This comprehensive guide about AWS covers the expansive cloud services offered by Amazon, common use cases and technical limitations, and what to know when adopting this technology.
The rise of cloud computing provides businesses the ability to quickly provision computing resources without the costly and laborious task of building data centers, and without the costs of running servers with underutilized capacity due to variable workloads.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the first large vendor of easily affordable cloud infrastructure and services, and remains the single largest player in the cloud computing market. For startups, this low barrier to entry has enabled the rise of popular photo sharing services such as imgur, while established companies like Netflix have transitioned their workloads to AWS to decrease the complexity of their deployment while reducing costs.
This guide to AWS is both an easily digestible introduction to Amazon's cloud ecosystem, as well as a "living" guide that will be updated periodically to keep IT leaders in the loop on new AWS services and ways in which they can be leveraged.
- What is AWS? AWS is a collection of various cloud computing services and applications offered by Amazon.com. The most popular of these services include Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3).
- Why does AWS matter? AWS has no upfront costs or appreciable time delay in resource provisioning—capacity is available on demand. With a usage-based billing formula, it is an economical alternative to on-premises servers.
- Who does AWS affect? AWS offers services relevant to any organization, large or small, with an internet presence or a need for private data storage and retrieval.
- When was AWS launched? The AWS platform launched in 2006, though new services and "regions" (data centers) have been added continually since launch.
- What services compete with AWS? Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform are two of the top competitors to AWS.
- How do I become an AWS engineer? Amazon has a formal certification available for AWS DevOps engineers, but the certification isn't necessary to perform the job. Regardless, interested professionals need to learn how to manage AWS instances, which involves many different skills.
- How do I get and use AWS? You can get started with AWS using the free tier, which allows limited free use for up to one year. For pricing at the US East region, S3 pricing starts at $0.023 per GB, while EC2 instances start at $0.0059 per hour.
What is AWS?
AWS is a platform consisting of a variety of cloud computing services offered by Amazon.com. Instead of building an in-house data center, or leasing general purpose servers from traditional data centers, the costs of resource provisioning on AWS reflect actual usage, not reserved capacity. The service in question is also a factor in billing—pricing varies based on the individual product and storage type.
For example, pricing for S3 is divided into three tiers. Presently, in the US-East region, the standard storage tier starts at $0.023 per GB per month for the first 50 terabytes, with discounts thereafter. Infrequent access storage starts at $0.0125 per GB, and Glacier storage, designed to host backups and data archives, starts at $0.004 per GB.
In addition to the aforementioned EC2 and S3 services, other services exist in the AWS portfolio. CloudFront, a content-delivery network (CDN), mirrors resources at "edge locations" to improve page loading time. Relational Database Service (RDS) is a scalable database server that supports MySQL/MariaDB, PostgreSQL, Oracle, and Microsoft SQL Server, as well as Amazon's own Aurora implementation of MySQL. Similarly, DynamoDB offers scalable NoSQL database support. Elastic Beanstalk allows users to quickly deploy and manage applications in the cloud from preconfigured container images.
AWS also offers specialized resources that are applicable to specific use cases. Video stored on S3 can be easily transcoded for mobile devices using Elastic Transcoder, and for any process not yet automatable simple tasks can be completed by remote workers in Mechanical Turk—though, this is more crowd computing than cloud computing. Amazon Connect is a cloud-based contact center service delivered through AWS, allowing businesses to scale to thousands of customer support agents.
At the 2016 AWS re:Invent conference, a substantial emphasis was placed on AI services, with the announcement of Amazon Rekognition, a deep-learning based image recognition system; Amazon Polly, a text-to-speech system that supports 25 languages, and differentiates for different dialects of English, Spanish, and Portuguese; as well as Amazon Lex, the speech recognition and natural language processing technology that powers the Alexa virtual assistant, used in the Amazon Echo speaker and Fire TV digital media player.
