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A roundup of the latest Amazon updates: Warp drive, Mr. Sulu

Despite blowback from refusing to supply services to whistleblower website WikiLeaks, controversy over congestion, uptime and customer service (or lack thereof), it seems that cloud computing giant Amazon Web Services (AWS) has never seen better days. The cloud provider is making new services and news announcements at a record clip. Here’s a roundup of the most significant recent announcements.

Cluster Compute GPU instances: Amazon made high-performance computing (HPC) headlines when it launched a special type of high-powered compute instance based on hardware normally found only in supercomputers. It’s impossible to fake or emulate the kinds of uses scientific and functional computing demands, so Amazon built a mini-supercomputer in its own Virginia data center and opened it up to the world. Now they’ve done it again, but this times it’s graphical processing unit (GPU) instances that are available.

Originally driven by the video game market, the chips that run video adapters have gotten so powerful that they’ve paved the way to new areas of HPC. Again, impossible to emulate, so Amazon has clearly laid out some serious capital to build a GPU-powered supercomputer to go along with the one that fires Cluster Compute instances.

This may speak to AWS’ operational maturity; their systems have evolved to the point where they can accommodate a variety of hardware in their billing, provisioning and management systems.

DNS in the cloud: Domain name servers, the street maps of the Internet, have long been the province of Web hosters and Internet service providers. They’re vital to delivering what customers want — Internet traffic — to the right place, and providers must be able to keep control of how traffic is distributed and account for that. Without access to DNS servers, you can’t properly control your email server, for instance.

Amazon, despite hosting one of the world’s signature collections of Internet traffic, hasn’t made DNS available to its customers; now it is. This might be due to the theory that as a pure infrastructure host, users should run their own. That’s led to angst when Amazon, the provider of record, gets blocked or banned by the Internet community for users’ misbehavior. It also effectively crippled the Elastic Load Balancing (ELB) service for many users, since they were unable to point their root domain at the ELB service. “Too complicated,” they were told.

The Route 53 DNS service lets users create zone files for their own domains, a little bit like handing the steering wheel back to the driver for a network admin. It’s based on popular free software (of course) djbdns and goes for $1 per month. Most website hosters provide DNS service for free. Regardless, AWS users are largely ecstatic over this, although it does not fix the zoning problems with Elastic Load Balancers quite yet.

UPDATE: Not all are ecstatic; Cantabrigian Unix developer Tony Finch writes a worthy critique of Route 53.

PCI DSS compliance in the cloud (sort of): This is a big deal to many. That’s because Visa and other credit card companies won’t let you take credit card payments, online or anywhere else, unless you can pass a PCI DSS audit. To date, Amazon hasn’t been able to do that, shutting it out of the market for e-commerce applications (in part). PCI DSS 2.0 was announced, which added new and vague but apparently satisfactory guidelines for virtualization; weeks later, Amazon is now PCI DSS Level 1 compliant.

Does this mean your new online business is automatically PCI compliant if you use Amazon to host it? Absolutely not. All it means is that it is now possible for merchants to consider using EC2 and S3 to process card payments. The responsibility of passing one’s own PCI audit hasn’t gone away. In the event of a data breach, you’re still on the hook if you store customer’s credit card info on AWS.

UPDATE: Cisco’s inimitable Christofer Hoff shares his take on AWS IaaS PCI DSS FYI.

New SDKs for mobile developers: Amazon is committing to the support of mobile development, releasing new software development kits (SDKs) for the iPhone and Android devices. The SDKs facilitate writing apps that can connect directly to AWS’ infrastructure and do fun stuff. No one in their right mind who is developing for mobile isn’t already using AWS, parts of AWS or some other cloud service, so this isn’t exactly a brainteaser. It’s a significant show of support, however, and again demonstrates the increasing maturity of AWS as an environment.

CloudWatch updates: A raft of updates to AWS’ CloudWatch service, a rudimentary notification system which is less rudimentary now. A shining example of starting off with something that is basically kind of broken (the original CloudWatch was considerably more limited than the monitoring features built into your average microwave oven) and gradually becoming a truly useful part of the tool kit.

That includes features like threshold notifications, health checks and policy-based actions (like not auto-scaling up your application in response to unexpected traffic and leaving you with an eye-watering bill).

5 TB files in S3: Users now have the ability to upload files up to 5 TB in size, several orders of magnitude greater than the previous 5 GB limit. One has to assume they’ve made a major stride in their storage architecture, Dynamo. Jeff Barr, AWS evangelist, posits direct connections between a genome sequencer, S3 and the HPC cluster on EC2 for near-real time data processing.

Of course, keeping it there will cost you a solid $125 per month per TB, and getting it back out of S3 for archiving or other purposes will cost you as well. But if you don’t have a supercomputer handy to go with your genomics research institute, this may look pretty handy. Make sure none of your giant files are classified, too, or you might get “WikiLeaked”…

Whew. Exciting six months, right, kids? Nope, that was just the last three weeks. Crazy.