Tag Archives: amazon

AWS Summit London 2016: no news but strong content, and a little bit of Echo

I attended day two (the developer day) of the Amazon Web Services Summit at the ExCel conference centre in London yesterday. A few quick observations.

It was a big event. I am not sure how many attended but heard “10,000” being muttered. I was there last year as well, and the growth was obvious. The exhibition has spilled out of its space to occupy part of an upper mezzanine floor as well. The main auditorium was packed.

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Amazon does not normally announce much news at these events, and this one conformed to the pattern. It is a secretive company when it comes to future plans. The closest thing to news was when AWS UK and Ireland MD Gavin Jackson said that Amazon will go ahead with its UK region despite the referendum on leaving the EU.

CTO Dr Werner Vogels gave a keynote. It was mostly marketing which disappointed me, since Vogels is a technical guy with lots he could have said about AWS technology, but hey, this was a free event so what do you expect? That said, the latter part of the keynote was more interesting, when he talked about different models of cloud computing, and I will be writing this up for the Register shortly.

Otherwise this was a good example of a vendor technical conference, with plenty of how-to sessions that would be helpful to anyone getting started with AWS. The level of the sessions I attended was fairly high, even the ones described as “deep dive”, but you could always approach the speaker afterwards with your trickier issues. The event was just as good as some others for which you have to pay a fee.

The sessions I attended on DevOps, containers, microservices, and AWS Lambda (serverless computing) were all packed, with containers perhaps drawing the biggest crowd.

At the end of the day I went to a smaller session on programming for Amazon Echo, the home voice control device which you cannot get in the UK. The speaker refused to be drawn on when we might get it, but I suppose the fact that Amazon ran the session suggests that it will appear in the not too distant future. I found this session though-provoking. It was all about how to register a keyword with Amazon so that when a user says “Alexa what’s new with [mystuff]” then the mystuff service will be invoked. Amazon’s service will send your service the keywords (defined by you) that it detects in the question or interaction and you send back a response. The trigger word – called the Invocation Name – has to be registered with Amazon and I imagine there could be big competition for valuable ones. It is all rather limited at the moment; you cannot create a commercial service, for example, not even for ordering pizzas. Check out the Alexa Skills Kit for more.

Presuming commercial usage does come, there are some interesting issues around identity, authentication, and preventing unauthorised or inappropriate use. Echo does allow ordering from Amazon, and you can optionally set a voice PIN, but I would have thought a voice PIN is not much use if you want to stop children ordering stuff, for example, since they will hear it. If you watch your email, you would see the confirming email from Amazon and could quickly cancel if it were a problem. The security here seems weak though; it would be better to have an approval text sent to a mobile, for example, so that there is some real control.

Overall, AWS is still on a roll and I did not hear a single thing about security concerns or the risks of putting all your eggs in Amazon’s basket. I wonder if fears have gone from being over blown to under recognized? In the end these considerations are not quantifiable which makes risks hard to assess.

I could not help but contrast this AWS event to one I attended on Microsoft Azure last month. AzureCraft benefited from the presence of corporate VP Scott Guthrie but it was a tiny event in comparison to Amazon’s effort. If Microsoft is serious about competing with AWS it needs to rethink its events and put them on directly rather than working through user groups that have a narrow membership (AzureCraft was up on by the UK Azure User Group).

AWS Summit London: cloud growth, understanding Lambda, Machine Learning

I attended the Amazon Web Services (AWS) London Summit. Not much news there, since the big announcements were the week before in San Francisco, but a chance to drill into some of the AWS services and keep up to date with the platform.

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The keynote by CTO Werner Vogels was a bit too much relentless promotion for my taste, but I am interested in the idea he put forward that cloud computing will gradually take over from on-premises and that more and more organisations will go “all in” on Amazon’s cloud. He instanced some examples (Netflix, Intuit, Tibco, Splunk) though I am not quite clear whether these companies have 100% of their internal IT systems on AWS, or merely that they run the entirety of their services (their product) on AWS. The general argument is compelling, especially when you consider the number of services now on offer from AWS and the difficulty of replicating them on-premises (I wrote this up briefly on the Reg). I don’t swallow it wholesale though; you have to look at the costs carefully, but even more than security, the loss of control when you base your IT infrastructure on a public cloud provider is a negative factor.

As it happens, the ticket systems for my train into London were down that morning, which meant that purchasers of advance tickets online could not collect their tickets.

