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What is Amazon S3?

Everything you need to know about one of the world’s most popular cloud storage services

Today, Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers capabilities for seemingly every facet of cloud computing, but storage has been a core product for the company since its inception in 2004. In fact, Amazon S3, its premier storage service, was one of the first products it brought to market.

It is now one of the most popular storage services in the world and often a fundamental product for most AWS customers, particularly as it is used in tandem with many of its other offerings. It regularly received new features and updates, which are mainly aimed at boosting data protection and improving its storage functions. 

In this piece, we take a look at the main functions of Amazon S3, and also round up all its latest new features. 

What is Amazon S3?

Amazon Simple Storage – or Amazon S3 as it's more commonly known – is an object storage service. It offers unlimited, flexible cloud storage for seemingly any use case, whether that’s data lakes, cloud-native applications or mobile apps.

Object storage, or ‘object-based’ storage, is a type of architecture that manages data as an object, instead of files or blocks. Each object includes the data itself, a variable of metadata and a globally unique identifier. The metadata element is key, as it is separated to support additional capabilities, such as the capture of application-centric or user-centric information for indexing, which is traditionally harder with fixed metadata. 

The idea is to simplify the administration of data by taking away some of the lower-level storage functions, such as the construction and management of logical volumes for disk capacity or configuring settings to prevent disk failure.  

In terms of Amazon S3 pricing, customers only pay for what they use, with no minimum charge. The first 50TB (or first month's use) is just $0.024 per GB, according to AWS, which is arguably one of the main reasons it's so popular. 

What are Amazon S3 buckets and keys?

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There are a number of elements within storage services for users to get to grips with, such as buckets, which are the containers that store data. On S3, the buckets can store an unlimited number of objects with a 5TB limit on the size of each object itself. The buckets are there to help organise data and allow for access control. Once in a bucket, objects will be assigned a unique key. In essence, this is the number to identify that specific subset of data. The key will be made up of the bucket number, the object number and the region or data centre it is stored in and will resemble a URL. 

Despite its popularity, buckets have a history of security incidents. For example, in 2017, 100GB of NSA data was found on an S3 bucket. Typically these have all centred been issues of human error and misconfiguration, but it has prompted AWS into implement various security measures over the last few years to minimise the risks. This includes integration with CloudKnox, which handles access management. There is also the ‘S3 Block Public Access’ function which works by blocking access to all Buckets in a user’s account. This is set up via the user console and also overrides S3 permissions that allow for public access, keeping the admin oversight centralised. 

Amazon S3 latest features and updates

As a flagship product, Amazon S3 often receives new updates and innovations at the tech giant’s annual conferences. These can sometimes be tie-ins with other AWS services but it mainly sees new cost efficiencies and user improvements.  

For instance, in 2021, Amazon added S3 Object Lambda, a service that allows users to add their own code to process data retrieval from their S3 buckets before it is returned to an application. The introduction of Lambda enables users multiple views of the same dataset, with capabilities to change the views at any time. 

Another new function is S3 Glacier Instant Retrieval, which was launched during 2021’s AWS Re: Invent. This is a new archive storage class which offers low-cost storage for older datasets that are rarely accessed. AWS claims it is the fastest access to archive storage and offers 63% cost savings compared to previous services. 

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