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A look back at Amazon's re:Invent conference 2013: A friendly giant with its head in the cloud

As the Amazon Web Services re:Invent 2013 conference begins to wind down, delegates nurse hangovers from the big party last night, and people make the most of the hands-on labs and certifications while they last, we look back at a conference that sought to redefine how people think about cloud computing - and partially succeeded.

It was a great few days for Amazon, who put on an impressive show for the nearly 9,000 delegates attending. The web giant worked hard to reinforce its community of loyal users, with the hands-on labs and official Amazon certifications giving people a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves, and also getting them started on services they didn't know they needed.

The carefully-generated atmosphere, the buzz surrounding the surprises and announcements, coupled with the soaring rhetoric of the keynotes - all these were aimed at the same goal: Making people excited by the cloud again.

"The cloud is probably the biggest technology shift in our lifetimes," Jassy told a packed-out hall in his first keynote. "It's just the way the world is headed."

It seems to have worked, at least partially. One delegate I talked to told me that there was an atmosphere of excitement surrounding the conference that he hadn't felt since conferences in the early days of the Internet, a new sense that "anything is possible."

Amazon has been working hard to promote this excitement, but perhaps more importantly, it's been playing the role of the friendly giant, the enormous tech company who still takes care of those under its wing.

During his keynote, Jassy asked "how many technology companies call you up and say 'excuse me, could you spend less money, please?'" Well, Amazon do, apparently - knocking $140 million off its profits, and the expense sheets of its customers. It sounds unlikely, sure, but if Amazon is able to cement its position as the tech giant that cares right now, at the advent of the cloud, the future dividends will presumably be much higher than this relative pocket change.

The fireside chats with chief technology officer and vice president Werner Vogel reinforced the idea of Amazon as the friendly giant, with Vogel treating successful AWS startups as though they were members of his company's extended family. He even presented a cake to David Cohen of Techstars, for the organisation's seventh birthday - a move that for some might have seemed a little over the top.

"I have no idea what I'm meant to do with this," said Cohen at the time.

However, the fireside chats were a great insight into a cross section of AWS users, and despite the occasional pageantry, were a genuinely fascinating event. At the end of each chat, Vogel asked every startup and enterprise leader "what can Amazon do to make your job easier?"

Some candid responses like "help with logistics and inventory", or " make it easier to migrate into VPC" gave the Amazon VP a chance to showcase his company's stance as a firm that listens to its customers' requests, no matter who they come from. The event had the feeling of a presidential candidate on the campaign trail, although thankfully no babies were kissed.

Tom Soderstrom of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and his first data scientist, Rob Witoff, also gave a fascinating series of talks on how NASA is implementing big data analytics using AWS' services, and even supervised a Hackathon challenge on the first day.

Among other things, the connection with the JPL allowed both Vogel and Jassy to use liberal pictures of the Mars Curiosity Rover in their keynotes, and added lustre to an already impressive resumé of AWS associates.

Netflix featured highly among those associates. Vogel at one point joked that the AWS could play a drinking game in which they took a shot every time the online streaming service was mentioned during his keynote. Neil hunt and Adrian Cockcroft of Netflix gave an interesting if slightly weird talk on Thursday, which despite some teleprompter problems, and clear nerves on Hunt's part, was carried off pretty well.

In a slightly bizarre moment, Jassy also claimed at least a modicum of the credit for Obama's 2008 victory, stating that the Obama for America campaign had used AWS, and that its technology had been decisive in the success of its campaign. A few leaps there, maybe, but that wasn't stopping Jassy, who apparently made a similar claim last year.

The event wasn't without potential saboteurs. IBM has been trashed over the last week for spending huge amounts on negative advertising in Las Vegas, blatantly aimed at re:Invent conference-goers. All this did was set up a laugh during Jassy's keynote, right before he announced Amazon WorkSpaces. The Amazon senior VP hinted at how "a lot of the old guard technology companies are getting a little antsy about how fast things are moving to AWS," before showing a picture of one of the IBM buses to all-round titillation.

Cloud company Rackspace also garnered criticism for its guerrilla tactics: It hired a number of women to stand outside the Venetian Hotel in short shorts and hand out invites to a Rackspace party going on across the road in the Treasure Island Hotel, with "free drinks and food."

Seriously? In the middle of a worldwide push to get more women involved in the tech world, is this really how Rackspace intends to gain its customers' respect?

Despite low tactics by competitors, the conference was also great for new releases. Amazon dropped two new services, AppStream and WorkSpaces, during Jassy's keynote on Wednesday, wading into the mobile app and desktop virtualisation arenas respectively. This is going to have a lot of competitors seriously worried, and as Koality CEO Jonathan Chu told me, is a clear play for the future.

Werner Vogel's keynote on Thursday saw Amazon announce that it's adding support for PostgreSQL to its Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS), to all-round applause, and a gasp of "Wow!" from a journalist sitting behind me.

What topped the keynote off, however, was the announcement of Kinesis, a service that promises to bring real-time data analysis to the average AWS user at breathtaking speed. The demonstration was severely impressive.

All in all, it's been a great conference. Amazon has pulled off a really great show, and managed to walk a very narrow line between creating Apple-style evangelical devotion among users, and also appearing to be a giant who listens to the little people. Amazon managed to make its AWS users feel valued, listened to, and - perhaps more importantly - excited about where the future of the cloud can lead the world.

I've heard a number of responses from conference-goers, and they have been, on the whole, almost exclusively positive. The sense on the ground is that most people are already looking forward to next year's re:Invent.

However, one delegate I spoke to wondered how sincere Amazon's commitment to its benevolent reputation really is, remembering bitterly the old Google motto "Don't be evil".

"How long is this going to last?" he asked.

Well, I guess we'll just have to wait and find out.

For minute-by-minute coverage of how the conference unfolded, check out our liveblog of the event.