Diving deep into Amazon Web Services

From storage to payment, Amazon is dangling an array of low-cost services – but will customers bite?

Amazon Simple Database Service (SimpleDB): While Amazon S3 is designed for large, unstructured blocks of data, SimpleDB is built for complex, structured data. As with the other services, the name says it all. SimpleDB implements a database that sits behind a lightweight, easily mastered query language that nonetheless supports most of the database operations (searching, fetching, inserting, and deleting) you'll likely need. In keeping SimpleDB simple, Amazon has followed the principle that the best APIs are those with minimal entry points: I count seven for SimpleDB.

A SimpleDB database is not exactly like a relational database of the Oracle or MySQL sort. (Amazon's documentation points out that, if you do need a full-blown relational database, you are free to run a MySQL server on an AMI in the elastic compute cloud.) A SimpleDB database (a "domain" in SimpleDB parlance) is composed of items, and items are composed of attributes. An attribute is a name/value pair. At a minimum, an item must have an ItemName attribute, which serves as the item's unique identifier. When you issue a query, the result is a collection of ItemName values -- to fetch the actual content of the item (the attributes), you perform a Get operation using those values as input.

As simple as it is, SimpleDB packs surprising capabilities. A SimpleDB database can grow up to 10GB and house up to 250 million attributes. You can define up to 256 attributes for a given item, and there is no requirement that all the items in a domain have the same attributes. In addition, a given attribute can have multiple values, so a customer database could store multiple aliases in a single CustomerName attribute.

Finally, SimpleDB is designed to support "real-time" (fast turnaround) queries. To ensure quick query response, all attributes are indexed automatically as items are placed in the database. Also, Amazon's documentation indicates that a query should take no more than 5 seconds to complete; otherwise, it will likely time out. Amazon does this to ensure that a query receives a quick response, even if a query is malformed to the degree that it would hamper the calling application.

Amazon Simple Queue Service (SQS): Amazon SQS is a message queuing service in the vein of JMS or MQSeries -- only simpler. SQS's most impressive characteristic is its ubiquity. A blurb from Amazon's documentation reads: "Any computer on the Internet can add or read messages without any installed software or special firewall configurations." The most likely participants in SQS message transactions are, of course, instantiated AMIs in the EC2.

As with other Amazon Web services, SQS earns its name: Messages are text-only, and must be less than 8KB in length. You can build a working queue with only four functions: CreateQueue, SendMessage, ReceiveMessage, and DeleteMessage. (There are other convenience functions; ListQueues, for example, will list an account's existing queues.)

SQS queues are designed primarily to support workflows among distributed computer systems, and as such, concurrency management and fail-over are implicit. When a client reads a message from a queue, that message is not deleted; it is simply locked in such a fashion that it becomes invisible to other clients. In that way, if the message represents a specific task to perform as part of a workflow, two clients cannot read the same message and, thereby, duplicate effort. However, if the message is not deleted before a specified timeout, the lock is released. The intent, then, is for the original reader of the message to delete it when the specified work is complete. If the original reader is unable to complete the work (perhaps on account of a system crash), the timeout expires, the message "reappears" in the queue, and a different client can read the message and undertake the specified work.

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