Tag Archives: amazon

Google gets serious about App Engine, ups prices

Google App Engine will be leaving preview status and becoming more expensive in the second half of September, according to an email sent to App Engine administrators:

We are updating our policies, pricing and support model to reflect its status as a fully supported Google product … almost all applications will be billed more under the new pricing.

Along with the new prices there are improvements in the support and SLA (Service Level Agreement) for paid applications. For example, Google’s High Replication Datastore will have a new 99.95% uptime SLA (Service Level Agreement).

Premier Accounts offer companies “as many applications as they need” for $500 per month plus usage fees. Otherwise it is $9.00 per app.

Free apps are now limited to a single instance and 1GB outgoing and incoming bandwidth per day, 50,000 datastore operations, and various other restrictions. The “Instance” pricing is a new model since previously paid apps were billed on the basis of CPU time per hour. Google says in the FAQ that this change removes a barrier to scaling:

Under the current model, apps that have high latency (or in other words, apps that stay resident for long periods of time without doing anything) can’t scale because doing so is cost-prohibitive to Google. This change allows developers to run any sort of application they like but pay for all of the resources that your applications use.

Having said that, the free quota remains generous and sufficient to run a useful application without charge. Google says:

We expect the majority of current active apps will still fall under the free quotas.

Free apps are limited to a single instance, 1GB outgoing and 1GB incoming bandwidth per day, and 50,000 datastore operations, among other restrictions.

The pricing is complex, and comparing prices between cloud providers such as Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce.com is even more complex as each one has its own way of charging. My guess is that Google will aim to be at least competitive with AWS (Amazon Web Services), while Microsoft Azure and Salesforce.com seem to be more expensive in most cases.

Would you consider running PHP on Azure? Microsoft faces uphill battle to convince customers.

Yesterday Microsoft announced Windows Azure SDK for PHP version 3.0, an update to its open source SDK for PHP on Windows Azure. The SDK wraps Azure storage, diagnostics and management services with a PHP API.

Microsoft has been working for years on making IIS a good platform for PHP. FastCGI for IIS was introduced partly, I guess, with PHP in mind; and Microsoft runs a dedicated site for PHP on IIS. The Web Platform Installer installs a number of PHP applications including WordPress, Joomla and Drupal.

It is good to see Microsoft making an effort to support this important open source platform, and I am sure it has been welcomed by Microsoft-platform organisations who want to run WordPress, say, on their existing infrastructure.

Attracting PHP developers to Azure may be harder though. I asked Nick Hines, CTO for Innovation at Thoughtworks, a global IT consultancy and developer, what he thought of the idea.

I’d struggle to see any reason. Even if you had it in your datacentre, I certainly wouldn’t advise a client, unless there was some corporate mandate to the contrary, and especially if they wanted scale, to be running a Java or a PHP application on Windows.

Microsoft’s scaling and availability story around windows hasn’t had the penetration of the datacentre that Java and Linux has. If you look at some of the heavy users of all kinds of technology that we come across , such as some of the investment banks, what they’re tending to do is to build front and middle tier applications using C# and taking advantage of things like Silverlight to get the fancy front ends that they want, but the back end services and heavy lifting and number crunching predominantly is Java or some sort of Java variant running on Linux.

Hine also said that he had not realised running PHP on Azure was something Microsoft was promoting, and voiced his suspicion that PHP would be at a disadvantage to C# and .NET when it came to calling Azure APIs.

His remarks do not surprise me, and Microsoft will have to work hard to persuade a broad range of customers that Azure is as good a platform for PHP as Linux and Apache – even leaving aside the question of whether that is the case.

The new PHP SDK is on Codeplex and developed partly by a third-party, ReadDolmen, sponsored by Microsoft. While I understand why Microsoft is using a third-party, this kind of approach troubles me in that you have to ask, what will happen to the project if Microsoft stops sponsoring it? It is not an organic open source project driven by its users, and there are examples of similar exercises that have turned out to be more to do with PR than with real commitment.

I was trying to think of important open source projects from Microsoft and the best I could come up with is ASP.NET MVC. This is also made available on CodePlex, and is clearly a critical and popular project.

