EnterpriseTech: A Rare Peek Into The Massive Scale of AWS

ATN-300InsightaaS: I believe that ATN provides an interesting perspective on technology in the business world each day. Some days, it goes beyond that, highlighting an article that is unique in its insight into how technology changes behaviour, affects management options, or is built and delivered.

Today's feature is one of the 'beyond' pieces. A post in EnterpriseTech, an online journal focused on "stories and analysis about how the world’s top companies understand, implement and refine the technologies that define the competitive edge," delivers a fascinating view into the inner core of AWS. Written by editor in chief Timothy Prickett Morgan, the post drills through multiple layers of the AWS architecture. It starts with AWS's 11 regions, each of which contain two or more of the company's 28 "availability zones" (AZs). The AZs are in turn comprised of 1-6 data centres, with no data centre shared across multiple AZs. The data centres are connected within each AZ and region by AWS-owned fiber (more than 82,000 discrete strands in the US East region located in Virginia alone), and use Amazon-proprietary routers to connect to Amazon transit centres, which in turn connect each region to each other via AWS fiber, and connect out to the internet via peering and paid transit.

AWS has 50,000-80,000 servers within each data centre. These servers connect via virtualized network interface cards supporting Single Root I/O Virtualization (SR-IOV), enabling them to circumvent "the normal software stack running in the operating system and its network drivers and the hypervisor layer that they sit on." Morgan's post explains that "it takes milliseconds to wade down through this software from the application to the network card. It only takes microseconds to get through the network card itself, and it takes nanoseconds to traverse the light pipes out to another network interface in another server." He goes on to quote an AWS executive as saying, "This is another way of saying that the only thing that matters is the software latency at either end."

There is a great deal more in the post itself. I'd urge anyone who is interested in seeing how cloud scale changes the architectural considerations in data centres to read Morgan's article - it does a great job of highlighting how, where and why cloud will eclipse most homegrown environments in speed, reliability and cost.

The idea behind cloud computing, as pioneer Amazon Web Services believed when it launched its first utility compute and storage products eight years ago, is to abstract away the underlying hardware and provide raw resources to programmers for applications to run on. This hardware is a competitive advantage for AWS, as it has been for its parent online retailer, and that is why AWS very rarely talks about its datacenters and systems. But with Google, Microsoft, and IBM all talking up their investments in cloud and the innovations they have come up with, Amazon has to lift the veil a bit.

The reason is simple. The Amazon online retail business may be a $70 billion behemoth, but it does not throw off a lot of cash. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is not interested in profits as much as he is about transforming the world around him, but the cloud computing business is one of the most capital intensive businesses there are in the world. Thanks to its near monopoly in online search, Google can spend tens of billions of dollars on datacenters and not bat an eyelash. Microsoft, thanks to its near monopoly on desktop software and its dominant position in datacenter software, also has very deep pockets and can spend as much.

No one questions the ability of Google or Microsoft to invest, even if we all do wonder how either could come up with a breadth of infrastructure and platform services that rivals Amazon. But people are beginning to question if Amazon can keep pace over the long haul with Google and Microsoft both gunning for it. (Andy Jassy, senior vice president in charge of the cloud unit at Amazon, faced such questions this week at the re:Invent conference.) And so, James Hamilton, vice president and distinguished engineer for AWS, has revealed the size and scope of the AWS cloud just to remind everyone that it has first mover advantage and that Amazon is absolutely committed to building out this business and the infrastructure that supports it.

Scale is perhaps the most important thing, and no one needs to teach an online retailer like Amazon anything about that. With Amazon, there is very little talk of public cloud, and that is because Amazon believes that, by its nature, cloud means it cannot be private. Over the long haul, Amazon believes the massive scale of the public cloud will mean that very few organizations will run their own datacenters...

Read the entire post on the EnterpriseTech website: Link