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The consequences of this outage were not too serious, in that the trains still ran, but of course there were plenty of people travelling without tickets (I was one of them) and ticket checking was much reduced. I am not suggesting that this service runs on AWS (I have no idea) but it did get me thinking about the impact on business when applications fail; and that led me to the question: what are the long-term implications of our IT systems and even our economy becoming increasingly dependent on a (very) small number of companies for their health? It seems to me that the risks are difficult to assess, no matter how much respect we have for the AWS engineers.

I enjoyed the technical sessions more than the keynote. I attended Dean Bryen’s session on AWS Lambda, “Event-driven code in the cloud”, where I discovered that the scope of Lambda is greater than I had previously realised. Lambda lets you write code that runs in response to events, but what is also interesting is that it is a platform as a service offering, where you simply supply the code and AWS runs it for you:

AWS Lambda runs your custom code on a high-availability compute infrastructure and administers all of the compute resources, including server and operating system maintenance, capacity provisioning and automatic scaling, code, and security patches.

This is a different model than running applications in EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) VMs or even in Docker containers, which are also VM based. Of course we know that Lambda ultimately runs in VMs as well, but these details are abstracted away and scaling is automatic, which arguably is a better model for cloud computing. Azure Cloud Services or Heroku apps are somewhat like this, but neither is very pure; with Azure Cloud Services you still have to worry about how many VMs you are using, and with Heroku you have to think about dynos (app containers). Google App Engine is another example and autoscales, though you are charged by application instance count so you still have to think in those terms. With Lambda you are charged based on the number of requests, the duration of your code, and the amount of memory allocated, making it perhaps the best abstracted of all these PaaS examples.

But Lambda is just for event-handing, right? Not quite; it now supports synchronous as well as asynchronous event handling and you could create large applications on the service if you chose. It is well suited to services for mobile applications, for example. Java support is on the way, as an alternative to the existing Node.js support. I will be interested to see how this evolves.

I also went along to Carlos Conde’s session on Amazon Machine Learning (one instance in which AWS has trailed Microsoft Azure, which already has a machine learning service). Machine learning is not that easy to explain in simple terms, but I thought Conde did a great job. He showed us a spreadsheet which was a simple database of contacts with fields for age, income, location, job and so on. There was also a Boolean field for whether they had purchased a certain financial product after it had been offered to them. The idea was to feed this spreadsheet to the machine learning service, and then to upload a similar table but of different contacts and without the last field. The job of the service was to predict whether or not each contact listed would purchase the product. The service returned results with this field populated along with a confidence indicator. A simple example with obvious practical benefit, presuming of course that the prediction has reasonable accuracy.

So that was 2014: Samsung stumbles, all change for Microsoft, Sony hack, more cloud, more mobile

What happened in 2014? One thing I did not predict is that Samsung lost its momentum. Here are Gartner’s figures for global smartphone sales by vendor, for the third quarter of 2014:

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Samsung is still huge, of course. But in 2013, Samsung seemed to be in such control of its premium brand that it could shape Android as it wished, rather than being merely an OEM for Google’s operating system. In the enterprise, Samsung KNOX held promise as a way to bring security and manageability to Android, but only in Samsung’s flavour. Today, that seems less likely. Market share is declining, and much of KNOX has been rolled into Android Lollipop. What is going wrong? The difficulty for Samsung is how to differentiate its products sufficiently, to avoid bleeding market share to keenly priced competition from vendors such as Xiaomi and Huawei. This is difficult if you do not control the operating system.

What of the overall mobile OS wars? 2013 brought few surprises: the Apple/Android duopoly continued, Blackberry further diminished its share, and Windows Phone struggles on, though it was not looking good for Microsoft’s OS as 2013 closed; the Nokia acquisition may have been fumbled.

All change at Microsoft

That brings me to Microsoft, a company I watch closely. 2014 saw Satya Nadella appointed as CEO and several strategic changes, though the extent to which Nadella introduced those changes is uncertain. What changes?

Office is going truly cross-platform, with first-class support for iOS and Android. I covered this recently on the Register; the summary is that there will be mobile versions of Office for iOS, Android and Windows (this last a Store app) with similar features, and that more and more of the functionality of desktop Office will turn up in the mobile versions. I learned from my interview with Technical Product Manager Kaberi Chowdhury that ODF (Open Document) support is planned, as is some level of programmability.

The plans for Office are a clue to the company’s wider strategy, which is focused on cloud and server. Key products include Office 365, Windows Azure, Active Directory (and Azure Active Directory), SQL Server, SharePoint, and System Center as a management tool for hybrid cloud.

