Can Amazon Web Services' cloud offerings evolve with the times?

Tom Nolle, Contributor

Amazon Web Services EC2 has been the gold standard for cloud computing since cloud became a household name. For many, it's also been a bastion of proprietary defense in an open source world. Since its inception, AWS Elastic Compute Cloud has evolved and gone through more than a dozen price decreases. But questions remain about exactly how big a lead Amazon has in the cloud market and what it's doing to increase that lead.

Essentially, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a set of cloud APIs that let users host resources on remote servers and storage. AWS APIs include support for block storage, relational databases, email and tools for everything from Web hosting to content delivery. AWS EC2, its Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform, is a set of AWS APIs that allow consumers to control the hosting of machine images on Amazon servers.

In short, AWS is more than IaaS; it's an evolving PaaS product.

Unlike other cloud players like Microsoft that put a specific operating system and middleware on the cloud to create Platform as a Service (PaaS), Amazon offers basic IT services through APIs without demanding that those APIs link to a particular OS. This approach is more versatile in the long run and allows Amazon to include features like content caching, which are rarely considered elements in PaaS.

In the short term, Amazon's approach permits users to blend their own applications with AWS features, like storage. This is beneficial to software developers who want to build their own Software as a Service (SaaS) apps on the Amazon infrastructure.

Where can Amazon Web Services improve?

The downside of Amazon's approach to the cloud is that API-based AWS features make it extremely difficult for the cloud vendor to standardize a management interface. Remember: AWS is a set of Amazon APIs -- not a standard platform -- so its applications won't be fully transportable to other cloud platforms without requiring IT teams to make changes.

Amazon has been criticized for failing to endorse industry standards for cloud management and interfaces. In practice, though, adopting a standard would constrain AWS, making it difficult for the company to evolve its services at the pace its customers want. 

Another challenge for Amazon customers looking to migrate to or from AWS EC2 is that cloud service management connects to services being managed. Many open source cloud packages, for example, can offer EC2 API compatibility that allows users to provision private cloud IaaS instances or "compatible" public cloud services using Amazon APIs, but most will not support additional AWS features. These products rely only on "instance storage," which many users find insufficient.

In short, AWS is more than IaaS; it's an evolving PaaS product. Given the trends in AWS usage, it's probably unrealistic to assume Amazon could standardize -- even if it wanted to -- because its approach to the cloud is different than other standards, such as OpenStack.

Understanding the Amazon way

Aside from using proprietary APIs, Amazon differs from other cloud computing service providers in several other ways, including pricing structure, uptime and availability and options for cloud developers. Looking at each of these areas can help us better understand Amazon Web Services cloud options.

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Pricing. From a pricing perspective, Amazon charges for AWS services on a per-use basis, with the most common base charge being for machine image hosting. Users can buy basic hosting or add features such as persistent machine allocation, geographic diversity or elastic addressing. If storage services are purchased, customers are charged according to storage capacity used and data transferred. For applications that are data intensive, the cost of storage will likely exceed the cost of machine image hosting. Even though Amazon has lowered its machine-image costs significantly over time, its storage costs have not declined.

Uptime and reliability. From a reliability and availability perspective, AWS has taken some criticism lately for cloud service outages. However, the fact is Amazon's cloud is probably among the most resilient cloud services out there, and it's one of the few that offers users a range of features that can be used to manage reliability and availability. But because Amazon is the largest of the cloud providers, its problems are also the most noticeable and tend to garner the most media attention.

Development options. For developers looking to build and sell SaaS applications, Amazon is probably the strongest choice in the cloud market because it has the broadest base of developer experience. For end users without a single OS or middleware platform, or those who have committed to a platform that's not mainstream like Microsoft or IBM, AWS may actually be one of the few choices they have.

As an IaaS provider, Amazon's prime competition is Rackspace. For the longer term, however, the question is whether PaaS providers like Microsoft, IBM or even HP will tap into the Amazon opportunity. If the cloud of the future evolves from the IT of the present, companies like IBM and Microsoft may have an edge over AWS. If the cloud evolves into an independent set of services delivered through special APIs, then Amazon is already there.

Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corp., a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982.

View the next item in this Essential Guide: With CloudFormation, Amazon continues its foray into enterprise IT or view the full guide: The AWS re:Invent 2013 experience

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