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AWS, partners' balancing act weighs on users, too

AWS partners are a critical part of the growing ecosystem, but the choice between third-party services and the waiting game for native tooling can create problems for users.

There's a constant balancing act between Amazon and its AWS partners over how best to fill the gaps in its cloud platform -- and that creates a set of dilemmas for customers, too.

Amazon has put considerable effort in recent years into expanding its ecosystem, with more than 2,400 AWS partners in technology and consulting. At the same time, it's constantly churning out improvements to its cloud platform, adding hundreds of upgrades and new services every year. Those parallel efforts can create a strain as both sides try to fill the gaps. For customers, the uncertainty around the ever-changing ecosystem can mean tough decisions for their own environment.

Amazon releases the minimal viable product and iterates from there to add more features, so the challenge often becomes deciding to wait for those additions or go third-party, said Theodore Kim, vice president of technical operations and security at Jobvite Inc., a recruiting software company in San Mateo, Calif. Kim used the example of Web Application Firewall from Amazon which he said has a great price point, but Jobvite is holding out for an expected version that supports Elastic Load Balancing (ELB).

Jobvite has its SOC II review soon, so the company is in a trial with Alert Logic if Amazon falls through. If ELB support isn't available by the end of May, Jobvite will go with the third-party tool -- it needs something in place for the audit, despite the preference for native tooling when all things are equal.

"It's always a dilemma that I face," Kim said.

Elastic File Storage, still in beta, is another example where the company turned to a third party, in this case, Zadara Storage, as it's uncertain if the new storage service will be worth the switch.

"We've been waiting and waiting and wondering if it will ever go [to general availability]," Kim said. "We couldn't wait any more, so we had to do something."

GREE, a San Francisco-based gaming company, uses Aviatrix Systems to deploy trans-regional clusters of peered Virtual Private Clouds in AWS. The decision came down to a build vs. buy scenario, explained David Pippenger, senior operations engineer. While Aviatrix could theoretically be "squished like a bug" if Amazon wanted to offer a similar service, GREE chose Aviatrix because it was able to essentially replace its networking engineer through the third-party vendor.

"It's worked out really well for us to lay down this substrate and get moving," Pippenger said. "We've got games to get out and we don't have to be dealing with the networking stuff."

Cloud users go through phases where they start with the basics, such as Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances, but it becomes a slippery slope from there, Pippenger said. Third-party tools can be a great help, but the first choice is to go with native tooling if it's available.

"We don't have any illusions," Pippenger said. "It's all-in on Amazon for us and all the goodies."

GREE has moved heavily into containers and considered using Kubernetes or Rancher to run them on top of AWS, but ultimately opted to go with EC2 Container Service because it was easier to align with the infrastructure.

In some cases, even if Amazon began offering a comparable service it wouldn't be painless. GREE uses other third-party tools for logging, monitoring and application performance management, and there is a degree of vendor lock-in involved due to the pain that would come with any switch, Pippenger said.

When you first start out, you're the little fish in a very big sea with them, so you need to learn the parameters by which you communicate.
Carolyn Catonsenior director, RELX Group

It's a tough boundary for Amazon to manage because it's so focused on its community of AWS partners, said Robert Stroud, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. As baseline services increase for AWS, the sophistication of partner services must do the same.

"Amazon can't necessarily overcome the whole market and market segments just by themselves, so they have to play well with the partner community; that's an absolute fact," Stroud said.

For users, these decisions aren't simple and made on a case-by-case basis, Kim said. A lot of customers will say the basic services are sufficient, but, in other cases, the third-party tool is worth the extra cost because the features are so rich.

"[AWS partners] have to innovate; they have to move the needle to get as much distance as possible with their product from whatever AWS launches," Kim said.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Communication is critical

RELX Group, a multinational information and analytics company based in London, was finishing an internal logging tool when it learned about similar capabilities becoming available via AWS CloudWatch, said Carolyn Caton, senior director of global agile engineering, infrastructure and cloud for RELX Group.

Sometimes when that happens, the work is counterproductive, but groups have to make decisions based on where they are in their lifecycle and adoption needs and the associated costs, Caton said. Sometimes that means building it yourself; other times, it means stepping back.

"I'm more focused on how I add to the things they're already doing to make it a better service for my end user," Caton said. "I don't want to try to reinvent the wheel, because they've put more development effort into it."

Some services likely won't be usurped by Amazon and will likely remain the purview of its partners. RELX, for example, has progressively increased its use of networking partner Level 3 Communications. It started with the use of a virtual private network and the partnership has advanced to the point where RELX relies on a 10 GB DWDM interconnect for high availability across two regions and intercontinental connectivity.

But when it comes to tools for building services in AWS, it's important to keep an open dialogue with Amazon to get a sense for what's coming, Caton said.

"When you first start out, you're the little fish in a very big sea with them, so you need to learn the parameters by which you communicate," Caton said.

Trevor Jones is a news writer with TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization media group. Contact him at [email protected].

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