Amazon Web Services - A History of Enabling Clients to Soar in the Cloud


here is an old adage that says your business is either growing or dying. The challenge in today’s economy is how to create the ideal conditions for your business to grow without having to spend a huge amount of money. Ideally, you want to increase growth, productivity and flexibility whilst at the same time saving money on key infrastructure and systems.

Austlink has been using the services from Amazon Web Services since the 23rd of May 2007. We started out with using their S3 (Simple Storage Service). Since then we have significantly ramped up our use, adding many more of their services for our critical business systems. We also provide their services to our clients.

We have been in the business of helping clients with their IT Infrastructure, hardware and software for the last 30+ years and I personally have seen many changes along the way. The amazing part is that I have seen technology going through similar cycles over time.

If you remember before the advent of the personal computer, companies would have installed a mini or mainframe computer inside their offices housed in a purpose built, raised floor, separately air conditioned, computer room. All the computing power was in that room. The users had access to it via dumb terminals (green or amber screens) at their desk, if they were lucky. These systems were expensive to install and maintain, but they had the unique advantage of being centrally managed. One upgrade to the software or the hardware and all the users in that organisation would have instant access to the latest and greatest version. Backing up this one system also backup every single person’s work.

With the arrival of the PC, decentralisation of computing power was the order of the day. Soon, people had more computing power and storage at their desk then the whole company used to have in their computer room. This was great for innovation and productivity but it was also the start of a nightmare for IT professionals. With decentralisation came a loss of management and a loss of control. Data was not being backed up and worst still, company secrets were being left in taxis.

The Genie was well and truly out of the bottle and there was no easy way back to the centralised fully managed model.

Move forward to 1995, a small company called Citrix, shipped a multiuser version of Windows NT with remote access, known as WinFrame. Later this became MetaFrame and when it was licensed back to Microsoft, Windows Terminal Services. I was one of the first resellers of this system in Australia, through my company “Accolade Computer Solutions”. This was a classic case of “Back to the Future” with PC graphical computing (Excel, Word, PowerPoint, etc.) being able to run via a dumb terminal. The server controlled everything and ran all sessions using it’s computing power and storage. The users were happy because they had the software they were used to and backups and upgrades were easy once again. Many corporates took up this technology and continue to use it today. This technology was critical to the accessibility of Cloud Computing.

Unfortunately for small businesses these systems required a substantial investment in servers and technical know how to set up and maintain. Even for large businesses they were a handful to manage and in particular were difficult to scale.

Leap forward to 2000 when Amazon (the book seller) was a 2.77 billion dollar business. At this time they ran all of their own infrastructure and they were finding it increasingly difficult to service the requirements of their ever increasing business. In 2004 they decided to invest over 2 billion dollars and change the computing paradigm. Instead of having a bunch of servers doing the same thing, they created something called “Service Rendered Architecture”. Basically they created a bunch of services that that were very task specific. The advantage of doing this was if one service was becoming overloaded they could just add capacity to it instead of having to upgrade all of the servers.

So successful was this endeavor that a number of large retailers like Marks and Spencer asked them to run their computer infrastructure for them. Seeing the opportunity, Amazon Web Services was born and they have gone from strength to strength.

One of the initial services offered was the S3 – Simple Storage System. Basically this was an ultra-reliable file storage system in the cloud. Their systems are so reliable that they promise not to lose more than one file in every ten thousand, every hundred million years. To this they added computing facilities via their “EC2 – Elastic Compute Cloud”. Here was our centrally managed computer system again but with a huge difference. This time though there were no upfront infrastructure costs and you could pay by the month for just the amount of computing facilities you required.

In addition you could scale your operation up and down very quickly. Take the example of Animoto. These guys use the computing facilities of EC2 to render the amazing videos they create out of your simple photos. If you have never used their facilities then I recommend you look them up. In April 2008, they were using about 80 servers when a promotion they did went viral and millions of people started to use their services. To meet the demand they were able to add computing power from Amazon. In fact they added a whopping 3,420 servers in just three days something that would have been absolutely impossible in the past even if you had the millions of dollars required. When the demand went back down they just reduced the number of servers back again and they only had to pay for what they used.

Another service that amazon provides is a facility to deliver content such as videos and images. Amazon CloudFront uses multiple “edge locations” (read data centres) strategically located around the world to deliver content to your users regardless of where they are in the world. Let’s just say that you have a video that you have stored on the Amazon S3 facility. Using CloudFront, that video would be dynamically cached around the world so that if someone was to see it in London then it would be steamed from Ireland whilst someone in Australia clicking on the same video would see it from Sydney. This facility allows your videos to start up very quickly and can scale to almost any number of viewers.

Today we have a huge variety of services from AWS. My personal favorites are AWS Workspaces and AppStream 2.0 where we can deliver a users' desktop or just the one business critical application to them via the any browser. Unlike the days of Remote Desktop Servers, where all the users shared one or more servers, each user is delivered their environment via their own virtual machine.

I know many people worry about security in the cloud. The IT infrastructure that AWS provides to its customers is designed and managed in alignment with best security practices and a variety of IT security standards. The following is a partial list of assurance programs with which AWS complies:

  • SOC 1/ISAE 3402, SOC 2, SOC 3
  • PCI DSS Level 1
  • ISO 9001, ISO 27001, ISO 27017, ISO 27018

My prediction is that most organisations, large and small, within the next five years will be using some level of Cloud based technology in their business. It really makes sense. It is much more secure, is cheaper and more reliable and can scale infinitely.

To put it in perspective, Amazon adds the same computing capacity to their facility every single day as they had in 2000. Businesses are gaining a competitive advantage and reducing costs by embracing this technology. If you run a business of any size then this is something you should find out more about.

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