The director of Amazon Web Services for UK and Ireland, Iain Gavin, to speak about the US retailers often misunderstood services-in-the-cloud arm as AWS UK turns seven.
Gavin comes with very strong background in enterprise software having worked at Rational Software for 16 years overseeing the transition to IBM back in 2003.
Amazon Web Services launched in 2006, just two years after an employee came up with the then-radical idea, that the company could make a profit from selling resources that were used to run Amazon web store. Today, AWS is an ever-growing, sprawling bunch of 36 products that adds on average a new service once every quarter.
Our conversation started with Gavin stating how things have changed dramatically with cloud computing now “kind of” getting in the mainstream with major organisations like News International, adopting a “cloud-conversed” strategy and planning to move thousands of servers to the cloud by 2015.
Another clue as to how widespread cloud adoption now is in the UK can be found in the massive interest generated by the AWS Summit which will be held at the Business Design Center in Angel, London on 23 April; the event was oversubscribed with all places filled in 48 hours. Not Google IO or WWDC yet, but still for something as arcane as Amazon Web Services, it is a pretty big deal. “I have a rockstar/comedian kind of problem at the moment” with too many people wanting to attend AWS Summit. He hinted that there will probably be another event of that scale in the UK to accommodate for those who have been left out.
Speaking about what’s coming up for the Amazon division, Gavin said that every project at AWS was driven and initiated by customers. “We want to work back from the customer […..] and provide them with choice and availability”. Arguably, Amazon, as a retailer, has passed some of its consumer-focused DNA to its subsidiary and RDS (Relational Database Service) is one recent example of how Amazon reacted to a clear demand from customers.
There were nearly 160 new services and features launched last year on Amazon and most of them, like DynamoDB, were customer driven. Gavin added “We don’t have a roadmap of things that will come in a year or 18 months. There will be different types of families of services, more capabilities around compute and storage.”
Gavin stated that S3, the popular storage service from Amazon, now stores more than 1.7 trillion objects and peaks at 835,000 requests per second. He also mentioned Storage Gateway and Glacier as services that have spawned from S3 to cater for slightly different needs in storage based on consumer feedback.
Another stat that Gavin shared with us is that the services are growing so much that every day Amazon adds the equivalent server capacity that it took to power Amazon.com (the retail website) in 2003 when it was a $5 billion business.
Getting these services off the ground can take anything from days to week. Features do not generally take long, Gavin said, while others like data warehousing analytics platform take way longer because of the complexities involved; “there is a lot of stuff you don’t want to get involved in, all the plumbing and all the provisioning” he said.
Speaking about the evolution in the mix of customers. The growth has come from the fact that cloud computing is now mainstream. Customers of all sizes are now using the platform from some of the world’s fastest growing start-ups such as Spotify, Pinterest and Shazam through to some of the world’s most established enterprises such as Shell, Unilever and News International.
AWS, Gavin continued, is perfect for trying something that fails. Enterprises tend to be more risk averse, which means that they take more time to change their habits. He declined to give more details regarding what kind business dominates the mix.
Another area that we covered was Big Data. Big Data and cloud computing are very closely connected and Amazon had customers running Big Data analysis applications on AWS for many years. One company in the UK that is using AWS for Big Data analysis to better serve their customers, and one Iain mentioned during the briefing, is Channel 4.
Channel 4 is currently using Big Data analytics on Amazon Web Services to better match television shows, and other content, to its audiences. It uses Amazon Elastic MapReduce to crunch vast amounts of data, taken from hundreds of millions of video views every year, to better understand user behaviour so the company can offer a more personalised experience to viewers as well as advertisers.
Research conducted by the broadcaster has also shown that people don’t watch TV in isolation, quite often they will have an iPad or a mobile phone in their hands while in front of their television sets (something that BBC highlighted in a recently-published research).
In the future, Channel 4 has plans to develop applications that people can use as they watch TV, such as play along games, to further enhance their viewing experience and will use Big Data analytics on AWS to match these applications to viewers.
We also questioned Gavin about where AWS, which is primarily a B2B company, sits within Amazon, which is first and foremost a B2C company. He quipped that AWS doesn’t have a legacy in the enterprise sector like many of its peers and rivals and Amazon (retail) is actually a customer of AWS (one of their biggest) as a separate entity. Two of the big differences is the “professional” go-to market and the fact that as a customer, you can actually see and talk to someone from AWS, be it a solutions architect or system engineers.
As to how the cloud computing market changed in the UK, the types of customers was the biggest change Gavin noticed; going from startups to publicly-listed companies. The other big change has to do with the fact that cloud computing has now gone mainstream (Ed: helped without any doubt by the sheer clout of AWS).
People are no longer skeptical about Cloud and what it can bring to the table as workloads are changing. Things that scale up and down quickly like social interactions. In addition, there’s a change in the kind of data and workloads that’s being handled, a more diverse mix means that GPU is now part of the compute portfolio at AWS.
As for AWS, AWS’s UK head added, “We provide SMBs with services that they could only dream of before due to associated capital investments or necessary skill set, things like Disaster Recovery, CRM, ERP which allow them to compete better”.
Going forward, Gavin expect more traditional companies, from vertical, niche markets, adopting cloud services in droves. People like financial services, construction, gas & energy sectors and other slower moving, conservative segments. Their pace is often slower than the rest of the industry because they are heavily regulated.
Intriguingly, the cost of running cloud is not mentioned as a primary adoption driver although it might be mentioned during an initial discussion. IDC carried out an analysis of the business value of AWS and found out that switching to it delivered an ROI of more than 600 per cent over five years.
However, companies primarily buy cloud because of the flexibility and agility it delivers. It allows you for example to try things with minimal risk and financial exposure; if it doesn’t work, just kill it. If it does work fantastically well, you can scale quickly without downtime and constraints. Mr Gavin agreed that “Cloud is cheaper but that is a by-product”.
Big data is another theme that we touched upon. AWS gets a lot of data and “brings it down” to a condensed size using Elastic Map Reduce (something Channel 4, Cancer Research and News International did) using compute and store clusters that can be easily “fired”.
When asked what is the main obstacle to the adoption of cloud computing, Gavin replied emplatically “Lack of information”. Companies sometimes just don’t know about Cloud computing and surrounding topics from different sources. There’s currently a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt in the market at the moment. He also pointed an accusatory finger to those operating a “low volume, high margin” business that they want to product and they “put stuff out there” and AWS has to “overcome” this.