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Amazon's early efforts at cloud computing? Partly accidental

Former ‘Master of Disaster’ at Amazon Jesse Robbins has a couple of fun tidbits to share about the birth of Amazon EC2. He said the reason it succeeded as an idea in Amazon’s giant retail machine was partly due to his inter-territorial corporate grumpiness and partly due to homesickness–not exactly the masterstroke of carefully planned skunkworks genius it’s been made out to be by some.

Robbins said Chris Pinkham, creator of EC2 along with Chris Brown (and later joined by Wiljem Van Biljon recruited in South Africa)was itching to go back to South Africa right around the time Amazon started noodling around with the idea of selling virtual servers. At the time, Robbins was in charge of all of Amazon’s outward facing web properties and keeping them running.

“Chris really, really wanted to be back in South Africa,” said Robbins, and rather than lose the formidable talent behind Amazon’s then VP of engineering, Amazon brass cleared the project and off they went with a freedom to innovate that many might be jealous of.

“It might never have happened if they weren’t so far away from the mothership”, Amazon’s Seatlle headquarters, said Robbins.

Now half a world away, Christopher Brown, who joined Pinkham as a founding member, architect, and lead developer for EC2, set about finding resources to test his ideas on automation in a fully virtualized server environment. Robbins, who knew about the project, gave Brown the interdepartmental cold shoulder.

“I was horrified at the thought of the dirty, public Internet touching MY beautiful operations,” he said with all the relish of a born operator. Robbins had his hands on the reins of the worlds most successful online retail operation from soup to nuts and wasn’t about to let it be mucked up with long-distance experimentation.

To this day he gets a kick out of the apparently unquenchable (and totally untrue) rumour that EC2 came about because Amazon had spare capacity in its data centers, because his attitude at the time was, like every IT operations manager in a big organization, was that there is no such thing as spare capacity. It’s ALL good for something and NOBODY gets any of it if you can humanly prevent it. It’s‘mine, mine, mine’ as the duck said.

Brown, therefore, grumbled up his own data center (not that that was a stretch for him; Pinkham ran South Africa’s first ISP), set to work, and out popped the world’s first commercially successful cloud, running independently of Amazon’s regular IT. The rest is history (the cartoon in the link is “Ali Baba Bunny“(1957)).

UPDATE: A factual error and the omission of Christopher Brown as Chris Pinkham’s original counterpart in the move from the US to South Africa has been corrected. I regret the error and unintended omission.