AWS: Amazon’s Secret Weapon

on September 28, 2011
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Most consumers think of as a company that sells books and a whole lot of other stuff. But it is also a deep technology company that has turned its technology both into a product and a big competitive advantage.

Amazon Web Services is a vast online computing infrastructure that Amazon both uses itself and sells to others. AWS began in 2006 as a way for Amazon to sell surplus storage as its Simple Storage Service (S3.) But it really blossomed when the company added Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2), which lets customers rent virtual servers.

As AWS has expanded, it has offered increasingly sophisticated services that let companies create complete virtual data centers. Because of the ability to get up and running with no capital investment and to scale quickly and cheaply if demand takes off, AWS is immensely popular with web startups. Many established web businesses run on it as well and ithas just gotten approval for use with most unclassified federal government operations.

The AWS user interface is something no one but a software developer should ever encounter, but the Kindle Fire can be tought of as a firendly face for the cloud services. The vast storage capabilities of S3 and the CloudFront content delivery network power Amazon’s streaming media capabilities. AWS also provides the storage and computing power that let you, for example, begin reading a Kindle book on a phone and download it to a Kindle device and pick up reading exactly where you left off.

Others, such as Microsoft and, of course, Google, offer extensive cloud services. Apple is trying to catch up and I expect we will hear a lot more about iCloud as part of its iPhone announcement Oct. 4. But AWS’s extensive programming interfaces and Amazon’s experience in hitching its infrastructure to consumer services give it a unique leg up on the competition.

And interesting test of just how big an advantage AWS is will come with the performance of the Kindle Fire’s Silk browser. Browsers have been the weak point of all tablets because the complexity of rendering complex modern web pages can overwhelm their relatively  limited processing power. This is why even tablets that claim to support Adobe Flash generally do so really badly.

Silk splits the processing burden of rendering pages between the Fire and EC2, with much of the heavy lifting done in the cloud. Amazon officials were not very forthcoming about the technical details of Silk and were not very generous in demonstrations of its abilities, so I am going to reserve judgment until I have a chance for a hands-on trial.

If it works as promised, it could be an important, unique advantage for Amazon. Among potential competitors, only Google has to sort of cloud infrastructure that is required, but Google doesn’t make devices and the structure of Android would make it very hard for it to achieve the tight device-cloud integration needed to make something like Silk work.