However the two are not really comparable. The SDK for PHP is licensed under the New BSD License; whereas ASP.NET MVC has the restrictive Microsoft Source License for ASP.NET Pre-Release Components (even though it is now RTM – Released to manufacturing). ASP.NET MVC 1.0 was licensed under the Microsoft Public License, but I do not know if this will eventually also be the case for ASP.NET MVC 3.0.

Further, ASP.NET MVC is developed by Microsoft itself, and has its own web site as part of the official ASP.NET site. Many users may not realise that the source is published.

My reasoning, then, is that if Microsoft really want to make PHP a first-class citizen on Azure, it should hire a crack PHP team and develop its own supporting libraries; as well as coming up with some solid evidence for its merits versus, say, Linux on Amazon EC2, that might persuade someone like Nick Hine that it is worth a look.

Implications of Amazon’s cloud failure

Amazon is into day three of a major failure of its Elastic Compute Cloud at its North Virginia datacenter, and at the time of writing it is still not fully recovered.


I am reminded of a prescient remark by Tony Lucas at Flexiant, a UK cloud provider, who told me a couple of years ago (with commendable honesty) that cloud failures will be rare, but when they occur will be on a grand scale.

It seems that it is hard to engineer around the possibility of cascading failure. I am not sure what happened in North Virginia, but Amazon says on its status page that:

A networking event early this morning triggered a large amount of re-mirroring of EBS volumes in US-EAST-1. This re-mirroring created a shortage of capacity in one of the US-EAST-1 Availability Zones, which impacted new EBS volume creation as well as the pace with which we could re-mirror and recover affected EBS volumes. Additionally, one of our internal control planes for EBS has become inundated such that it’s difficult to create new EBS volumes and EBS backed instances.

It sounds like an automated recovery system built into the compute cloud actually became the problem, as a large number of volumes tried to fix themselves at the same time.

This is not the first Amazon outage, but I believe it is the most severe; though it could have been worse and I have not heard that any data was lost. What are the implications?

Any computer system can fail. There will be a lot of companies reflecting on this though, both those directly affected and others, and realising that the cloud can be a single point of failure, despite the scale and expertise which a company like Amazon invests in high availability.

Is Amazon EC2 more or less likely to fail for an extended period than Salesforce.com? Or Microsoft Azure? Or Google App Engine, or Gmail, or IBM’s evolving SmartCloud? Clearly an excellent question; but I am not sure how we go about answering it other than by reviewing historical performance. I do not expect any of these companies to take advantage of Amazon’s problems to proclaim their own superior resiliency; they will all be worrying too much about the same thing happening on their platforms.

My guess is that the industry will get better at this, and that at some unspecified future moment the chance of one of these cloud platforms failing for three days will become exceedingly small – of course risk can never be eliminated, only reduced.

It seems that the risk is not exceedingly small on Amazon’s cloud today; and we should probably assume that the same applies to other providers.

That is something we have always known, so in one sense nothing has changed. This outage is a sharp reminder though; and planning for failure is a hidden cost of cloud computing that has now been brought into the light.

The rise of the eBook is a profound change in our culture

The Association of American Publishers has announced that in February 2011 ebooks ranked above print in all trade categories. Note that these figures are for the USA, and that in revenue ebooks are well behind print – $164.1M vs $441.7M. It is also worth noting that print sales are falling fast, 24.8% year on year, whereas ebooks are growing fast, 202.3% year on year.


This does sound like a reprise of what has happened in the music industry, where broadly speaking physical formats are heading toward obsolescence, download is growing, but the overall pie is smaller because of the ease of piracy. There is perhaps another more subtle point, that when the marginal cost of production is near zero, prices too tend to race to the bottom in a competitive market.

Books are not equivalent to music. Physical books still have advantages. They have zero battery requirements, work well in sunlight, some have beautiful pictures, you can write on them and fold back the corner of a page, and so  on. There are more advantages to ebooks though, in cost, weight, searchability, interactivity, and freedom from the constraints of a printed page. Years ago I was in the book publishing industry, and convinced that ebooks would take off much sooner than in fact they did. Much money was wasted in the light of false dawns. I remember – though it was long after I was involved – how some booksellers invested in Microsoft’s .lit format, readable on PCs and Pocket PCs, only to discover that there was little market for it.

