Amazon Web Services put to the enterprise test

When Information Age spoke to Amazon Web Services in May 2009, the cloud computing provider born of the online bookseller said that adoption by enterprise organisations was happening much faster than it had anticipated.

Six months or so later, chief technology officer Werner Vogels says that “enterprise adoption is happening even faster now”.

Since May, the attitude among AWS’s enterprise customers has changed from one of cautious curiosity to hands-on experimentation, he says.

“Six months ago, many of our initial customers were investigating whether cloud computing was something they should be doing,” Vogels explains. “Now they are thinking about it strategically, trying different proofs-of-concept for quick and early learning.”

With that experimentation comes unforeseen benefits, he says. “Many CIOs are initially attracted to cloud computing by the financial model; it eliminates the need for capital and also reduces operational cost, because if you no longer need resources you can release them. But as soon as enterprises begin to use cloud in a substantial manner, they start citing flexibility and unconstrained thinking as the major advantages.

“They tell me that they are no longer the ones that have to say no [to business projects],” he adds.

Indeed, Vogels argues that the critical breakthrough triggered by cloud computing is more psychological than technical. “Cloud is disruptive in people’s thinking,” he says. “IT resources are no longer things that you own – they become something you can use any time you like, in any form that you need.”

Such philosophical musings belie the fact that Vogels – as the technician largely responsible for engineering Amazon’s cloud offerings – is acutely aware of the practical considerations that enterprise IT shops must address before adopting them.

“A typical medium to large enterprise easily has between a few hundred and a few thousand applications to maintain,” he says. “Many of these applications have dependencies on each other. Teasing those dependencies apart, and finding out which pieces of the puzzle are suitable for moving to the cloud, is not a trivial operation.

“I see companies investing a lot of effort trying to classify what those dependencies are, what the risks are associated with moving applications to the cloud, and how much work it would take to move an application into the cloud,” he says. “Some of them are really ‘lift and shift’ but others require extra development work, and that of course raises the question of a return on investment.”

The walled garden

Amazon has launched a number of measures that seek to address the concerns of enterprise organisations. These include Reserved Instances, which allow companies with predictable demand to pay for cloud resources in advance at a discount, and the ‘virtual private cloud’ (VPC) offering unveiled in August 2009.

The VPC service allows customers to ring-fence a section of Amazon’s infrastructure, assign their network addresses to those resources, and link them directly into their own infrastructure through a virtual private network (VPN).

“Many organisations may have made significant investment in their management infrastructure, so just moving applications to the public cloud is not an option,” says Vogels. “But the VPC becomes a seamless extension of your data centre, and can be managed by exactly the same tools.”

He says that for many CIOs, especially among European organisations, the VPC has removed a ‘major stumbling block’ to cloud adoption. (It must be noted that hosting providers including Savvis and Terremark offer comparable services.)

However, Vogels points to innovation in the cloud systems management space – both from open source projects such as Chef and Scalr and from established players such as BMC – as yet another way in which the cloud is changing computing.

“One thing that is really different in this world is that your IT resources become programmable,” he says. “This is very important in the cost savings piece – if you can automate provisioning, for example, you can really make sure your resources are aligned to your usage at any given point in time.”

Of course, there is no reason why internal systems management tools should not themselves be replaced with cloud-based equivalents (see article ‘Compuware follows applications out of the infrastructure’).

But Vogels insists that Amazon will not be providing such functionality any time soon. More important to the long-term success of AWS, he believes, is the availability of choice for its customers, and that is an argument that goes for the operating systems and the application platform layer too.

“Our focus is on having as many of these products and platforms as possible,” he says, “and so we are making sure that our services are the absolute best in order to support all of them.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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