AWS has specialized services for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, with particular emphasis on enabling encrypted communication between devices, and transmitting information to the cloud. AWS Greengrass is a service that allows local compute, messaging, data caching, and synchronization.
In 2018, Amazon introduced their first blockchain offerings at the AWS re:Invent conference. Amazon Quantum Ledger Database (QLDB) is a fully-managed ledger database with a central trusted authority, and Amazon Managed Blockchain allows users to create and manage blockchain networks using Ethereum or HyperLedger. The company also announced AWS Outposts, a collaboration with VMware to bring AWS cloud services on-premises for hybrid cloud deployments.
Other new services introduced include Amazon Elastic Inference and AWS Inferentia for machine learning, FSx for native Windows file systems, Lake Formation for speeding up data lake building, Global Accelerator for increasing performance across regions, SiteWise for industrial data collection, RoboMaker dev service for building intelligent robotics apps, and AWS Ground Station for transmitting and processing data between satellites.
SEE: AWS RoboMaker: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
Amazon Web Services has also added non-Intel options for EC2 compute instances. First, AMD EPYC processors are available for M5 and T3 general purpose instances as well as R5 memory optimized instances, for 10 percent less than Intel Xeon-powered versions of those instances. Amazon announced custom Arm processors, called AWS Graviton, at re:Invent 2018. Graviton was developed internally at Amazon, and is based on 2015-era Cortex-A72 microarchitecture, though it has support for Arm Neoverse server extentions.
- AWS makes Device Defender generally available for IoT security (TechRepublic)
- Amazon AI misidentifies Congress as criminals, proves it's not ready for enterprise (TechRepublic)
- These 4 Amazon services account for 85% of AWS and Azure cloud spend (TechRepublic)
- AWS facial recognition tool for police highlights controversy of AI in certain markets (TechRepublic)
- AWS IoT Analytics helps users quickly grok device and sensor data in the cloud (TechRepublic)
- AWS makes Greengrass generally available (ZDNet)
- Video: Understanding AWS Greengrass, the new IoT software from Amazon (TechRepublic)
- Video: Breaking down Amazon's 3 newest AI services for AWS (TechRepublic)
Why does AWS matter?
AWS, like other cloud service providers, offers the ability to instantly provision computing resources on demand. Compared to the laborious task of planning and building on-site data center infrastructure, along with the requisite hardware upgrades, maintenance costs, server cooling requirements, electricity costs, and use of floorspace—particularly for offices in urban centers with associated real estate costs—the savings can add up very quickly.
The benefit of AWS extends beyond cost, however. Managed services of AWS reduce the administrative burden of IT, freeing them to work on new projects rather than spending time on general system upkeep. For example, in RDS, the administrative console can be used to automatically apply security updates to the underlying software stack, as well as manage backups, snapshots, deployments in multiple availability zones, and seamlessly replace an instance in the event of hardware failure.
Amazon has made AWS a leader in cloud-based machine learning. Since launching a long list of AI-based services at re:Invent in 2016 (mentioned above), Amazon has extended its offerings to make AWS competitive with Google's Cloud AI.
As the largest public cloud services provider, Amazon acts as a trendsetter for the industry. Their purchasing power and scale gives them the ability to influence the industry at large. As part of this, Amazon's development of Arm-powered AWS Graviton CPUs is likely to result in an increased focus in open source on optimizations for server applications to harness the full power of the Arm architecture in a way in which smaller vendors would not be able to affect.
- How AWS efficiencies are hurting cloud competitors (TechRepublic)
- These 4 Amazon services account for 85% of AWS and Azure cloud spend (TechRepublic)
- Rackspace CEO on AWS, OpenStack and the future of the cloud (ZDNet)
- AWS isn't the cheapskate's cloud, and Amazon doesn't care (TechRepublic)
- 5 architectural principles for building big data systems on AWS (TechRepublic)
- New AWS tools simplify cloud migration and expand support for MySQL alternative (TechRepublic)
Who does AWS affect?
