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AWS' container roadmap reveal helps customers plan ahead

AWS has been fairly secretive about its technology roadmaps, and drops news without warning on its corporate blog or in the flood of news at its annual re:Invent conference.

To be sure, AWS huddles with customers behind the scenes to get their feedback and determine which directions to head next. But anyone who trawls the AWS website in search of a tidy PowerPoint deck that outlines the future of a service important to their business is in for a long and fruitless journey.

Suddenly, however, last week the cloud vendor ever so slightly shifted its approach, when it quietly posted an “experimental” roadmap for AWS’ container strategy on GitHub.

“Knowing about our upcoming products and priorities helps our customers plan,” the company said. “This repository contains information about what we are working on and allows all AWS customers to give direct feedback.”

The AWS container roadmap is split into three categories: “We’re Working On it,” “Coming Soon” and “Just Shipped.” There are no major revelations in any of them; many entries relate to new regions for EKS, AWS’ managed Kubernetes service, while others are on minor to middling feature updates. Nonetheless, it provides a lot more specifics than AWS has been known to let into the wild.

That’s not to say AWS hasn’t hedged its bets. For one thing, the roadmap lists no delivery dates, because “job zero is security and operational stability,” according to AWS. The company did allow that “coming soon” means “a couple of months out, give or take.”

The roadmaps include information on the majority of development for various AWS container-based services — Elastic Container Service, Fargate, EKS and other projects — but the company said it still plans to reveal other technologies without notice, to “surprise and delight our customers.”

Roadmaps are undoubtedly a boon to customers, but they can be a thorny proposition for vendors because they’re officially and publicly on the hook to deliver. To AWS’ credit, many services it unveils are generally available at that time, or in preview. Vaporware hasn’t been an appreciable part of its modus operandi, although some attendees at this year’s re:Invent grumbled at a few rather vague product announcements.

Vendors that provide many roadmaps tend to lard them up with boilerplate exhortations that plans can change. This is particularly true for publicly traded companies, which may consider roadmap details “forward-looking statements,” a phrase that carries legal and financial weight.

Still, roadmaps are more than just a useful tool for customers. Product organizations like them too when constructed in a certain way, judging from discussions on Roadmap.com, a community site for product managers. Roadmaps should come in a number of flavors, according to several Roadmap.com contributors. For example, a development team-facing roadmap should provide realistic estimates of what can get built if no nasty technical surprises crop up. A roadmap geared for sales teams ought to list top features expected in the next couple of quarters.

A third type of roadmap is higher-level and aimed at customers, media and analysts, Roadmap.com users said. It provides a company’s big-picture plans over the next year or two, but shies away from concrete details to give room for tweaks to the strategy.

AWS hasn’t done anything close to this, but again, it’s not as if they toil in a vacuum and shut out customer input—quite the contrary.

Yet someone with influence inside AWS clearly decided more transparency into roadmaps was desirable — even if for now the focus is on containers, where the market grows more competitive by the day. Don’t expect any state secret-level dirt on AWS’ container strategy through the roadmap, but customers with money to spend on existing or new container workloads will appreciate more clarity as they make plans. Now it’s time to wait and see whether AWS’ experimental effort becomes embedded in its culture.

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