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Amazon Web Services: An Overview

Dec. 04, 2017
Rich Morrow


Getting a clear understanding of what Amazon Web Services (AWS) is and how it can help your business can be a daunting task. The depth and breadth of AWS is significant, comprising over 100 services in dozens of data centers located in 16 Regions throughout the globe (with five more in the works). They offer computing, storage, networking, deployment, management, and a host of "supporting" services like queues, serverless functions, and e-mail. There's a great chance that AWS has more than a few products to help you work faster, smarter, and more cost effectively. So, where should you start?


In this white paper, we hope to provide a good understanding of AWS, how it works, and how your company can get started.

Some History

Like many successful dot-com era startups, Amazon found itself with an enviable problem at the turn of the century—the scale of their business had grown beyond the capacities of any available pre-packaged software solutions. They had to re-think their entire infrastructure from the ground up, and they had to design all their systems to deal with a new set of requirements that their users had. Amazon set out to ensure this new infrastructure would provide:

  • High Availability: Via geographical fault tolerance, redundancy, and horizontal linear scale.
  • Auto-Scaling: The ability to dynamically respond to spikes in demand and increase or decrease capacity.
  • Integrated Backup and Disaster Recovery: Operations like recurring database backups and snapshot restores become as simple as checkboxes and buttons on web forms.
  • “Infinite” Scale: Users should not have to consider ever “outgrowing” a service. S3 allows users to store an unlimited number of objects; EC2 lets users spin up thousands of virtual servers.
  • Ease of Use: The easier they could make their services, the greater the chance that their internal developers would use them. Amazon decided to build modular, API-driven “services” that could be used either independently or with one another.

When Amazon finished building much of their required infrastructure in the early 2000s, they realized they had another enviable problem—extra capacity that they rarely and sporadically used. In 2006, they opened AWS for limited public beta, and although the offerings were only a fraction of what is currently available, the product line became wildly popular. By 2007, they had attracted over 300,000 users, and in 2008, the “beta” moniker was dropped. Subsequent years have seen rapid releases of new services, feature additions to existing services, and prominent customers (including Pinterest, NASA, and Netflix). In addition to the previous requirements, Amazon tacked on the following new features to serve external customers:

  • Flexible Pricing: Nearly every service is provided via consumption-based pricing with no upfront fees. Pay for only what you use, when you use it.
  • Heightened Security: Stateful firewalls (known as “Security Groups”) consolidated user account management via the IAM (Identity and Access Management) product, and integrated encryption capabilities for some services like S3.
  • Proactive Price Cuts: Because AWS operates with significant scale, they can purchase hardware, software, power, bandwidth, and nearly everything else at much, much lower prices than competitors. Instead of pocketing those savings as profits, AWS has traditionally passed those savings on to customers, reducing prices hundreds of times in the last eight years.

For these reasons and many more, AWS has become an attractive way for businesses of all sizes to deploy and serve the computing and storage needs of their customers. For some companies like Netflix, trusting AWS with all of their computing needs allows them to operate with significantly reduced headcount and a great deal more agility.