Practically any organization that uses computers has a use case applicable to a service provided by AWS. Even for the most basic uses—such as using S3 Glacier for offsite backups—AWS is a compelling alternative to traditional solutions. While AWS started as a cloud-based replacement for simple storage and compute operations, it has expanded to cover practically every use case imaginable, with targeted services for databases, IoT development, business productivity, messaging, game development, virtual desktops, analytics, machine learning, and more.
SEE: Cloud computing policy template (Tech Pro Research)
Additionally, while established organizations likely have capital for traditional data center deployments, cash-strapped startups benefit from the absence of deployment costs and paying only for resources used, as opposed to paying for capacity provisioned, or being forced to pay for infrastructure hardware. Utilizing cloud service providers such as AWS also allows for scale as a company grows, as well as establishing cloud infrastructure early in its growth.
Of note, Amazon's largest brick-and-mortar competitor Walmart reportedly issued an ultimatum to suppliers and software vendors to cease using AWS for their businesses, at the risk of losing business with the big box retailer. While Walmart has contributed to the open source OpenStack platform, the company is not requiring its partners to use cloud services from a particular vendor.
Since issuing that ultimatum Walmart has begun using Microsoft Azure, but the company has said it isn't abandoning its OpenStack investments as of July 2018.
- Amazon offers developers too much choice in the cloud, and that's a good thing (TechRepublic)
- AWS remains focused on startup sector despite global reach (ZDNet)
- Genealogy company Ancestry migrates entire infrastructure to AWS (ZDNet)
- Photos: 15 high profile companies that run on top of Amazon Web Services (TechRepublic)
- AEC to host websites in the cloud with AWS (ZDNet)
- New templates let AWS users quickly and easily deploy blockchain networks (TechRepublic)
- Amazon finds its profit horse in AWS: Why it's so disruptive to IT's old guard (ZDNet)
- Job description: Cloud engineer (Tech Pro Research)
When was AWS launched?
AWS launched in 2006, though various services and geographic service regions have been added continually since launch. Presently, AWS services are available from 15 distinct "regions": US East (Ohio and Northern Virginia), US West (Oregon and Northern California), Canada, (Montreal), Brazil (São Paulo), England (London), EU (Ireland and Germany), Southeast Asia (Singapore), East Asia (Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing), India (Mumbai), and Australia (Sydney). An additional region exclusively for GovCloud users exists in the Northwestern United States.
SEE: AWS re:Invent 2018: A guide for tech and business pros (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
In November 2014, Amazon announced a plan to transition AWS to 100% renewable energy. By April 2015, one quarter of consumed energy was provided by renewable sources. At the end of 2016, over 40% of consumed energy was provided by renewable sources, while Amazon planned to reach 50% by the end of 2017.
In early 2018 AWS launched a unified auto scaling dashboard that can be found in the AWS Management Console. It allows administrators to control scaling of multiple AWS products easily from one location.
- Video: The biggest challenges and opportunities facing Amazon Web Services (TechRepublic)
- 3 public cloud myths highlighted by the Amazon S3 outage (TechRepublic)
- Should the latest AWS outage scare you away from the public cloud? (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Lex, managed AI services behind Alexa, now open to all AWS customers (TechRepublic)
- Amazon unveils massive expansion of developer and security toolkit at AWS re:Invent 2016 (TechRepublic)
- AWS amps up high performance computing with NICE acquisition (TechRepublic)
- Why public cloud and edge computing are essential to the future of smart cities (TechRepublic)
- Amazon's new cloud engine has a zombie apocalypse clause (ZDNet)
What services compete with AWS?
According to Synergy Research Group, AWS comprised 33% of the public cloud market as of Q1 2018, with Google, Microsoft, Alibaba, and IBM combined totaling less than 30% of the market.
In much the same way that Amazon as an internet retailer is intended to be everything to everyone, so is AWS. While competing cloud services offer alternatives for general use cases of AWS, no competing cloud service has an exact replacement for every product included in AWS.
