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| Cloud Computing |

The Cult of Amazon: How a Bookseller Invented the Future of Computing


In most of corporate America, you write the press release when your creation is finished. But at
Amazon, you write it before youve even begun.
If you were pitching something to Jeff Bezos or other senior managers below Jeff, the first thing you
did was write a press release for it as if it were a product that you were putting out into the
world, says Chris Brown, who spent more than three years at the company and remembers joining
at least two pitch meetings with Bezos, the companys founder and CEO.
These Bezosian press releases are designed to focus pitches squarely on the needs of the companys
customers, and they illustrate a much broader force that drives the Amazon machine. Thats one of
the things that impressed me, Brown remembers. If someone came up with an interesting idea
if they said: Wow, I would find this useful the next follow-on question was: Are there customers
who would find this useful?
This is how Brown explains why Amazon of all companies created the Elastic Compute Cloud,
an internet service that has completely changed the face of computing since it debuted a little over
six years ago, providing instant access not to an online store or a search engine or an e-mail account,
but to a virtually unlimited collection of computing power. Brown was among the many who helped
gestate the idea, and he was part of the small team of engineers that built the service at an Amazon
satellite office in Cape Town, South Africa.
Yes, Amazon is the worlds largest online retailer. It made its name selling books and DVDs and so
many other physical goods. But somewhere along the way, as the company worked to build new
technologies that would make it easier to run its vast retail operation, Bezos and the rest of the
braintrust realized that if Amazon and its partners needed new technology, so did the rest of the
world. The result was the Elastic Compute Cloud and various other Amazon Web Services that would
make it easier for anyone to run their own operations whatever those operatons might be.
With EC2, you can use all that computing power to run just about any software application you like,
including a website such as Instagram or Pinterest, or a banking application that simulates credit risk,
or a research tool that analyzes the human genome. Rather than loading your software on physical
computer servers youve set up in a closet or a data center, you can load it onto virtual servers
youve set up in your web browser. And whenever you need more virtual servers, you can have
them.
The service debuted in August 2006, just after a complementary offering called S3, which let you
store vast amounts of computer data without setting up your own hardware. Six years later, these
and other Amazon Web Services run as much as 1 percent of the internet.
But more than that, these services have changed the way we think about computing. In the years
since the launch of EC2, the likes of Google and Microsoft and HP and Rackspace have launched
similar services, and there are countless other outfits offering to help you build your own EC2.
As the company holds its first conference dedicated to Amazon Web Services, this still seems like an
odd success story for an online retailer. I was shocked that they did it, and not someone else, says
David Patterson, a University of California, Berkeley, computer science professor who started using

Article: Wired, Nov 2012

| Michael Gleeson |

| Cloud Computing |

EC2 for various research projects in 2006 or 2007. And, unfortunately, the evolution of these
services remains rather murky even after conversions with Brown, several other ex-Amazon
employees, and Andy Jassy, who wrote the business plan for Amazon Web Services and continues to
serve as its CEO. The story of EC2 is like Rashomon. Each player saw a different part of the story
and some may have reason to omit parts they did see.
But you can see Amazons corporate culture reflected in these seminal creations. And though some
say Amazon will struggle to fend off competition from Google and Microsoft, the company is
remarkably well suited to playing the cloud game.
Part of the genius of EC2 is that it gave software developers virtual machines that behaved a lot like
the physical machines they were familiar with. They could run the same sort of software they had
always used. Amazon didnt try to tell the customer what he wanted.
Google and Microsoft released beta versions of similar cloud services in 2008 Google App Engine
and Windows Azure but these big-name competitors failed to completely grasp what made EC2
so successful. App Engine and Azure tried to make it easier to run software in the cloud, but in doing
so they restricted what developers were able to do. The learning curve was steeper, and the public
never really embraced them in the same way.
After leaving Amazon in 2007, Brown moved on to Microsoft, where he saw Azure develop first
hand, and even then, he felt the company was missing the point. I ranted at some of the architects
at Microsoft that they were starting at the wrong end, that they were constraining the sorts of
things you could do, he says.
I actually wrote them an e-mail that said: These are the five ways you will be compared to EC2 the
day that you launched, and they were all about having control over things so that you could build
and deploy stuff that you already knew, to get jobs done that you already knew. This year, in a kind
of tacit admission that Amazon had gotten it right, both Google and Microsoft unveiled services that
look a lot more like EC2.
David Patterson argues that Amazon didnt know what would catch on any more than Google or
Microsoft. They were all running a great experiment, he says. And to a certain extent, Brown bears
this out. We had no idea if it was even going to work, he remembers. As an infrastructure geek, I
found it to be an interesting experiment, and I thought that other infrastructure geeks would too,
and suddenly, it becomes this giant thing that everybody knows. I realized that it had changed the
world and I thought: Wow, this is not what I set out to do.
But however the company got here, Amazon is now well positioned to fend off the competition.
Jassy says that Amazon didnt necessarily plan it this way, but EC2 and the other Amazon Web
Services are businesses of low margins and high volume the kind of businesses that Amazon
knows better than anyone else trying to play the cloud game.
Amazon is very good at operating in a low-margin environment, and Jeff is very proud of this, says
Chris Pinkham, who oversaw the development of EC2 before leaving the company around the time it
launched. He feels that low margins promote customer loyalty and frankly inhibit
competition. I dont know what Amazons margins are right now, but there are some significant
forces on its side.

Article: Wired, Nov 2012

| Michael Gleeson |