The Windows client strategy is to bring back users who disliked Windows 8 with a renewed focus on the desktop in the forthcoming Windows 10, while retaining the Store app model for apps that are secure, touch-friendly, and easily deployed. It is still not clear what Windows 10 phones and tablets will look like, but we can expect convergence; no more Windows RT, but perhaps tablets running Windows Phone OS that are in effect the next generation of Windows RT without a desktop personality.

The company will also hedge its bets with full app support for Office and its cloud services on iOS and Android, and in doing so will make its Windows mobile offerings less compelling.

Microsoft’s developer tools are changing in line with this strategy. The next generation of .NET is open source and cross-platform on the server side, for Windows, Mac and Linux. Xamarin plugs the gap for .NET on iOS and Android, while Microsoft is also adding native support (not .NET based) for cross-platform mobile in the next Visual Studio.

These are big changes to the developer stack, and Microsoft is forking .NET between the continuing Windows-only .NET Framework, and the new cross-platform .NET Core. Developers have many questions about this; see this interview on the Register for what I could glean about the current plans. Watch our for the Build conference at the end of April when the company will attempt to put it all together into a coherent whole for developers targeting either Windows 10, or cloud apps, or cloud services with cross-platform mobile clients.

This entire strategy is a logical progression from the company’s failure in mobile. Can it now succeed with client apps running on platforms controlled by its competitors? Alternatively, is there hope that Windows 10 can keep businesses hooked on Windows clients? Maybe 2015 will bring some answers, though with Windows 10 not expected until towards the end of the year there will be a long wait while iOS, Android and even Chrome OS (the operating system of Chromebook) continue to build.

A side effect is that C# now has a better chance of building a cross-platform user base, rather than being a Windows language. This has already happened in game development, thanks to the use of Mono and C# in the popular Unity game engine. Could it also happen with ASP.NET, deployed to Linux servers, now that this will be officially supported? Or is there little room for it alongside Java, PHP, Ruby, Node.js and the rest? 

The puzzle with Microsoft is that there is still too much mediocrity and complacency that damages the company’s offerings. How can it expect to succeed in the crowded wearable market with a band that is uncomfortable to wear? There is still an attitude in some parts of the company that the world will be happy to put up with problems that might be fixed in a future version after some long interval. Then again, the Azure team is doing great things and Windows server continues to impress. Win or lose, there will be plenty of Microsoft news this year.

A theme for 2015: cloud optimization

Late last year I attended Amazon’s re:Invent conference in Las Vegas; I wrote this up here. The key announcement for me was Amazon Aurora, a MySQL clone, not so much because of its merits as a cloud database server, but more because it represents a new breed of applications that are designed for the cloud. If you design database storage with the knowledge that it will only ever run on a huge cloud-scale infrastructure, you can make optimizations that cannot be replicated on smaller systems. I tried to summarize what this means in another Register piece here. The fact that this type of technology can be rented by any of us at commodity prices increases the advantage of public cloud, despite reservations that many still have concerning security and control. It also poses a challenge for companies like Oracle and Microsoft whose technology is designed for on-premises as well as cloud deployment; they cannot achieve the same advantage unless they fork their products, creating cloud variants that use different architecture.

The Sony hack

The cyber invasion of Sony Pictures in late November was not just another hack; it was a comprehensive takedown in which (as far as I can tell) the company’s entire IT systems were entirely compromised and significantly damaged.

According to this report:

Mountains of documents had been stolen, internal data centers had been wiped clean, and 75 percent of the servers had been destroyed.

Most IT admins worry about disaster recovery (what to do after catastrophic system failure such as a fire in your data center) as well as about security (what to do if hackers gain access to sensitive information). In this case, both seemed to happen simultaneously. Further, as producing movies is in effect a digital business, the business suffered loss of some of its actual products, such as the unreleased “Annie”.

The incident is fascinating in itself, especially as we do not know the identity of the hackers or their purpose, but what interests me more are the implications.

Specifically, how many companies are equally at risk? It seems clear that Sony’s security was towards the weak end of the scale, but there is plenty of weak security out there, especially but not exclusively in smaller businesses.

With the outcome of the Sony hack so spectacular, it is likely that there will be similar efforts in 2015, as well as many businesses looking nervously at their own practices and wondering what they can do to protect themselves.

Cloud may be part of the answer though even if the cloud provider does security right, that is no guarantee that their customers do the same.   