What changed? It was no single thing; but factors include the advent of high-contrast screens that are both low-power and readable outside; the appearance of dedicated tablet-style readers that are lightweight but with book-sized screens; the marketing muscle of Amazon with the Kindle and Apple with the iPad – though the iPad screen is sub-optimal for reading – and some mysterious change in public perception that caused ebooks to transition from niche to mainstream.

Books are not going away of course, just as CDs and even vinyl records are still with us. I think though we can expect more high street closures, and libraries wondering what exactly their role is meant to be, and that the publishing industry is going to struggle with this transition just as the music industry has done. Ebook growth will continue, and as Amazon battles its rivals we will see the price of the Kindle fall further. Apple will lock its community more tightly to iTunes, as its policy on forbidding in-app purchases that do not go through its own App Store and pay the Apple tax plays out.

That is all incidental. What I am struggling to put into words is what the decline of the printed word means for our culture. You can argue that it is merely a symptom of what the internet has brought us, which is true in its way; but it is a particularly tangible symptom. No longer will you be able to go into someone’s room and see clues about their interests and abilities by glancing at bookshelves.

I am on a train, and by one of life’s strange synergies someone has just sat down next to me and pulled out a Kindle.

I do not mean to be negative. Much though I love books, there are now better ways to store and read words, and while the printed word may be in decline, the written word has never been more popular. I am in no doubt though that this is a profound change.

Five years of Amazon Web Services

Amazon introduced its Simple Storage Service in March 2006. S3 was not the first of the Amazon Web Services (AWS); they were originally developed for affiliates who needed programmatic access to the Amazon retail store in order to use its data on third-party web sites. That said, there is a profound difference between a web service for your own affiliates, and one for generic use. I consider S3 to mark the beginning of Amazon’s venture into cloud computing as a provider.

It is also something I have tracked closely since those early days. I quickly wrote a Delphi wrapper for S3; it did not set the open source world alight but did give me some hands-on experience of the API. I was also on the early beta for EC2.

Amazon now dominates the section of the cloud computing market which is its focus, thanks to keen pricing, steady improvements, and above all the fact that the services have mostly worked as advertised. I am not sure what its market share is, or even how to measure it, since cloud computing is a nebulous concept. This Wall Street Journal article from February 2011 gives Rackspace the number two slot but with only one third of Amazon’s cloud services turnover, and includes the memorable remark by William Fellows of the 451 Group, “In terms of market share Amazon is Coke and there isn’t yet a Pepsi.”

The open source Eucalyptus platform has paid Amazon a compliment by implementing its EC2 API:

Eucalyptus is a private cloud-computing platform that implements the Amazon specification for EC2, S3, and EBS. Eucalyptus conforms to both the syntax and the semantic definition of the Amazon API and tool suite, with few exceptions.

AWS is not just EC2 and S3. Other offerings include two varieties of cloud database, services for queuing, notification and email, and the impressive Elastic Beanstalk for automatically scaling your application on demand.

Should we worry about Amazon’s dominance in cloud computing? Possibly, especially as the barriers to entry are considerable. Another concern is that as more computing infrastructure becomes dependent on Amazon, the potential disruption if the service were to break increases. How many of Amazon’s AWS customers have a plan B for when EC2 fails? Amazon defuses anti-competitive concerns by continuing to offer commodity pricing.

Amazon has quietly changed the computing landscape though; and though this is a few weeks late the 5th birthday of its cloud services deserves a mention.

Amazon introduces its cloud player – but Spotify makes more sense

Amazon has introduced its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Cloud Drive offers 5GB of online storage free, with further storage available for a fee. For example, an additional 15GB costs $20 per year, and you can have a full 1000GB for $1000 per year.


Having said that, a note in the FAQ says that:

The 5 GB free storage plan is available to all Amazon.com customers, however further upgrades to the storage plan are currently unavailable in the following countries

where the list is of countries in Europe including the UK.

