UPDATED 14:28 EST / NOVEMBER 30 2016


Greengrass and Snowmobiles: Amazon Web Services brings the cloud back to Earth

In a major expansion of its ambitions to lead the next era of computing, Amazon.com Inc. today announced a number of initiatives intended to bring cloud computing down to Earth.

The company’s Amazon Web Services unit, which provides storage, computing and related services over the Internet to nearly 5 million companies and organizations, unveiled several products and services that bring those services from its own massive data centers closer to devices that are producing more and more data. That data requires lots of networking capacity to move, making it difficult and expensive to do all computing in the cloud.

In the most dramatic example of Amazon’s physical-world intentions, the company today drove a 45-foot truck (above) onto the floor of a ballroom where AWS Chief Executive Andy Jassy presented a keynote on the unit’s ambitious future plans at its annual AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas. The truck held a container with storage and computing gear and software inside that can store the equivalent of 50 trillion pages of text.

The product, called Snowmobile, can store up to 100 petabytes of data and is intended for the largest companies that want to move their data to Amazon’s cloud but find it far too time-consuming and expensive to do that over the Internet. “We’ll drive the truck up to your data center … fill her up… and move it back to AWS,” Jassy explained.

The new appliance, available today, is a much bigger version of the Snowball cooler-sized appliance it introduced a year ago. It also offered a new version today called Snowball Edge that can not only store more data but also has computing capabilities inside. That’s useful for applications such as collecting data on the ocean or flight data on aircraft or analyzing aberrations in turbines on General Electric Co. windfarms, all of which may need to use data immediately and don’t have good Internet connections to reach cloud services.

Potentially more important than the hardware was Amazon’s introduction today of new software called Greengrass that’s intended to allow offline operations and local processing of data on the fly without requiring cloud services. A smart light bulb or home heating system, for instance, could continue running in some form even if the Internet connection is disrupted.

Greengrass includes AWS IoT software that connects devices to the cloud and the AWS Lambda software computing engine, and Amazon says it can access other AWS services. Software programs running in farflung locations can collect and filter new data and send it to the cloud for longer-term storage and processing. The software will be embedded in processor chips from Intel Corp. and Qualcomm Corp. as well as in devices from many companies.

“What customers want is on these devices the same flexibility to do analytics and compute as they can in the cloud,” Jassy said.

The moves are a further acknowledgment by Amazon, which has championed moving as many computing workloads as possible to its public cloud, that “hybrid” cloud setups that combine the cloud with private data centers work better for many customers. The need to bring cloud computing to the “edge” of networks is becoming especially important as data from mobile devices and myriad sensors, known as the Internet of Things, starts to take off.

“Where the cloud is heading is, you’re not going to move most data to the center,” said Peter Burris, head of research at SiliconANGLE Media, which publishes SiliconANGLE. “You’re going to move the cloud to the edge.”

Jassy said the rise of IoT suggests a wholesale change in what constitutes a data center, which in the future may include all kinds of data-producing and -consuming devices. “More and more companies are deploying these connected devices all over their assets,” he said. “That’s why the cloud is so important to these business cases,” which include Major League Baseball’s Statcast player analysis services, Illumina Inc.’s genome sequencing, and John Deere’s more than 200,000 telematically connected tractors.

Moreover, Amazon is increasingly aiming at the largest companies, pushing them to move their most important applications to AWS. Some, such as Capital One and Italian utility Enel, are already doing so, but many more need to accommodate existing systems that they can’t afford to risk disrupting. In the process of serving these big customers, AWS is starting to take on technology stalwarts such as Oracle Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co.

“There’s a real changing of the guard these days,” said Jassy, who couldn’t resist an opportunity to take a couple of jabs at Oracle, which in turn had targeted AWS at the software giant’s recent trade show. “A new guard is rising to become the technology leaders.”

The move to embrace hybrid cloud computing isn’t entirely new. Besides Snowball, Amazon in October forged a deal with virtual computing firm VMware Inc. to allow the widely used software for running multiple versions of operating software on the same computers, to be used on AWS’s cloud.

Amazon announced new forays into artificial intelligence as well. In what is likely the most significant new capability, the company is opening up its Alexa voice interface technology used in its popular Echo smart speaker, to software developers through its cloud.

AWS also rolled out a host of new versions of its computing and storage services that are faster and can handle more storage and memory, as well as new computing “instances” or uses of a cloud server that can use custom chips and graphics processing units. Not least, it announced a new service called Lightsail that is intended to be a simpler, turnkey “virtual private server” that can be set up quickly to provide AWS storage and computing services with little knowledge of the individual services.

Analyst Burris said AWS still needs some additional products to fulfill its ambitions. One is a computing and storage appliance that would reside inside corporate data centers. It also needs to make a decision on how to provide field service such as management and repair of systems onsite, a very expensive proposition.

“While AWS is facing more competition than ever, the company continues to build on its wide product lead by adding more and more functions and services for its customers,” Macquarie Capital Inc. analyst Ben Schachter write in a note to clients. “AWS will remain a key part of the Amazon growth engine for many years to come.”

Photo by Robert Hof

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