Looking back on looking back

Here is what I wrote a year or so ago, Reflecting on 2013- the year of not the PC, no privacy, and the Internet of Things. Most of it still applies. I have not achieved any of the three goals I set for myself though. Maybe this year…

Quick reflections on Amazon re:Invent, open source, and Amazon Web Services

Last week I was in Las Vegas for my first visit to Amazon’s annual developer conference re:Invent. There were several announcements, the biggest being a new relational database service called RDS Aurora – a drop-in replacement for MySQL but with 3x write performance and 5x read performance as well as resiliency benefits – and EC2 Container Service, for deploying and managing Docker app containers. There is also AWS Lambda, a service which runs code in response to events.

You could read this news anywhere, but the advantage of being in Vegas was to immerse myself in the AWS culture and get to know the company better. Amazon is both distinctive and disruptive, and threes things that its retail operation and its web services have in common are large scale, commodity pricing, and customer focus.

Customer focus? Every company I have ever spoken to says it is customer focused, so what is different? Well, part of the press training at Amazon seems to be that when you ask about its future plans, the invariable answer is “what customers demand.” No doubt if you could eavesdrop at an Amazon executive meeting you would find that this is not entirely true, that there are matters of strategy and profitability which come into play, but this is the story the company wants us to hear. It also chimes with that of the retail operation, where customer service is generally excellent; the company would rather risk giving a refund or replacement to an undeserving customer and annoy its suppliers than vice versa. In the context of AWS this means something a bit different, but it does seem to me part of the company culture. “If enough customers keep asking for something, it’s very likely that we will respond to that,” marketing executive Paul Duffy told me.

That said, I would not describe Amazon as an especially open company, which is one reason I was glad to attend re:Invent. I was intrigued for example that Aurora is a drop-in replacement for an open source product, and wondered if it actually uses any of the MySQL code, though it seems unlikely since MySQL’s GPL license would require Amazon to publish its own code if it used any MySQL code; that said, the InnoDB storage engine code at least used to be available under a dual license so it is possible. When I asked Duffy though he said:

We don’t … at that level, that’s why we say it is compatible with MySQL. If you run the MySQL compatibility tool that will all check out. We don’t disclose anything about the inner workings of the service.

This of course touches on the issue of whether Amazon takes more from the open source community than it gives back.

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Senior VP of AWS Andy Jassy

Someone asked Senior VP of AWS Andy Jassy, “what is your strategy of contributing to the open source ecosystem”, to which he replied:

We contribute to the open source ecosystem for many years. Zen, MySQL space, Linux space, we’re very active contributors, and will continue to do so in future.

That was it, that was the whole answer. Aurora, despite Duffy’s reticence, seems to be a completely new implementation of the MySQL API and builds on its success and popularity; could Amazon do more to share some of its breakthroughs with the open source community from which MySQL came? I think that is arguable; but Amazon is hard to hate since it tends to price so competitively.

Is Amazon worried about competition from Microsoft, Google, IBM or other cloud providers? I heard this question asked on several occasions, and the answer was generally along the lines that AWS is too busy to think about it. Again this is perhaps not the whole story, but it is true that AWS is growing fast and dominates the market to the extent that, say, Azure’s growth does not keep it awake at night. That said, you cannot accuse Amazon of complacency since it is adding new services and features at a high rate; 449 so far in 2014 according to VP and Distinguished Engineer James Hamilton, who also mentioned 99% usage growth in EC2 year on year, over 1,000,000 active customers, and 132% data transfer growth in the S3 storage service.

Cloud thinking

Hamilton’s session on AWS Innovation at Scale was among the most compelling of those I attended. His theme was that cloud computing is not just a bunch of hosted servers and services, but a new model of computing that enables new and better ways to run applications that are fast, resilient and scalable. Aurora is actually an example of this. Amazon has separated the storage engine from the relational engine, he explained, so that only deltas (the bits that have changed) are passed down for storage. The data is replicated 6 times across three Amazon availability zones, making it exceptionally resilient. You could not implement Aurora on-premises; only a cloud provider with huge scale can do it, according to Hamilton.

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Distinguished Engineer James Hamilton

Hamilton was fascinating on the subject of networking gear – the cards, switches and routers that push bits across the network. Five years ago Amazon decided to build its own, partly because it considered the commercial products to be too expensive. Amazon developed its own custom network protocol stack. It worked out a lot cheaper, he said, since “even the support contract for networking gear was running into 10s of millions of dollars.” The company also found that reliability increased. Why was that? Hamilton quipped about how enterprise networking products evolve:

Enterprise customers give lots of complicated requirements to networking equipment producers who aggregate all these complicated requirements into 10s of billions of lines of code that can’t be maintained and that’s what gets delivered.

Amazon knew its own requirements and built for those alone. “Our gear is more reliable because we took on an easier problem,” he said.

