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Amazon cloud measures up to enterprise at last

Carl Brooks, Senior Technology Writer

Almost since its inception, Amazon Web Services has been after the enterprise IT crowd, mainly because that's where the money is in IT.

Amazon is a long way from where it started, with a user base of open source nerds, technologists and the odd, off-the-wall startup.

Just ask Dell, Microsoft, Oracle or HP whether they prefer to sell to Joe Consumer, who's going to buy one computer or printer on margin prices, or to Enterprise Eddie, who's going to buy 100 computers and a $75,000 printer with a service contract to boot. 

But it's been a tough sell; despite the powerful lure of easy-on, hands-off, pay-by-the-penny computing, members of the genus grumpius adminius are typically not interested in having less control of their IT resources.

Instead IT admins are interested in compliance with regulations, controlling the chaos factor and being able to get management out of their hair. Putting the company servers "in the clouds" does not appeal to enterprises; in fact, it generally sounds like a poor idea right out of the gate. But Amazon's cloud has come a long way, and signs indicate that it may have arrived.

Of course, it's always going to be a mixed bag. Cloud computing infrastructure is simply off the table for many enterprises, no matter how enterprise-friendly it's become. Mike Rigsby, network administrator at Beaverton, Ore.-based Vanguard EMS, says that owning their infrastructure is predicated on a pretty cut and dried business need. "We are an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider -- a contract circuit board manufacturer, in less confusing terms -- with military, aerospace, and medical customers," he said via email.

As such, data security and control are the top concerns for Rigsby, and there's so much gray area when it comes to what's regulated and what's not, it's easier on several fronts to do everything themselves. Rigsby said his infrastructure needs are not extensive and best practices in storage, backup and availability are easy to maintain. He's not a head-in-the-sander, though. Rigsby's shop has been using virtualization and management systems for 10 years and stays abreast of technology.

"We have server-backed applications, network-hosted drives for data storage, an email server, fault tolerant clusters, a backup solution," he said, all things touted as cost-effective to run in the cloud these days. Rigsby doesn't fault the AWS model, he just doesn't need it. However, that's a massive advance from the early days of AWS, which couldn't come close to that kind of basic, well-understood sophistication.

Discrete cloud meets unique enterprise needs
All of this has changed permanently. For instance, AWS just launched a discrete cloud environment specifically aimed at users like Rigsby, with complex regulatory needs. The GovCloud Region (U.S. only) is "designed to meet the unique regulatory requirements of the United States Government," and supports the International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) data standards. That's one example of how AWS has grown, to the point it can now segment its own service line to meet special needs.

But it has also changed access in fundamental ways that have led to novel uses for enterprise. Andrew Bartels, CTO of insurance brokerage PSA Insurance and Financial Services, said that AWS is a sterling, enterprise-grade infrastructure service. But it's not for running his line of business applications, it's more for disaster recovery (DR) planning.

"What I use AWS for is actually DR. The amount of money and time that's been put into creating multiple copies of our infrastructure just wasn't viable anymore," he said. Traditional DR planning and provisioning was expensive and broken, Bartels added; even after dropping many tens of thousands of dollars down a hole for DR hosting, he had close to no visibility into that infrastructure and no easy way to test it out or keep tabs on it.

Two factors went into Bartels' adoption of a cloud computing service. First was bandwidth. His Maryland offices upgraded from a T-1 connection to a 100 MB fiber link to his provider a while back. That gave him the opportunity to look realistically at availability and accessibility for cloud computing services. Bartels said that opened the door to cloud services. "It's just not viable to deploy production systems when those systems are pushed through a [3 MB] pipe," he said.

The second ice breaker came only this year, with the general availability of Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) on AWS and the ability to functionally recreate his network topology. Bartels said that allowed him to look at DR in a whole new way.

Bartels said he can recreate his entire network, server images, connections, IP addresses and all, in minutes, update as needed, and then spin them all down and store the images and configuration for pennies a month. He also uses the Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) for archive data and backups.

"When you talk about a disruptor, I can't think of anything more disruptive than S3. We were literally spending tens of thousands of dollars on proprietary backup," he said.

Bartels said he doesn't run day-to-day infrastructure at AWS because he's already got more than adequate server resources on-premises and the cost and benefit for a migration isn't there. However, he doesn't see any functional barrier to doing so in the future, especially since VPC supports more configurations after an August update. "I would love to move my entire infrastructure to Amazon cloud but it doesn't make financial sense given that I don't have a scalability need," he said.

