help, so that any cloud-based resources can sit behind the corporate firewall and other network protective devices. And pricing can be difficult to calculate too.

Each of AWS' component services has its own price list that breaks down into pieces for data that is stored on Amazon's servers and bandwidth consumed both inbound and outbound. The good news is that there are no monthly minimums and no long-term contracts. Bills are calculated monthly, and Amazon frequently has price changes, mostly – and refreshingly -- reducing their fees charged. There are different fees for hosting at its two domestic data centers and at its data center in Ireland. And if you are looking for bargains, SimpleDB is free to get started until June 30. All inbound data transfers to all AWS are also free until June 30, too.

To help figure all this out, Amazon has provided its own Web-based calculator here.

Amazon's Web Services Universe

Service and URL Description Newest and notable features
Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) On demand computing
Elastic MapReduce Large scale number crunching Job flow debugging
Simple Storage Service (S3) Online storage File versioning
Elastic Block Storage (EBS) Persistent storage used with EC2 applications
Mechanical Turk Send small tasks to humans to process
CloudFront Streaming media servers
SimpleDB Data indexing and querying Free until June 30 for new customers
Relational Database Service (RDS) MySQL servers in the sky
Fulfillment Web Service (FWS) Use Amazon's warehouses to fulfill your own orders Free but warehouse fees apply
Simple Queue Service (SQS) Workflow and messaging applications
CloudWatch Monitor all your AWS services
Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) VPN connecting the AWS cloud with in-house servers
Elastic Load Balancing Distributed load across EC2 instances for fault tolerance
Auto Scaling EC2 scaling Free and included with EC2
Flexible Payments Service (FPS) Integrated payment processing
DevPay Online billing
Import/Export Mail your hardware to Amazon and have them transfer your data
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