In terms of scale, Google, Microsoft, Alibaba, and IBM are certainly capable of handling any amount of data or compute tasks you can generate.
SEE: Cloud migration decision tool (Tech Pro Research)
For organizations looking to migrate from an on-premise SharePoint system, or with other deep dependencies on Microsoft products, Azure is likely the most compelling option for a seamless transition to the cloud.
Google Cloud Platform's core strengths are in machine learning, big data tools, and extensive container support.
- Microsoft narrows the gap on AWS as cloud computing race heats up (TechRepublic)
- Why Google thinks other clouds are 'wrong' on machine learning (TechRepublic)
- Stack Overflow data could reveal Google's hidden weapon against Amazon in the cloud (TechRepublic)
- Here's what developers really think about AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud (TechRepublic)
- How Amazon could kill Kubernetes with developer kindness (TechRepublic)
- How IBM plans to be the "undisputed leader" of the next cloud phase (ZDNet)
How do I become an AWS engineer?
Tech professionals interested in becoming an AWS engineer should head over to Amazon's AWS Certified DevOps Engineer certification portal and see what skills Amazon says are required in order to manage AWS instances. However, this certification isn't necessary to perform the job functions of an AWS DevOps engineer.
SEE: How to become a DevOps engineer: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
TechRepublic previously covered skills that are essential for cloud engineers to master, and while the list does include AWS, it also mentions several programming languages, automation suites, and analytics tools that are essential. In essence, AWS is a proprietary platform, but the basic skills needed to manage it are the same as any other cloud product.
Anyone who wants to learn more about the specifics of being an AWS engineer should check out the list of online courses that Amazon maintains in its AWS Training portal.
- How Amazon hopes to win the cloud by hiring older engineers (TechRepublic)
- AWS opens up DevOps engineer certification exam to public (ZDNet)
- 10 critical skills that every DevOps engineer needs for success (TechRepublic)
- 10 questions DevOps engineers can expect to be asked in a job interview (TechRepublic)
- The 10 IT jobs that will be most in-demand in 2020 (ZDNet)
- Job description: DevOps engineer (Tech Pro Research)
- Become An AWS Certified Solutions Architect: Associate (TechRepublic Academy)
How do I get and use AWS?
Developers can get started with AWS using the Free Tier, which is available to anyone without restriction for the first 12 months. It features 750 hours per month of EC2 t.2 micro instances of Linux or Windows, as well as 5 GB of standard storage in S3 with 20,000 GET and 2,000 PUT requests.
Also available is 25 GB of storage in DynamoDB with 25 units of write and read capacity each, which Amazon estimates to be sufficient to handle 200 million requests per month. It includes one million free requests in Lambda, and 20,000 free requests in AWS Key Management, and free access grants in a dozen other AWS services. After the 12 month unlimited period ends, some restrictions take effect. Free tier users should be sure they know all the details about products they need that may be affected by the end of the free tier unlimited period.
For startups, various tiers of free credits (up to $100,000) are available depending on your accelerator. These promotional credits can be applied to most AWS products, though are not usable with Mechanical Turk, AWS Marketplace, or some types of support requests.
- FAQ: What Arm servers on AWS mean for your cloud and data center strategy (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Neptune is here: 6 ways customers use the AWS graph database (TechRepublic)
- New Amazon class certifies cloud pros in securing data on AWS (TechRepublic)
- New templates let AWS users quickly and easily deploy blockchain networks (TechRepublic)
- Compliance could kill your cloud deployment: Here's how to handle it (TechRepublic)
- How to hack-proof your cloud with native AWS tools (TechRepublic)
- Cloud lessons: Five tips for firms moving to AWS (TechRepublic)
- 5 steps for a successful large-scale cloud migration to AWS (TechRepublic)
Note: This article was updated in August 2018 by Brandon Vigliarolo and by James Sanders in November 2018.