AWS is also in a great position to analyse performance. It runs so much kit that it can see patterns of failure and where the bottlenecks lie. “We love metrics,” he said. There is an analogy with the way the popularity of Google search improves Google search; it is a virtuous circle that is hard for competitors can replicate.

Closing reflections

Like all vendor-specific conferences there was more marketing that I would have liked at re:Invent, but there is no doubting the excellence of the platform and its power to disrupt. There are aspects of public cloud that remain unsettling; things can go wrong and there will be nothing you can do but wait for them to be fixed. The benefits though are so great that it is worth the risk – though I would always advocate having some sort of plan B and off-cloud (or backup with another cloud provider) if that is feasible.

Amazon Reinvent: new products announced including Aurora database with claimed performance 5 times that of MySQL

Amazon is holding its third Reinvent conference in Las Vegas – 13,500 attendees catching up on Amazon’s Web Services platform. In this morning’s keynote, Amazon’s Senior VP of cloud services Andy Jassy evangelised the platform and announced a number of new services which, in typical Amazon style, are now available in preview.

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Amazon is well ahead of its competitors in cloud services, in terms of market share and mindshare, and Jassy had no problems reeling off impressive statistics and case studies. A slide showing that AWS is not only larger but also growing faster yea-on-year than its competition prompted a small protest. Microsoft claims that Amazon understated its rate of growth:

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The refrain from those who spoke on behalf of companies such as Intuit (which intends to move 100% of its applications to AWS) was that no alternative cloud provider could offer a realistic alternative to AWS. With the progress being made by competitors I wonder for how long this will be true – and bear in mind that this is an Amazon conference – but it testifies to the dominance that Amazon has achieved.

Jassy made a key point about security and compliance. The relative security of public cloud versus private datacenters has long been debated, initially on the assumption that computing resources you own and guard yourself must be more secure than those hosted by third-parties. The counter is that few organisations can afford the level of security that big public cloud providers can achieve. Jassy’s point though was that the number of certifications now achieved by AWS is now such that security and compliance is now a driver towards cloud computing.

The main news though was a series of product announcements:

Aurora relational database: a MySQL compatible database as a service for which Jassy claims 5x the performance of MySQL. He says that businesses stick with commercial, proprietary database managers because open source solutions lack the performance, but that Aurora now provides a solution at a commodity price. Unfortunately Aurora is not going to help those with applications locked into Oracle, SQL Server or others. Still, 5x performance is always welcome.

CodeDeploy: apparently based on a service Amazon uses internally, this is a deployment tool for pushing out updated applications to EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) VMs without downtime.

CodeCommit: a source code management service for Git repositories.

CodePipeline: automate your software release by defining a workflow of tests and approvals.

Key Management Service: if you manage encrypted data you will be familiar with the hassles of managing and rotating encryption keys. Here is a service to manage that.

AWS Config: A discovery service for the AWS resources you are using.

Service Catalog: a custom portal for users to browse and use AWS resources offered by an organisation.

This was day one; there is another keynote tomorrow and there may be more announcements.

There is no doubting the momentum behind AWS, and according to Jassy, there is still a long way to grow. Towards the end of the keynote he talked about businesses moving entire datacenters to AWS, for example when leases expire, and in the press Q&A session later he expressed the belief that eventually few companies will operate their own datacentres; he does not see much future for private cloud – in the sense of self-managed clouds on your own infrastructure. That is of course what you would expect Amazon to say.

Partnerships are key in this industry and I was interested to note the Reinvent sponsors:

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The Diamond sponsors (who I presume have paid the most) are Accenture, Cloudnexa (AWS consultants), CSC (also consultants), Intel (I guess Amazon buys a lot of CPUs), Trend Micro and twilio (who must me doing well to be on this list).

Amazon Mobile SDK adds login, data sync, analytics for iOS and Android apps

Amazon Web Services has announced an updated AWS Mobile SDK, which provides libraries for mobile apps using Amazon’s cloud services as a back end. Version 2.0 of the SDK supporting iOS, and Android including Amazon Fire, is now in preview, adding several new features:

Amazon Cognito lets users log in with Amazon, Facebook or Google and then synchronize data across devices. The data is limited to a 20MB, stored as up to 20 datasets of key/value pairs. All data is stored as strings, though binary data can be encoded as a base64 string up to 1MB. The intent seems to be geared to things like configuration or game state data, rather than documents.

Amazon Mobile Analytics collects data on how users are engaging with your app. You can get data on metrics including daily and monthly active users, session count and average daily sessions per active user, revenue per active user, retention statistics, and custom events defined in your app.

