Diving deep into Amazon Web Services

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

Ready for the big time?

Amazon's Web Services are at once exciting and troubling. The infrastructure services adopt a sort of "mercenary" model of hardware and software horsepower; in theory, you can employ as large an army of computing power as your pocketbook can withstand. All the services offer universal availability -- if your network connection can reach Amazon, it can reach AWS. These are two powerful isotopes for fueling large-scale, on-demand, software services.

On the other hand, however, some of the important components are still in beta. SimpleDB, in fact, was in limited beta and not accepting new users at the time of this writing. The description of "beta" is off-putting, as it implies an architecture whose foundation has not yet solidified. And this implication became hard reality when, in June, Amazon's S3 suffered a temporary power outage that affected such high-profile users as the New York Times, whose archives were crippled.

Furthermore, the long-term security of the entire AWS remains to be seen. We can only take Amazon's word that its systems guarantee isolation of one user's applications from another's. Put simply, AWS is only going to work if its users' trust in it is complete. A security breach of any sort would likely be a mortal wound.

Programmers and architects of distributed systems will find the infrastructure pages on the AWS site to be nothing short of a playground. You can spend hours perusing the documentation, tutorials, examples, and references to community-supplied tools and libraries.

The "cloud" services -- EC2, S3, SQS, and SimpleDB -- are certainly compelling. Real applications are being built atop these virtual technologies. Examples can be found at the Amazon Web Services Elastic Compute Cloud resources page.

Some of the AWS components are of questionable utility. In particular, Mechanical Turk seems to create a built-in incentive to cause tasks to be priced below what they otherwise would. However, even the Turk might be a case of a technology ahead of its time. As the ability to conduct business over the Net continues to improve, perhaps Mechanical Turk will also.

Whether the notion of Amazon's "rentable infrastructure" catches on is unknown. Its failure (should it fail) will not be for lack of information and tools. I will be eagerly prowling the AWS Web site and AWS-relevant blogs to see what creations arise from the enticing techno-tinker-toy set that AWS represents.

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