The Cloud Drive looks nicely implemented except that there is no provision as far as I can tell for sharing. It is an odd omission, unless Amazon sees Cloud Drive as mainly for storing personal music and media purchases and wishes to discourage breach of copyright, so I am guessing this is the case. This does make rivals like Microsoft’s SkyDrive more interesting for general cloud storage though, particularly as you get 25GB free with SkyDrive.

So on to the Cloud Player. There are two versions, a web player that is part of Cloud Drive, and an Android player which is part of the Amazon MP3 application. My first attempt at using the web player failed – US customers only:


However, when I uploaded some MP3 files to the Cloud Drive they played fine in the Cloud Player:


I tried the Android player briefly. It worked well with MP3s already on my device, but I have not yet attempted to sign into the Cloud Drive.

There is no player for Apple iOS and when I visited the site in mobile Safari even the web player did not appear, though this may be another UK/USA issue.

Naturally Amazon is encouraging use of Cloud Drive and Cloud Player with its MP3 store. The idea is that you no longer need bother to download MP3 files. Just store them in Cloud Drive, and play them wherever you are, though download remains an option either on purchase or later from the Cloud Drive.

A few observations. Cloud Drive is a welcome feature, though it is nothing new and crippled by lack of sharing capability. Other applications built on Amazon S3 cloud storage do include the ability to share files.

Cloud Player enhances the Amazon MP3 store and I suppose is worth having, though I am sceptical about this model of music purchase. Once you have moved the focus of music storage from local drives to the cloud, and playback from the local network to cloud streaming, then a subscription model that offers everything available on the service makes more sense. This is what Spotify does successfully, though I appreciate that not all music is available on Spotify, and that some countries including the USA cannot use it.

I wonder what happens when you store an MP3 purchase in Cloud Drive? Does Amazon really store a separate copy for every user, or does it simply link to its master copy so that it appears to be in your personal space? The latter would save storage space; and the idea shows that technically it might not be difficult for Amazon to transition from a model based on individual track purchase to one based on all-you-can-hear subscription.

Agreeing this with the music labels and making financial sense of such a deal is another matter; but I hope that this new Cloud Player is a step in that direction.

Amazon Kindle goes social with Public Notes, Twitter and Facebook integration

A free firmware update for Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader adds several new features, including an element of social networking.

The features are as follows:

  • Page numbers for easier referencing, for example in essays, reviews and discussions. Page numbers must be included in the digital book for this to work. It is not clear how many titles include them; Amazon just says “Many titles in the Kindle Store now include real page numbers”.
  • New newspaper and magazine layout with a “Sections & Articles” view. Each section has its own article list for easier browsing.


  • Public notes with Facebook and Twitter integration. This is the feature that makes Kindle reading social. You can attach notes to a passage and make them publicly viewable by other readers who choose to follow you, either on a note-by-note basis, or by making an entire book public through the Amazon website. You can also register a Facebook and Twitter account and have specific notes and ratings posted to those who follow you on those networks.


The advantage for Amazon is that these features should promote books through viral marketing.

It comes at an interesting time, since Apple’s new subscription rules may make it difficult for Amazon to continue supporting iPhone and iPad with free readers. Apple is insisting on a 30% cut of the revenue for all titles purchased through apps, forming a financial barrier for competitors to its own iBooks service.

If Amazon can cement loyalty to Kindle though social network integration, that could help it maintain market share.


What will it take to get developers to try Windows Azure? Microsoft improves its trial offer

Microsoft has announced an improved introductory trial for Windows Azure. You can now get:

  • 750 hours of an Extra Small Compute Instance
  • 25 hours of a Small Compute Instance
  • 500MB storage
  • 10,000 storage transactions
  • 500MB in / 500MB out data transfer
  • 1G Web Edition SQL Azure database

The offer lasts until the end of June, after which you will be charged at standard rates. The allowances are I believe per month – note that 750 hours is approximately the number of hours in a month so you can run an extra small instance continuously. This is the main change from the previous trial, which only offered 25 hours of a small compute instance.

You cannot sign up without handing over credit card details.

Further, some of these limits are not really generous. This blog, for example, would chew through those data transfer limits in no time.

