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In-depth

Amazon for cloud - is AWS a no-brainer?

Like IBM in the 80s, AWS is the obvious choice: what are the downsides?

Amazon Web Services logo on a white background

Does anyone buy cloud services from anyone but Amazon?

Yes they do, according to the industry stats, but very few. With over five times the computing capacity in use than the combined competition, says a Gartner analysis, it doesn’t just lead the market - it owns it.

Amazon is the cloud’s answer to mainframe-era IBM – nobody bothers looking at the competition or even to ask questions. Buying AWS has become a reassuring no-brainer. Both CIOs and analysts seem to regard it with the reverence accorded to Kim Jong Il. A recent Gartner Magic Quadrant report described it as “a thought leader, extraordinarily innovative, exceptionally agile and very responsive to the market.”

That may well be true but is Amazon Web Services (AWS) really the best product for everyone in all circumstances? Shouldn’t we at least question the conventional wisdom? After all, if choosing AWS is a ‘no-brainer’ surely that makes you - the decision maker - redundant.

The first conventional wisdom to challenge is that AWS’s service levels are wonderful. “The ability to have a very granular level of control over your services running in AWS is key,” says Nuno Filipe Godinho, director of cloud services, Aditi Technologies. However, new evidence is emerging, from experts in the relatively new discipline of machine data analytics, to challenge that consensus.

There is some discrepancy between the service levels you get and the performance figures you receive, according to Shashin Ratogi, BSM practice head at outsourcing giant Wipro. Not that Amazon can be blamed for this.

When you assess your service level figures you are not comparing like for like, he warns. Amazon can give you information about the infrastructure’s performance, but you want to measure how your applications are running, says Ratogi. In other words, Amazon SLAs relate to the performance of the infrastructure as a service, when you should be measuring the software as a service data.

“Amazon gives you basic information, but not the level of data you need to maximise your apps’ performance,” says Ratogi, pointing out that better results can be achieved by using machine code, and employing Splunk tools to drill down into machine data.

Popularity Another criticism of AWS stems from its popularity, which becomes a double edged sword. The user friendliness of AWS is one reason NOT to adopt it, says David Barker, technical director of 4D Data Centres, because it leads to zombie invasions and uncontrolled billing. “Anyone can start an Amazon AWS server with their company credit card. So there here tends to be a large number of zombie servers which have been powered up, paid for on a credit card and then forgotten about,” says Barker.

Consistent workloads are more expensive on AWS too. Those with a constant workload are better off going with a single virtual private server than paying a fixed amount for a dedicated server. “Utility-based billing for a fixed amount of resources can get very expensive,” says Barker.

The lack of phone support is worrying too. Almost all support for instances on AWS is done through the customer support forums. “It is notoriously difficult to speak to an engineer on the phone or by email,” says Barker, “this delays critical failure resolution and means you don’t get the best advice on configurations.” It’s a choice between an appointed expert and the pot luck of taking instruction from ‘the bloke in the forum’.

The biggest drawback with AWS stems from people power. “With AWS you can’t easily visit the data centre to see the infrastructure or meet the staff that will be supporting you,” says Barker, “especially if you’re putting a large deployment on there.”

Like mainframe era IBM, Amazon is showing signs of the proprietary lock in that eventually caused even the most conservative IT buyers to rebel. Some customers, who profess to “love AWS's Elastic Load Balancer (ELB) service” admit in private that it has its limitations. It doesn’t work for non-AWS servers for example.

So unless all a company’s production servers are hosted on AWS EC2, they should know that ELB only sends traffic to AWS hosts. That’s a big problem for sites that want to load balance between different cloud providers. Worse still, it stops the customer from ever using an internal data centre.

How elastic?
ELB supports server health checks but the configuration options are limited and often frustrating. For example, it's impossible to immediately force a server into production. Instead, a minimum number of health checks must succeed. Although this is a reasonable and common-sense control after a server fails, it also creates a tricky situation when trying to add new servers to the load balancing pool, because they are not immediately available to serve traffic.

So elastic load balancing isn’t all that elastic.

Questions should be raised about outages too, says Phil Dawson, CEO of Skyscape, a cloud service supplier to the UK public sector. “It cannot be the case that AWS is seen as the safe, re-assuring option given the number of recent, high profile outages,” says Dawson.

Data residency is also a key concern for the majority of cloud-service users. While AWS may tailor its model for the likes of the US government, it can’t do this for many customers. The UK public sector market has some very specific requirements around data and security which mean that AWS (and a number of its competitors) are never likely to fit the bill.

 As highly regulated industries (and government sectors) move to a wholesale adoption of cloud computing, expect a new generation of cloud providers to mitigate the risk and concerns around data and security. They will have the technology and capacity to challenge AWS, predicts Dawson.

Not that AWS is in immediate danger of being challenged. At VMWorld 2013 in October, storage vendor Acronis launched a new managed backup and recovery cloud service that, it promised, gave the channel up to 65 per cent better profit margins than the equivalent Amazon Web Service. Still, unless they are philanthropists or their friends work for the supplier, few people buy a service because it gives the reseller a good margin. If you do, your financial director is bound to question why you are buying from an unknown brand.

That will be a problem for some time, predicts analyst Keith Humphreys, managing consultant at Eurolan Research. “There is a longtail of providers with no single branding or identification,” says Humphreys. “It’s a mishmash of telcos, service providers and others which address local issues of geography and other parochial requirements.” AWS looks safe as clear market leader for a while yet.

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