AWS re:Invent Impressions

This year’s flagship conference for AWS – the re:Invent 2018 in Las Vegas – has just officially wrapped. Continuing the tradition, it has been bigger than ever – with more than 50 thousand attendees, over 2000 sessions, workshops, hackathons, certification courses, a huge expo area, and, of course, tons of entertainment programs. Kudos to the organizers for pulling off an event of this scale – I can only imagine the amount of effort that went into it.

I have to confess, however: maybe it’s just me getting older and grumpier, but at times I couldn’t stop thinking that this event is a bit too big for its own good. With the premises spanning no less than 7 resorts along the Las Vegas Boulevard, the simple task of getting to your next session becomes a time-consuming challenge. I have no doubt however that most of the attendees have enjoyed the event program immensely because application development is supposed to be fun – at least according to the developers themselves!

Apparently, this approach is deeply rooted in the AWS corporate culture as well – their core target audience is still “the builders” – people who already have the goals, skills and desire to create new cloud-native apps and services and the only thing they need are the necessary tools and building blocks. And that’s exactly what the company is striving to offer – the broadest choice of tools and technologies at the most competitive prices.

Looking at the business stats, it’s obvious that the company remains a quite distant leader when it comes to Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) – having such a huge scale advantage over other competitors, the company can still outpace them for years even if its relative growth slows down. Although there have been discussions in the past whether AWS has a substantial Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offering, they can be easily dismissed now – in a sense, “traditional PaaS” is no longer that relevant, giving way to modern technology stacks like serverless and containers. Both are strategic for AWS, and, with the latest announcements about expanding the footprint of the Lambda platform, one can say that the competition in the “next-gen PaaS” field would be even tougher.

Perhaps the only part of the cloud playing field where AWS continues to be notoriously absent is Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and more specifically enterprise application suites. The company’s own rare forays into this field are unimpressive at best, and the general strategy seems to be “leave it to the partners and let them run their services on AWS infrastructure”. In a way, this reflects the approach Microsoft has been following for decades with Windows. Whether this approach is sustainable in the long term or whether cloud service providers should rather look at Apple as their inspiration – that’s a topic that can be debated for hours… In my opinion, this situation leaves a substantial opening in the cloud market for competitors to catch up and overtake the current leader eventually.

The window of opportunity is already shrinking, however, as AWS is aiming at expanding into new markets and doing just about anything technology-related better (or at least bigger and cheaper) than their competitors, as the astonishing number of new product and service announcements during the event shows. They span from the low-level infrastructure improvements (faster hardware, better elasticity, further cost reductions) to catching up with competitors on things like managed Blockchain to all-new almost science fiction-looking stuff like design of robots and satellite management.

However, to me as an analyst, the most important change in the company’s strategy has been their somewhat belated realization that not all their users are “passionate builders”. And even those who are, are not necessarily considering the wide choice of available tools a blessing. Instead, many are looking at the cloud as a means to solve their business problems and the first thing they need is guidance. And then security and compliance. Services like AWS Well-Architected Tool, AWS Control Tower and AWS Security Hub are the first step in the right direction.

Still, the star topic of the whole event was undoubtedly AI/ML. With a massive number of new announcements, AWS clearly indicates that its goal is to make machine learning accessible not just for hardcore experts and data scientists, but to everyone, no ML expertise required. With their own machine learning inference chips along with the most powerful hardware to run model training and a number of significant optimizations in frameworks running on them, AWS promises to become the platform for the most cutting-edge ML applications. However, on the other end, the ability to package machine learning models and offer them on the AWS Marketplace almost as commodity products makes these applications accessible to a much broader audience – another step towards “AI-as-a-Service”.

Another major announcement is the company’s answer to their competitors’ hybrid cloud developments – AWS Outposts. Here, the company’s approach is radically different from offerings like Microsoft’s Azure Stack or Oracle Cloud at Customer, AWS has decided not to try and package their whole public cloud “in a box” for on-premises applications. Instead, only the key services like storage and compute instances (the ones that really have to remain on-premises because of compliance or latency considerations, for example) are brought to your data center, but the whole control plane remains in the cloud and these local services will appear as a seamless extension of the customer’s existing virtual private cloud in their region of choice. The idea is that customers will be able to launch additional services on top of this basic foundation locally - for example, for databases, machine learning or container management. To manage Outposts, AWS offers two choices of a control plane: either through the company’s native management console or through VMware Cloud management tools and APIs.

Of course, this approach won’t be able to address certain use cases like occasionally-connected remote locations (on ships, for example), but for a large number of customers, AWS Outposts promises significantly reduced complexity and better manageability of their hybrid solutions. Unfortunately, not many technical details have been revealed yet, so I’m looking forward to further updates.

There was a number of announcements regarding AWS’s database portfolio, meaning that customers now have an even bigger number of available database engines to choose from. Here, however, I’m not necessarily buying into the notion that more choice translates into more possibilities. Surely, managed MySQL, Memcached or any other open source database will be “good enough” for a vast number of use cases, but meeting the demands of large enterprises is a different story. Perhaps, a topic for an entirely separate blog post.

Oh, and although I absolutely recognize the value of a “cryptographically verifiable ledger with centralized trust” for many use cases which people currently are trying (and failing) to implement with Blockchains, I cannot but note that “Quantum Ledger Database” is a really odd choice of a name for one. What does it have to do with quantum computing anyway?

After databases, the expansion of the company’s serverless compute portfolio was the second biggest part of AWS CTO Werner Vogels’ keynote. Launched four years ago, AWS Lambda has proven to be immensely successful with developers as a concept, but the methods of integrating this radically different way of developing and running code in the cloud into traditional development workflows were not particularly easy. This year the company has announced multiple enhancements both to the Lambda engine itself – you can now use programming languages like C++, PHP or Cobol to write Lambda functions or even bring your own custom runtime – and to the developer toolkit around it including integrations with several popular integrated development environments.

Notably, the whole serverless computing platform has been re-engineered to run on top of AWS’s own lightweight virtualization technology called Firecracker, which ensures more efficient resource utilization and better tenant isolation that translates into better security for customers and even further potential for cost savings.

These were the announcements that have especially caught my attention during the event. I’m pretty sure that you’ll find other interesting things among all the re:Invent 2018 product announcements. Is more always better? You decide. But it sure is more fun!


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