The advent of the AWS Virtual Private Cloud in 2009 weakened any resistance to using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) many that IT professionals held; they went from categorically opposed to mildly interested in experimenting. Earlier this year, Amazon announced the availability of standard virtual private networking (VPN) features on the VPC, like being able to assign subnets, IP addresses and control routing behavior -- long-standing practice for any hosting provider or colocation facility, but not trivial for AWS' cloud environment. Amazon's ability to support common networking gear still limits this, according to Bartels.

"Amazon until recently required you to do you VPN with BGP [border gateway protocol] and they didn't allow you to run multiple tunnels. That was very scary to people," Bartels said. "I think what they did was secretly pick two vendors, Cisco or Juniper, and said we'll support these two."

However, in early August, AWS announced availability for new VPC features and identity and access management tools that did away with a lot of those objections. Now, with the exception of dedicated, exclusive hardware for individual users, AWS has caught up to traditional hosting providers and secure VPN connections. 

AWS secures its footing with enterprise IT

It's brought along the benefits of cloud computing to match those enterprise requirements, and experts say that's why AWS has both fundamentally altered the IT landscape, and finally gained the traction it needs in the enterprise market.

"Our discussions with clients show a variety of production applications running on AWS," said James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester Research, via email. Staten said the real-life use cases for the enterprise ran through a range of applications suitable for a distributed, massively available, essentially limitless infrastructure -- mobile apps, actuarial number crunching, HR and Software as a Service applications, high-performance computing and others. He said the vast majority of enterprises using AWS were using it for new applications, not converting or migrating legacy applications, which was just common sense.

Staten said the adoption curve for Amazon's cloud hadn't started in the engine room -- it started with enterprise developers using it on the side, or asking for it. And unlike other kinds of technology upgrades, it had a new kind of value for end users that IT operations folks didn't really appreciate at first.

"The issue really is more whether enterprises are finally ready for cloud computing platforms... The value is different, the service is different and, if this value is of appeal to the enterprise, then enterprises have to adapt to take advantage."

I would love to move my entire infrastructure to Amazon cloud but it doesn't make financial sense given that I don't have a scalability need.

Andrew Bartels, CTO, PSA Insurance and Financial Services

For its part, Amazon said it is meeting customers in the middle. It's proud that the essential proposition of cloud computing has borne out -- if you make it easy enough and the price is right, users want to let someone else do all the dirty work and just focus on applications and data. "Today AWS has hundreds of thousands of customers around the world like Bankinter (one of Spain's largest banks), the French National Railway Corporation, PagesJaunes (Yellow Pages of France), 20th Century Fox and InterContinental Hotel Groups," the company said in a statement. 

Fueling the cloud computing spark
Amazon is a long way from where it started, with a user base of open source nerds, technologists and the odd, off-the-wall startup or Web shop that thought doing business "in the clouds" sounded like fun. These days, a startup that buys physical IT infrastructure rather than use a cloud service is scarcer than hen's teeth. In three years, it's gone from an interesting curiosity: a hybrid of hyper-automated grid computing, mainframe memories and online shopping to a global platform and a central pillar of the Internet world.

More than a third of the world's Web traffic originates, passes through or touches a virtual server running in EC2 today. Amazon's storage arrays hold half a trillion objects. Online businesses worth billions of dollars, like Netflix and game house Zynga, and even Amazon.com itself, worth $30 billion in revenue last year, runs entirely on AWS now. Ironically, Zynga built it's fortune on AWS and then built its own AWS-style data centers to complement its use of EC2.

Every major IT vendor and what seems like 90% of the minor ones -- be it hardware, software or service providers -- have launched a cloud computing-based product line (with varying degrees of actual cloud vs. outright BS), thanks to Amazon proving that it's an outstanding way to make money off hardware.

It's been uphill a lot of the way to get to the enterprise. Amazon.com, an online retailer, simply did not understand what IT professionals wanted from a technology vendor. There were support woes, as in AWS offered no support; communications woes, like eight-hour outages without a statement from anyone; and growing pains. But the basic economic calculus of cloud computing has held out; technical innovations have finally brought a wild little idea to fruition, and the IT world has begun to turn to meet it.

Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.