Other services in the SDK, but which were already supported in version 1.7, include push messaging for Apple, Google, Fire OS and Windows devices; Amazon S3 storage (suitable for any amount of data, unlike the Cognito sync service), SimpleDB and Dynamo DB NoSQL database service, email service, and SQS (Simple Queue Service) messaging.

Windows Phone developers or those using cross-platform tools to build mobile apps cannot use Amazon’s mobile SDK, though all the services are published as a REST API so you could use it from languages other than Objective-C or Java by writing your own wrapper.

The list of supported identity providers for Cognito is short though, with notable exclusions being Microsoft accounts and Azure Active Directory. Getting round this is harder since the federated identity services are baked into the server-side API.

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Microsoft Azure: growing but still has image problems

I attended a Microsoft Cloud Day in London organised by the Azure User Group; I booked this when Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich was set to attend, but regrettably he cancelled at a late stage. I skipped the substitute keynote by UK Microsoftie Dave Coplin as I heard the very same talk earlier this month, so arrived mid-morning at the venue in Whitechapel; not that easy to find amid the stalls of Whitechapel Market (well, not quite), but if you seek out the Whitechapel branch of the Foxcroft and Ginger cafe (not known to Here Maps on Windows Phone, incidentally) then you will find premises upstairs with logos for Barclays Accelerator and Microsoft Ventures; something to do with assisting the flow of cash from corporate giants desperate for community engagement to business start-ups desperate for cash.

Giving technical presentations is hard, and while I admired Richard Conway’s efforts at showing how, with some PowerShell, he could transform some large dataset into rows of numbers using the magic of Azure HDInsight I didn’t think it quite worked. Beat Schwegler dived into code to explain the how and why of Azure Notification Hubs, a service which delivers push notifications to mobile apps; useful material, but could have been compressed. Then there was Richard Astbury at software development company two10degrees who talked about Project Orleans, high scale applications via “an Actor Model framework of programmable in-memory objects”; we learned about grains and silos (or software equivalents) in a session that was mostly new to me.

At the break I chatted with a somewhat bemused attendee who had come in the hope of learning about whether he should migrate some or all of his small company’s server requirements to Azure. I explained about Office 365 and Azure Active Directory which he said was more relevant to him than the intricacies of software development. It turns out that the Azure User Group is really about software development using Azure services, which is only one perspective on Microsoft’s cloud platform.

For me the most intriguing presentation was from Michael Delaney at ElevateDirect, a young business which has a web application to assist businesses in finding employees directly rather than via recruitment agencies. His company picked Amazon Web Services (AWS) over Azure two and a half years ago, but is now moving to Microsoft’s cloud.

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Michael Delaney, CTO and co-founder ElevateDirect

Why did he pick AWS? He is not a typical Microsoft-platform person, preferring open source products including Linux, Apache Solr, Python and MySQL. When he chose AWS, Azure was not a suitable platform for a mainly Linux-based application. However, he does prefer C# to Java. According to Delaney, AWS is a Java-first platform and he found this getting in the way of development.

Azure today, says Delaney, has the first-class support for Linux that it lacked a few years back, and is a better platform for C# applications than AWS even though AWS does support Windows servers.

Migrating the application was relatively straightforward, he said, with the biggest issue being the move from Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) to Azure Storage, though he overcame this by abstracting the storage API behind his own wrapper code.

Azure is not all the way there though. Delaney is disappointed with the relational database options on offer, essentially SQL Server or third-party managed MySQL from ClearDB. He would like to see options for PostgreSQL and others. He would also like the open source Elastic Search to be offered as an Azure service.

There was a panel discussion later at which the question of Azure’s market perception was discussed. Most businesses, according to one attendee, think of AWS as the only option for cloud, even if they are Microsoft-platform businesses for whom Azure might be more suitable. It is a branding problem caused by the AWS first-mover advantage and market dominance, said Microsoft’s Steve Plank.

I would add that Azure is relatively new, at least in its new incarnation offering full IaaS (infrastructure as a service). AWS is also ahead on the number and variety of services on offer, and has not really messed up, which means there is little incentive for existing users to move unless, like Delaney, they find some aspect of Microsoft’s platform (in his case C#) particularly compelling.

This leads me back to the bemused attendee. It seems to me that Azure’s biggest advantage is Azure Active Directory and seamless integration with Office 365. Having said that, it is not difficult to host an application on AWS that uses Azure Active Directory, but there may be some advantage in working with a single cloud provider (and you can expect fast low-latency networking between Azure and Office 365).

