re:Invent was a bazaar and AWS is the Amazon of cloud

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko December 8, 2016
The breadth and volume of offerings at this year's re:Invent shows that, like its parent, AWS wants all your business - truly it's the Amazon of cloud IT

They say that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, however the old idiom doesn't just apply to children, but also to the offspring of technology companies. This year's edition of AWS re:Invent has grown in attendance (nearly 32,000) and significance – to the point that it sucks the oxygen out of the tech news cycle for a week, leaving all other announcements lost in the ether. Although other commitments kept me from attending this year, I followed from afar and it felt like drinking from a fire hose. I can only imagine the mental (and physical) overload for those making the trek to Las Vegas.

Indeed, re:Invent is what you get when you cross a fiercely innovative tech company with a marketing Titan that knows that a single explosion gains far more attention than a thousand firecrackers. For AWS, re:Invent represents the eruption of months of pent-up product and service development into a paroxysm of promotion. Indeed, the volume and ecumenical nature of re:Invent announcements poses a challenge to analysts seeking to find big picture motifs.

I typically exit tech events thinking thematically, trying to identify common threads among the myriad keynotes, panel sessions and product releases. However some are so diverse that it's easy to lose the forest for the trees. Re:invent 2016 certainly fits this mold.

A look at the re:Invent announcement summary shows over 50 new or updated services and features spread across 18 categories, leaving me believing that the themes of re:Invent are less aligned around particular technologies than around the business strategy itself. By essentially throwing dozens of new products against the wall to see what sticks, AWS is showing itself to be the Amazon of cloud services – a grand bazaar where IT and developers can find anything they might want in an easily-procured and consumed package, one that's delivered reliably, cheaply (or at least competitively) and consistently.

Filling out the service catalog

As AWS fills out its one-stop shop portfolio, several departments entered re:Invent with some bare shelves, notably management and migration services for enterprise IT, the continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) toolchain, serverless functions, and machine learning and AI. At re:Invent, AWS significantly bolstered its wares in each, along with the usual updates and extensions to its existing line of IaaS services.

Despite being the largest cloud service, AWS is particularly vulnerable in the enterprise market as IT migrates to shared infrastructure or replaces legacy workloads with cloud native applications, since both Microsoft and VMware dominate the enterprise data center. AWS made a bold move to snare some of this business and thwart defections to competitors with the VMware partnership. As I put it after the announcement,

Amazon gets ready access to enterprises wanting to get out of the infrastructure operations business and that are amenable to using public cloud infrastructure to run critical systems. Once these organizations are operating on shared infrastructure, it’s easier both technically and conceptually to migrate applications to a native cloud design using standard AWS services, which is AWS’s end game.

Easy to enter, harder to leave

In my view, AWS is less like Hotel California and more like those one-way moving sidewalks in Las Vegas that shuttle pedestrians from the Strip into a casino, but not out. The process makes it very easy to enter, but harder to leave. At re:Invent, AWS further greased the skids for enterprise adopters with updates to the Snowball storage appliance, including HIPPA compliance and a new, higher-capacity, programmable model, the Edge. It also unveiled a super-sized data transfer product, Snowmobile, a combination of managed service and containerized data center that’s designed to move an organization's entire data footprint.

AWS also addressed enterprise management shortcomings with a customizable Personal Health Dashboard, automated batch processing, the ability to create and manage account groups and a central interface to AWS compliance and audit reports. Together with a sprinkling of price reductions, several new EC2 instance types and the release of the VMware on AWS service, it did more than enough to entice any enterprises teetering on the edge of making a move to cloud infrastructure.

Amazon's CFO, Brian Olsavsky spelled out the company's customer-centric philosophy on its last Q3 earnings call:

So if you step back and say why do people choose AWS, I'll give you the points I said last quarter. Basically what we hear are the functionality and pace of innovation is greater than our competition. We have added more new significant features and services this year already than we had all of last year when we added 722. We have a partner and customer ecosystem. You've read about the VMware deal that we signed this quarter. So we continue to extend with partners and build ecosystems that better can support customers.

He went on to defend the company's investments – in other words, spending that reduces current margins – as strategic to winning long-term business (emphasis added):

[We are] investing very pointedly and very wisely, we believe, in things that will enhance customer experience and create lasting businesses for us down the line. We've said we want things that customers will love, can grow to be large, will have strong financial returns and durable and can last for decades. So that's still our mission.

That mission is key to understanding the seeming hodgepodge coming out of re:Invent this year.

Developers not left out

AWS continued its evolution into a full-stack PaaS at re:Invent with several important services to facilitate agile, 12-factor development – including CodeBuild (a CI/CD pipeline), Glue (ETL and data conversion), Step Functions (visual n-tier or microservice workflow builder), X-Ray (visual distributed debugger and code tracing), Blox (container scheduler) and Pinpoint (mobile app telemetry and ad targeting). re:Invent also featured enhancements to the most exciting new development platform in years, function-as-a-service (FaaS) in the form of Lambda. AWS improved Lambda asynchronous message handling, added C# and .NET support, introduced Lambda for CDN edge servers and introduced a new IoT platform, Greengrass that embeds a Lambda engine.

diginomica's Jessica Twentyman already covered the AI announcements at re:Invent. Playing catch up to Google in productizing AI and ML, AWS introduced chatbot (Lex), speech (Polly) and image recognition (Rekognition) services along with a deep learning development framework (MXNet) to compete with Google's increasingly popular TensorFlow.

My take

re:Invent 2016 defies simple characterizations due to the volume and breadth of product announcements. However the overarching theme is that, like the mothership Amazon, AWS wants all your IT and application business and is rapidly building out a cloud platform that can accommodate any clientele, whether the largest multinationals migrating legacy applications and data or the smallest startups building cloud-native products. re:Invent showed an AWS that is exploiting its size, sophistication and global reach to broadly deliver capabilities that were unthinkable to anyone with less than an 8-figure IT budget, yet now can be consumed in bite-sized chunks as needed.

The following from a friend quoting an email he received from one of his software engineers illustrates the overwhelming and irresistible advantage of AWS and other cloud services:

We are working on a task which requires two additional staging servers. Currently we have only one. I have initiated two more Amazon m4.large servers for 10 hours. Cost is $2.40.

A job that wouldn't have gotten done or would have been delayed waiting for thousands of dollars in equipment to be ordered and installed can now be accomplished in minutes for a pittance. At re:Invent, AWS showed that it is applying the same cloud economics to every IT problem, not just servers, and is turning into the one-stop online shop for all IT needs. It's truly the Amazon of clouds.

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