If businesses complain over the coming months that no one gave them any clues as to how they might avoid post-pandemic stagnation, it will be fair to point out that few IT vendor conferences have failed to chime in on that topic.
Amazon’s AWS operation was no exception at the AWS Summit Online event. Doling a goodly helping of its proclaimed soup-to-nuts cloud services capabilities. To make this point, Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels used his keynote presentation to offer up examples of how companies, big and small, have utilized AWS services to get new business ideas out into the marketplace, both quickly and at a competitive cost.
He played up the latter point, arguing that the expense of using AWS technical support operations to get started can then be absorbed in the on-going running costs, but can be an initially attractive zero.
He stressed an old adage, namely that anything built needs firm foundations if it is to stand up and work, adding that in the current situation this is an even more important than ever as circumstances dictate that solutions will need to be built faster than ever before, and may well need to change soon after being built – or even during the build process:
Whether you are building net new workloads or migrating existing workloads, it is critical that you are architecting properly from the beginning.
Part of this is learning how to cope with, and design for, scalability, the rapid fluctuations in workloads both up and down. This is particularly the case with any workload targeting the consumer market, where the right mention in the right social media can lead to user numbers in the millions in just a few weeks.
This what happened to a team of five Junior engineering students at the Politecnico di Milano, who formed an Italian non-profit business, Filaindiana.it, in just a few days. They noticed that the pandemic had made shopping in Italy a real chor,e often involving waiting in queues for two hours or more to get in a supermarket. They also noticed that other supermarkets had, at the same time, no queues:
They came up with the idea to crowdsource the estimated waiting times at supermarkets in a user’s area so that shoppers could identify the most efficient shopping location. And that was it - just an idea. So they took this opportunity to learn how to build micro-services using the serverless framework and Python functions in AWS’s Lambda services, said Vogels:
By focusing on the API documentation and interfaces first, they were able to work independently to complete the first version of their app in less than 30 hours. A local news outlet wrote about the app and within the first three days they had over 500,000 users, and more than a million users in a week.
The Italians were able to scale that fast by using API gateways for their endpoints and geo-hashing queries within Dynamo dB, while optimizing the cost. The target now is to expand the service to other countries and other languages.
Vogels has worked to pull together the services AWS has developed over the years into what it positions as the Well-Architected Framework, the purpose of which is to provide services capable of building, deploying and operating virtually anything, at any scale, on AWS. It is his assertion that, with home working shaping up to be a key part of the cliched new normal, the ability to scale is now one of the crucial capabilities for every cloud service:
Remember, for us to be successful, our customers have to be successful. So we make things like our Well-Architected Framework and the Amazon Builders Library completely free for our customers. And in the coming months, I think it's important that customers use this time to go back to fundamentals. Maybe it's time to go in and optimize the system, tasks you never had time to get to as an individual. This can be the opportunity to go out and learn some new skills, like for example, machine learning.
Vogels took the opportunity to show a video about Untold Studios as an example of how a customer set out to be as productive as possible. The company’s Head of Technology, Samuel Reid, set out the new approach it has taken to the delivery of content creation in the cloud, claiming to be the first to be operating completely in the public cloud using AWS. This includes data-heavy tasks such as rendering and storage, so no part of the process is located on some other service. According to Reid, this makes operational decision-making a great deal easier, and raises the business agility level significantly:
We get a big job tomorrow, I can say, ‘Ok, well, it's time to scale the storage, so we just add more nodes to our file storage cluster. And away we go. The speed at which we can scale is just phenomenal.
Working with a third party, the company built a test lab and then replicated on AWS, working with the AWS support network and support team.
Making fast starts
This practice of starting out with every aspect of the business in the cloud is, inevitably in Vogels’ view, the next logical step. He also pitches it as the only practical way to take new business developments from idea to operation with the minimum of investment in time and resources. This applies not only to start up companies, but start-up divisions or operations within established businesses. That can be a useful lead into the more substantial task of migrating legacy applications and/or business processes off the traditional on premise environment.
He pointed to Swedish healthcare company KRY, which has created a secure, scalable platform on which healthcare professionals can provide appointments with their patients. Called Care Connect, it is available at no charge to any practising doctor or healthcare professional. It is also already available in France and the UK, where it operates under the brand name Livi Connect. It meets the growing demand for online appointments, particularly in the current crisis, allowing doctors to continue onsultations with patients over video if required.
The platform runs on top of AWS using a range of services, such as FarGate, and CloudFront which is used to run the content delivery network and the low latency video between the doctor and the patient. Vogels explained:
It is designed to more closely replicate the in-office experience of seeing a healthcare specialist. By using Amazon ECS on FarGate and Aurora MySQL, Care Connect is able to automatically scale to meet the demands of their rapid growing user base. This scaling allows medical professionals to increase the number of patients while still being able to safely provide consultations. What is even more Impressive is that the KRY team was able to launch the platform in just a week and a half.
The Care Connect platform is currently available in 10 languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and Polish, and KRY plans to roll it out worldwide.
Vogels went on to cite a report by Pew Research that demonstrated one of the ironies of our modern, often hyper-connected world, namely that 28% of Americans don’t know any of their neighbors by name. This, he said, was one of the key drivers behind another start up in the form of Nextdoor, a hub service that provides a platform on which neighborhoods can build their own local network for help, support and community:
Nextdoor’s purpose is to cultivate a kind of world where everyone has a neighbourhood to rely on. Today, neighbors from 11 countries use Nextdoor to do things like fix a broken window or even connect with emergency services in a natural disaster. This is especially true now and the unprecedented times we live in.
According to Vogels, the service’s traffic has grown significantly as people rediscover the possibility of refuge in their neighborhood connections. The company has scaled its platform globally to support an 80% increase in daily active users just in recent months, while user engagement has spiked too as:
Conversations about supporting local businesses have grown 17 times the normal amount and posts from public agencies have tripled.
The company is also adding new features, such as Nextdoor Groups, a new globally-available feature for organizing local health groups, and Help Map, where locals can mark themselves as someone who can pitch in for their neighbors in need. The website also has played a part in bringing people closer together during the pandemic. Teddy Bear Hunts that have been popular for children during the lockdown, where neighbours have placed teddy bears in their windows to make walks feel like treasure hunts, owe their existence to community groups using Nextdoor as the organizational platform.
Vogels was also keen to emphasize he quid pro quo that follows from an AWS relationship. For example, Nextdoor is now using over 30 AWS services, including ElastiCache to improve application response times, in order to provide its platform
AWS plays a critical role in supporting next door and these efforts. Since its launch next door has been native on AWS using more than 30 AWS services. Now to support their rapid growth and traffic, they're using Amazon ElastiCache to improve application response times, and Aurora to run the high throughput user content database.
Hopefully there may be the odd gem or two of knowledge, insight or idea here for CIOs and their teams to make use of in their efforts to come out of the pandemic and get businesse motoring again. One such insight for all businesses is that while getting existing lines of business back up and running is obviously important, spare more than a passing thought for where your next opportunity may lie, if only because the ‘new normal’ isn’t going to be the same as the old one. So be ready to change and change fast. The other obvious learning is that the cloud is going to your best, and quite probably only, option worth taking. (In that context, let me tactfully add, other cloud services providers are available.)