The battle for cloud supremacy between Google, Microsoft, and Amazon can be compared to the ancient cola wars between Coke and Pepsi, except with a lot more money and technology involved. This almost celebrity status that giant technology firms have earned with thousands of users hanging on to every word of every single press release can be intimidating for new users. Amazon has really come a long way from its startup days as an online bookstore to where it is now, being No. 1 in cloud computing and holding a major conference to announce a host of new cloud services. Let’s take a look at Amazon re:Invent 2016, the big conference held in Las Vegas in December, and break down all the major announcements from it.
If you already use Amazon S3 object storage, you will be glad to know that data here can now be directly queried. For the uninitiated, S3 object storage is Amazon’s Simple Storage Service that as of 2013 stored over 2 trillion objects. With Amazon’s new querying tool AWS Athena, users can now use standard SQL syntax to query data stored in Amazon’s S3 cloud storage servers. Athena was only one of a number of data-related services released. Others include AWS Glue and Amazon Pinpoint. The former is an ETL service that connects to Amazon and compliant data stores, while Pinpoint is a tool that lets mobile developers send push notifications to their app’s users.
Provisioning cheap private servers and moving data in bulk has seemed to be the order of business for Amazon this year, and its focus on enhancing data services and getting people to the cloud is evident. Most people have probably never heard of a petabyte, but if you really must know it’s the kind of volume where you actually have to physically pack your data in a shipping container for transport. That’s what Amazon’s doing with operation AWS Snowball. For as little as $250 you can have Amazon pack about 80 terabytes of your data and physically transport it by truck to the cloud in a “Snowball,” or in other words, a secure shipping container. With this kind of mail-order transportation to the cloud and the ease of being able to query your data, Amazon is leaving no stone unturned in their quest for cloud supremacy.
Announcements for developers
AWS Code Build is a completely managed build server that builds and tests your code in the cloud. You pay for build resources on a per-minute basis and prices starts as low as one-half cent a minute. AWS Code Build also integrates into other parts of the application deployment portfolio including AWS CodeCommit, a fully managed source control service, and AWS Pipeline, which is a continuous integration and delivery service.
The unveiling of AWS Step functions was another developer-friendly announcement as it lets you coordinate multiple web applications and microservices in your applications as a series of steps in a visual workflow.
AI and deep learning
Amazon is one of the few companies that can actually say they’ve been interested in AI way before it became cool. When Amazon was still almost exclusively an online bookstore and making personal recommendations for their readers 20 years ago, they were making use of machine-learning capabilities to do it. And now, two decades later, they still are right in the mix of one of the most interesting technological developments of our lifetime. AI seems to be all the rage of late with a number of breakthroughs coming in terms of what a machine can learn and what it needs to be taught.
AWS is right in the mix with three new developer-friendly tools to help developers use AI’s deep-learning algorithms without any of the heavy lifting involved. AWS Lex has been designed to help developers add chat and text functions to their applications with chatbots powered by the same powerful conversational engine that powers Amazon’s Alexa. This transfer of power from scientists who study deep-learning technologies and speech recognition to the hands of the common developer opens up a host of development possibilities and a bright future for AI in general.
AWS Polly is another initiative to give developers AI capabilities. What AWS Polly does is hand over Alexa’s text-to-speech capabilities in a neat and user-friendly package so anyone can add spoken output as a feature of their application.
Many argue that image analysis is where the most important breakthroughs in the field of AI have occurred. AWS Rekognition gives developers a fully managed deep-learning based image analysis service that is already analyzing billions of images a day and ever improving. With an API that’s integrated with AWS Lambda and S3, developers can now perform an endless amount of tasks on an image, for example performing searches, comparing vectors, or detecting objects.
Health, security and elastic GPUS
Apart from a couple of announcements to show their support for serverless computing, Amazon seem to be focused on the cloud, security, and upgrading their instances. In light of the Dyn outage in November that caused a major disruption to cloud services, AWS Shield has been launched and provides DDoS protection at the DNS level. Amazon is also allowing its Service Health Dashboard to be customized as per customer’s needs.
Apart from the annual upgrade of all instances that basically amounts to adding more processors and memory options available to the user, an interesting developments is the option to add graphic acceleration to existing instances with a pay-as-you-go technology referred to as elastic GPUs. Everyone now knows the incredible performance advantage the use of GPUs offer when compared with regular CPUs, and making this available to the average user in an affordable format is a stroke of genius as it encourages a lot more people to experiment with newer technologies that require more processing power.
Rounding off the list of new features and announcements were the entrance of AWS into the VPS space with Amazon Lightsail, an open-source project that helps developers build container schedules called AWS Blox, and another tool called AWS Batch, which manages and monitors the state of the cluster.
Last year was a busy one for AWS, and it ended on a strong note at re:Invent 2016. The clear message from Amazon is that while their main goal is getting businesses into the cloud, they are also focused on making developers’ lives easier. With this clear focus, AWS is set to continue riding the wave of cloud adoption for the next few years.