Microsoft is also less generous than Amazon, which offers a year of free usage with data transfer of 15GB in and 15GB out per month. Google App Engine is free up to 1GB or persistent storage and about 5 million pages views a month.

I guess Microsoft needs to figure out whether it wants to target mainly enterprise and large-scale applications, or to offer a commodity platform to a broader market. I doubt this offer is aimed at enterprises. After all, serious commercial developers on Microsoft’s platform have MSDN subscriptions, which with premium and ultimate subscriptions already offer inclusive Azure time that is better than this: 7GB in and 14 GB out per month, for example. Startups on the BizSpark scheme also get this allowance.

This offer is for the rest of us then. It is certainly getting easier to try Azure, but is this enough to encourage experimentation? I suspect Microsoft may need to come even closer to what is offered by the competition.

Using HTML 5 to mitigate locked-down platforms like Apple iOS

Apple has created a beautiful mobile platform; but it has some drawbacks. One was highlighted yesterday, when Apple rejected an app from Sony for reading and purchasing digital books on the device.

According to Apple’s Trudy Miller, as quoted in the New York Times:

We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app.

What Miller does not spell out is the further implication, which is that the purchase must go though the Apple App Store, and is therefore subject both to approval and to a 30% fee to Apple.

There is a suggestion that Apple is only applying the rule to books at the moment, but that could change. Other readers such as Amazon’s Kindle app will be affected though, after a grace period ending June 30 2011 for existing applications.

Currently these apps have a link which opens the browser, so that users can purchase on the web, and then download to the device, and this is what is annoying Apple. It is not clear to me whether Apple will be satisfied if that link is removed, but with users still to bypass the App Store by purchasing on the web.

It matters little. It is Apple’s platform, and tight control is one of its facets that makes it what it is. Apple can argue that it is enforcing the quality of the user experience. It seems to me that there are competition concerns if Apple comes to dominate a particular market; but don’t hold your breath for change driven by regulators.

What interests me about the issue is the extent to which HTML 5 apps provide a solution. Safari/WebKit on iPhone is a capable platform, and apps can even work offline and have local shortcuts installed. You can use local storage up to at least 5MB, with the user prompted to increase the limit if it is a SQL database – SQLite is built in to the platform.

Local storage is a problem for eReaders, though you can cache a fair amount of text even in 5MB. For many apps though, it is more than enough.

The more Apple locks down and taxes its platform, the more attractive the HTML5 alternative becomes.

How is Windows Azure doing? Few mission critical apps says Microsoft

I attended an online briefing given by Azure marketing man Prashant Ketkar. He said that Microsoft is planning to migrate its own internal systems to Azure, “causing re-architecture of apps,” and spoke of the high efficiency of the platform. There are thousands of servers being managed by very few people he said – if you visit a Microsoft datacenter, “you will be struck by the absence of people.” Some of the efficiency is thanks to what he called a “containerised model”, where a large number of servers is delivered in a unit with all the power, networking and cooling systems already in place. “Just add water, electricity and bandwidth,”, he said, making it sound a bit like an instant meal from the supermarket.

But how is Azure doing? I asked for an indication of how many apps were deployed on Azure, and statistics for data traffic and storage. “For privacy and security reasons we don’t disclose the number of apps that are running on the platform,” he said, though I find that rationale hard to understand. He did add that there are more than 10,000 subscribers and said it is “growing pretty rapidly,” which is marketing speak for “we’re not saying.”

I was intrigued though by what Ketkar said about the kinds of apps that are being deployed on Azure. “No enterprise is talking about taking a tier one mission critical application and moving it to the cloud,” he said. “What we see is a lot of marketing campaigns, we see a lot of spiky workloads moving to the cloud. As the market start to get more and more comfortable, we will see the adoption patterns change.”

I also asked whether Microsoft has any auto-scaling features along the lines of Amazon’s Elastic Beanstalk planned. Apparently it does. After acknowledging that there is no such feature currently in the platform, though third-party solutions are available, he said that “we are working on truly addressing the dynamic scaling issues – that is engineering work that is in progress currently.”