Amazon AWS and the continuing trend towards cloud services. Desktops next?

It was a lightbulb moment. The problem:  how to migrate a document store from one Office 365 (hosted SharePoint) instance to another. Copy it all out and copy it back in, obviously, but that is painful over ADSL (which is all I had at my disposal) since the “asynchronous” part of ADSL means slow uploads; and download from Office 365 was not that fast either.

Solution: use an Azure virtual machine. VM hosted by Microsoft, SharePoint hosted by Microsoft, result – a fast connection between the two. I ran up the VM in a few minutes using Microsoft’s nice Azure portal, used Remote Desktop to connect, and copied the documents out and back in no time.

There is a general point here. If you are contemplating cloud-hosted VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure), there is huge advantage in having the server applications and data close to the VDI instances. All you then need is a connection good enough to work on that remote desktop, which is relatively lightweight. If the cloud vendor is doing its job, the internal connections in that cloud should be fast. In addition, from the client’s perspective, most of the data is download, transferring the screen image to the client, rather than upload, transmitting mouse and keyboard interactions, so that is a good use case for ADSL.

The further implication is that the more you use cloud services, the more attractive hosted desktops become. Desktops are expensive to manage, which is why I would expect a service like Amazon Workspaces, hosted Windows desktops as a service, to find a ready market – even at $600 per year for a desktop with Office Professional 2010 preinstalled, or $420 per year if you install and license Office yourself, or use Open Office or some other alternative.

Workspaces are currently in limited preview, which means a closed beta, but there are hints that a public beta is coming soon.

Adopting this kind of setup means a massive dependency on Amazon of course, which is a concern if you worry about that kind of thing (and I think you should); but how much business is now dependent on one of the major cloud providers (I tend to think of Amazon, Microsoft and Google as the top three) already?

Thinking back to my Office 365 example, it also seems to me that Microsoft will make a serious play for cloud VDI in the not too distant future, since it makes so much sense. The problem for Microsoft is further cannibalisation of its on-premise business, and further disruption for Microsoft partners, but if the alternative is giving away business to Amazon, it has little choice.

I was at an Amazon Web Services briefing today and asked whether we might see an Office 365-like package from AWS in future. Unlikely, I was told; but many customers do use AWS for hosting the likes of Exchange and SharePoint.

The really clever thing for Amazon would be a package that looked like Office 365, but using either open source or internally developed applications that removed the need to pay license fees to Microsoft.

What else is new from AWS? I have no exclusives to share, since Amazon has a policy of never pre-announcing new features or services. There were a few statistics, one of which is that Redshift, hosted data warehousing, is Amazon’s fastest-growing product.

Amazon also talked about Kinesis, which lets you analyse streams of data in a 24-hour window. For example, if you wanted to analyse the output from thousands of sensors (say,weather) but do not need to store the data, you can use Kinesis. If you do want to store the data, you can integrate with Redshift or DynamoDb, two of Amazon’s database services.

The company also talked up its Relational Database Service (RDS), where you purchase a managed database service which can currently be MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server. Amazon handles all the infrastructure management so you only need worry about your data and applications.

RSD pricing ranges start from $25 a month for MySQL, to $514 a month for SQL Server Standard (which is actually more expensive than Oracle at $223 per month for the same instance size). Higher capacity instances cost more of course. SQL Server Web edition comes down below Oracle at $194 per month, but I was surprised to see how high the SQL Server costs are. Note that these prices include all the CALs (Client Access Licenses). The prices are actually per hour, eg $0.715 for SQL Server Standard, so you could save money if your business can turn off or reduce the service out of working hours, for example.

How much premium does Amazon charge for its managed RDS versus what you would pay for equivalent capacity in a VM that you manage yourself? I asked this question but did not receive a meaningful reply; you need to do your own homework.

My reflection on this is that just as supermarkets make more money from pre-packaged ready meals than from basic groceries, so too the cloud providers can profit by bundling management and applications into their products rather than offering only basic infrastructure services. You still have the choice; but database admin costs money too.

Finally, we took a quick look at AppStream, which is a proprietary protocol, SDK and service for multimedia applications. You write applications such as games that render video on the server and stream it efficiently to the client, which could be a smartphone or low-power tablet. In this case again, you are taking a total dependency on Amazon to enable your application to run.

If you are interested in AWS, look out for a summit near you. There is one in London on 30th April. Or go to the Reinvent conference in Las Vegas in November.

My overall reflection is that the momentum behind AWS and its pace of innovation is impressive; yet it also seems to me that rivals like Microsoft and Google are becoming more effective. The cloud computing market is such that there is room for all to grow.

