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What is Amazon S3?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock)

Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, widely known as S3, is Amazon’s cloud storage platform. But the S3 platform isn’t your average cloud storage service. S3 holds up the entirety of Amazon’s massive cloud computing network along with a significant amount of the modern web—including itself, Netflix, Facebook, and more.

When Amazon first introduced S3 in 2006, it set a new standard for how data should be stored. This service doesn’t store data like the file system on your computer, which uses a system of data blocks stored in a hierarchy for organization. Instead, S3 stores data as independent objects, complete with metadata and an object identifier.

That might sound like a simple modification to file storage, but it has enormous practical implications. S3’s object storage system can work with nearly any platform, which makes it incredibly flexible for a wide variety of businesses. Data can be stored in a wide variety of locations and retrieved more quickly than with a traditional file system. Perhaps most important for mission-critical data, Amazon promises a 99.999999999 percent durability rate. That means that data on S3 is virtually guaranteed to remain intact and available when it is needed.

Thanks to those features, S3 has been adopted by almost every industry and is used to some extent by a laundry list of major companies. Facebook and Twitter each rely on S3 to store user data while keeping it accessible enough for network analyses. Healthcare companies like Illumina, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Celgene trust Amazon S3 to keep patient data secure while enabling them to analyze health outcomes. Even auto companies use S3, since it is flexible enough to track everything from consumer data to manufacturing data.

In fact, Amazon S3 undergirds a significant amount of the modern Internet. A surprising number of the cloud services you use on your computer and the apps you run on your smartphone depend on S3 to function. As the Internet of Things takes off, it’s likely that the amount of data contained in S3 will continue to expand exponentially.

Benefits of Amazon S3 

Thanks to its dominance, Amazon S3 is to some extent synonymous with the cloud. So, there are a lot of parallels between the benefits of cloud computing and storage and S3 itself.

The most important benefit of this storage system is scalability. Anyone or any company can sign up for S3 and start using 5 GB of free storage. As the data produced by an app or cloud-hosted software grows, it’s trivial to simply purchase as much storage as you need from Amazon and continue growing your footprint within S3. Thanks to this storage solution, a startup can go from launching an app to having millions of users without ever having to pause growth to build a data center of its own.

That scalability and flexibility is aided by the fact that S3 is part of the broader ecosystem of Amazon Web Services. S3 can be combined with Amazon Glacier to store large quantities of data for the long term or with Amazon Cloudfront to distribute data securely to any connection point in the world. S3 also integrated with Amazon’s cloud computing capabilities, which enables big data analyses that would otherwise require huge amounts of capital investment. The combination of S3 and EC2, Amazon’s cloud computing service, is used not just by enterprise-scale corporations but also by university scientists and government agencies.

For many users, these features alone are enough to convince them that hosting data on the cloud with Amazon S3 is superior to purchasing a server or building a data center. But S3 also solves security headaches that normally arise from going it alone. By default, Amazon S3 buckets (storage locations within S3) are only accessible by the user that created them. S3 supports identity access management, which enables you to take full control over who can access what data and under what conditions. While it’s possible to set up a similar security management system on a self-hosted server, the process is significantly more costly and time intensive.

Given these benefits, it seems likely that S3 must cost more than a server or data center. But in most instances, that’s not true. Amazon S3 is incredibly inexpensive, especially since you only pay for the data storage that you’re actually using. Storing 1 GB of data can cost as little as $0.0125.

For individuals and businesses alike, Amazon S3 provides flexibility and affordability. As the pace of technological advancement speeds up even further, hosting data on the cloud enables you to stay one step ahead at all times.

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.