The myth about how Amazon’s Web service started just won’t die

How AWS got started and what its co-founder is doing now that he says could be bigger than cloud

There’s a rumor that goes around cloud circles about how Amazon.com created what is now the multi-billion dollar infrastructure as a service (IaaS) cloud computing industry in the early 2000s.

Some people wrongly assume that Amazon had spare, excess computing capacity from their ecommerce site that was used as the basis for Amazon Web Services' (AWS) cloud.

It’s something that Benjamin Black has heard a lot. But it’s not true. And he would know: Black is widely credited with co-authoring the initial proposal at Amazon that led to the creation of AWS.

“Why will that not die?” Black says about the rumor. “It’s totally false.”

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Black, who recently accepted a new position at cloud company Pivotal, says from day one, every part of AWS has been purpose built for AWS. And now he’s hoping to work on a new project that he says could be even bigger than the cloud he helped create at Amazon.

How AWS actually got started

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Benjamin Black co-authored a paper at Amazon.com in 2003 that helped kick off Amazon Web Services and the IaaS cloud computing market. Black now works at Pivotal. 

In 2003 Black was running a website engineering team at Amazon. The company was growing fast and IT wasn’t keeping up. Black worked with Chris Pinkham, who he says is one of the best managers he’s ever worked with. Pinkham pushed Black to consider how Amazon’s infrastructure could more efficiently scale up. They explored how abstraction and decoupling the applications from the infrastructure could make it easier to manage.

“We realized there could be a lot of value in doing that, and a lot of value to others potentially outside of Amazon,” Black told Network World. “We could sell it (the infrastructure) as a service.” Black and Pinkham wrote up the idea, which made its way to Jeff Bezos, who greenlighted the proposal. Pinkham then led a team to build Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), which are virtual machines as a service and one of AWS’s first products released in 2006.

Benjamin Black

That seed of an idea turned into what is now the market-leading IaaS public cloud computing company. Amazon was estimated last year by Gartner to have a public cloud that is five times larger than its next 14 competitors combined. Needless to say, the idea Black helped start took off. Pinkham went on to found startup Nimbula, which Oracle bought and used as the basis for its cloud platform. Pinkham now works as an engineering vice president at Twitter.

How did Bezos receive the idea? Black recalls Bezos envisioning a platform that would give anyone, such as college kids in a dorm room, the tools they would need to start a new company.

“That’s still the idea people have about it,” Black says. “At the same time, it’s taking over the world.” He says the fundamental key to AWS, which remains today, is that it provides the undifferentiated technical infrastructure to anyone who wants it – whether that’s VMs, storage, or Hadoop as a service.

Some of the directions Amazon has taken AWS have surprised Black. AWS is moving further and further “up the stack” to provide application services, like virtual desktops and email. Not everything he and Pinkham proposed made it into the initial version, but every change was for the better, he wrote in a blog post describing the origins of EC2.

Did Black realize the idea he and Pinkham proposed to Bezos would turn into what is has today? Far from it. “Right off the bat we just thought it would be an interesting thing to do,” he says. “It took a while to get to a point of realizing that this is actually transformative. It was not obvious at the beginning.”

How the Internet of Things could be the next cloud

Black has a new gig now. After stints at Microsoft, VMware, advising the company Chef and starting his own monitoring company named Boundry, cloud company Pivotal hired Black as senior director of technology. Pivotal, which is a spinout from VMware, EMC and has substantial backing from General Electric, is behind the open source platform as a service (PaaS) Cloud Foundry.

Whereas an IaaS like AWS is a massive distributed system of virtual hardware and services - like compute, storage and databases - a PaaS is an application development and hosting service.

In his new role at Pivotal Black hopes to spearhead the company’s burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) lab in Seattle, where he lives.

There’s an opportunity for a company like Pivotal to create a series of application components that can be used in IoT that serve as a basis for many other IoT apps, Black says. “There are some pretty basic patterns across all of these desired apps,” he says. “What we’re looking do is develop the primitives that would allow anyone to get into the IoT marketplace.”

When asked how the IoT market could compare to the cloud computing market that he helped usher in, Black said: “Bigger.”

This story, "The myth about how Amazon’s Web service started just won’t die " was originally published by Network World.

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