Google Compute Engine: good enough to take on Amazon?

A week ago, Google make its Compute Engine generally available. The service offers virtual machine instances as a cloud service, at prices from $0.114 per hour for a single-core VM with 3.75 GB RAM. In addition, you pay for outgoing network traffic and persistent storage. Reflecting the shortage of IP addresses, a static IP costs $0.01 per hour – but only if it is not in use. Linux is the only available operating system.

The service seems similar to Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), but there are a couple of reasons why Google has the potential to take on Amazon. One is that it has the scale: just as Amazon, prior to the launch of EC2, had datacenters already in place to run its ecommerce business, Google has them to run its search and advertising business, as well as services like the Android Play Store, Google Mail, Docs and other cloud services.

Second, Google can afford Amazon-like commodity pricing. It could even afford to lose money on cloud hosting for an extended period, thanks to its dominance in web advertising, if it needed to do so in order to win market share (though I am not suggesting that it is in that position).

Why though would anyone use Google rather than Amazon? A post on Quora highlights some of the reasons, including sub-hour billing, live migration of VMs (no downtime), persistent disks that can be mounted read-only by multiple VMs, more integrated virtual networking, and better network throughput. This last point is interesting: the suggestion is that Google can use its own private connections between datacenters, where Amazon is more dependent on the public internet.

Amazon also has advantages, including a larger portfolio of cloud computing infrastructure services thanks to its greater maturity. Unlike Google Compute Engine, Amazon supports Windows VMs, for example.

Some large customers will want to spread VMs across multiple cloud providers for resilience, and it will not surprise me if Amazon plus Google becomes a popular combination.

Salesforce 1 and the cloud platform wars

Salesforce has announced Salesforce 1, but what it is? Something new, or the same old stuff repackaged?

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Even if it is something new, the ingredients are familiar. Salesforce 1, I have been told,  is a new brand over the Salesforce platform, though it does not replace individual components like Force.com or Heroku.

At heart, Salesforce is a multi-tenant cloud database and web services API, designed originally for CRM but easily adapted for other purposes, and easily extended by third-party partners with their own apps. If you review the components of Salesforce 1 you will find the same core platform and services as before.

If you want a quick overview of what makes up Salesforce 1, I recommend this list of platform services, including quick app development using browser-based tools, Heroku for code-centric development using Ruby, Java, Node.js or Python, web site development with site.com, a mobile SDK for iOS, Android or HTML5,  role-based user access management, private app portal, translation services, custom databases, social and collaboration services, reporting and analytics.

There is a new Salesforce 1 mobile app announced which you can customize. It only runs on iOS or Android; no support for Windows Phone.   

The Salesforce 1 proposition is that user identities are managed in the Salesforce database and that you build your cloud applications around them. Therefore the minimal Salesforce 1 product is One Enterprise App, at $25 per user/month, which gives you identity services (and a few others) and the app platform.

I would imagine that most Salesforce 1 customers will also use other Salesforce 1 products such as CRM or the Service Cloud. CRM, for example, runs from $5.00 per user/month for contact management to $300 per user/month for the Performance Edition, including the Service Cloud, workflow approval and unlimited custom apps. There is feature overlap between the various Salesforce products which may explain why the company encourages you to ask for a custom quote.

My immediate reflection on the Salesforce 1 announcement is that it is a cloud platform play. If you agree that the future of business IT is in cloud and mobile, then it follows that the future competitive landscape will be largely formed around the companies that offer cloud platforms. Large scale tends to win in the cloud, so for better or worse only a few companies will be able to compete effectively. Hence the cloud platform wars.

In this context, Amazon is strong on the app platform and cloud infrastructure side, but does not offer a complete enterprise platform, though recent announcements seem to me a move in that direction.

Google has immense scale and Android, but its strong focus on advertising and consumers perhaps hold back its enterprise offerings. If you run Android you are already hooked into Google’s identity platform.

Microsoft, perhaps oddly given its vast desktop legacy, seems to me a close competitor to Salesforce. Where Salesforce has CRM, Microsoft has Office 365, and where Salesforce has its own identity platform, Microsoft has Azure Active Directory. Apps for Office hook into SharePoint and Azure Active Directory in the same way Salesforce 1 apps hook into the Salesforce platform. There is no love between Salesforce and Microsoft, and constant sniping from Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM team. At the same time, there must be many businesses attracted to Office 365 for email and Office, and to Salesforce for CRM, which may lead to some difficult choices down the road. No wonder Salesforce is ignoring Windows Phone.