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FAQ: Amazon cloud offerings provide value, variety -- and complexity

Associate editor Caroline de Lacvivier answers frequently asked questions about Amazon cloud offerings available from Amazon Web Services.

Low costs and a wide range of offerings have propelled Amazon Web Services to the top of the highly competitive Infrastructure as a Service marketplace. But with that variety comes complexity.

For that reason, it's important to understand not only the advantages of Amazon cloud offerings, but the potential challenges and alternatives as well.

Launched in 2006, AWS is now a titan in the cloud-provider marketplace, thanks largely to its competitive pricing and growing range of services.

Below are answers to frequently asked questions about both the benefits and the potential pitfalls and possible competitors of Amazon cloud offerings.

What is Amazon Web Services (AWS)?

Essentially, AWS is Amazon's cloud-computing platform, providing services such as computing power, databases, messaging and storage. Launched in 2006, AWS is now a titan in the cloud-provider marketplace, thanks largely to its competitive pricing and growing range of services.

What are some of the best-known Amazon cloud offerings?

AWS is probably best known for its more established offerings such as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) and Amazon Dynamo Database (Dynamo DB).

Amazon EC2 allows business subscribers to run application programs in the AWS cloud. As its name implies, this computing environment can stretch to be an almost limitless amount of virtual machines. Amazon S3 is a Web-based service for online backup and archiving of data and application programs.

As a fully-managed NoSQL database service, DynamoDB stores and retrieves limitless amounts of data and serves request traffic at any level. This service is known for its low latencies and scalability

What are some newer Amazon cloud offerings?

Several new offerings were announced at the 2013 AWS re:Invent conference. The one grabbing the most attention was Amazon WorkSpaces, a cloud virtual desktop infrastructure service or, as it is more commonly known, Desktop as a Service. This fully managed offering provisions all cloud-based desktops so that applications, intranet resources and documents can be accessed from any device.

Amazon AppStream, another new service, is designed to let developers build complex applications that users can stream from the cloud. Finally, Amazon Kinesis offers real-time processing for big data. (At this writing, only Amazon Kinesis has been launched; the other two new services remain available only in "limited preview" format.)

Are there any lesser-known Amazon cloud offerings that deserve more attention?

SearchCloudApplications.com contributor Chris Moyer has referred to auto-scaling as one of AWS's most underused functions. This power-saving service automatically adds or removes computing resources depending on usage. Moyer believes that, when used correctly, auto-scaling can be an especially powerful feature.

How does AWS pricing work?

In an article on AWS in the enterprise, SearchCloudApplications.com Executive Editor Jan Stafford said that AWS's competitive pricing had lowered the barrier to cloud adoption. The pricing model for Amazon cloud offerings is simple: You pay for the services you use, without a minimum fee. For example, Amazon AppStream collects a fee for every hour that a customer streams content. No one will insist the customer stream -- or pay for streaming -- for a minimum number of hours.

What potential pitfalls are associated with AWS?

Surprisingly, one possible drawback can be AWS's pay-as-you-go paradigm. This practice is great for customers who can predict their software loads. Those who underestimate their cloud computing needs, however, may find themselves facing mounting hourly rates.

Another drawback is actually in the sheer number and variety of Amazon cloud offerings. While this variety can lead to great customization, it can also complicate decision-making.

What are some alternatives to AWS?

One alternative to AWS is Microsoft's Azure, a collection of tools and building blocks to develop scalable applications. Some of Azure's features include data storage, service buses, location data and virtual computing machines.

Another competitor is Joyent, a cloud computing infrastructure and big-data analytics company. One capability that sets Joyent apart is its customized machines. These company-named "appliances" can outperform most servers, particularly at typical tasks such as Web page requests.

However, some companies would rather not rely on vendors, preferring instead to build their own custom virtual machines.

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