Miscue Calls Attention to Amazon’s Dominance in Cloud Computing

2017-03-12 23:29:03

 

Miscue Calls Attention to Amazon’s Dominance in Cloud Computing

SEATTLE — There have been many opportunities to consider how crucial Amazon has become to the smooth operation of the internet over the past few years.

The most recent involved a case of fat fingers.

That event occurred late last month when an Amazon employee entered an incorrect set of commands on a computer, unintentionally knocking out a large set of servers in an Amazon data center in Northern Virginia and, with it, an array of online services from other companies.

Among the many consequences of the shutdown: Users of the business messaging service Slack couldn’t upload files. Photos on the technology news site The Verge didn’t display. Quora, a popular question-and-answer site, couldn’t be reached.

It was a rare fumble for Amazon in cloud computing, in which companies pay to run their online applications in data centers operated by big providers.

While would-be competitors snoozed, the internet retailer tiptoed into the business technology market over the past decade, becoming the dominant force in cloud computing. Its computing business, Amazon Web Services, hauled in $12.2 billion in revenue last year from customers ranging from Netflix to the C.I.A.

Amazon’s leading position has come with side effects. Its two biggest rivals — Microsoft and Google — are asleep no more. They and other technology companies have preached the benefits of working with multiple cloud providers — the kind of marketing message one would expect from underdogs in a category that could one day engulf the huge market for business software and hardware.

Amazon’s service interruption, though not nearly bad enough to spark a panic among customers, was viewed by some as a moment for reflection.

“It really is a wake-up call to enterprises,” said Craig McLuckie, a former Google technologist who is now chief executive of Heptio, a start-up that makes software tools for more easily moving applications between clouds. “They certainly need to understand to what level of dependency they have on a single provider.”

Amazon’s error was still fresh in people’s minds last week at the Google Cloud Next conference, a jamboree for the search giant to show off its seriousness in cloud computing. At the beginning of her keynote speech, Diane Greene, Google Cloud’s chief executive, boasted about how reliable Google’s cloud service was last year. Taking a jab at Amazon, she quipped that “so far, 2017 looks promising, too.”

It was part of a barrage unleashed by Google to persuade potential customers that they should piggyback on the $30 billion of infrastructure investment it had made over the years.

“We’re here for real; this is an incredibly serious mission,” said Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. “We have the money, means and commitment to pull off a new platform of computation globally for everyone who needs it.”

But even big customers Google showcased at its conference emphasized the importance of not relying exclusively on one company. Darryl West, global chief information officer of HSBC, said at the event that the bank used Google, Amazon and Microsoft for cloud services, noting that each company has its strengths.

Paul Gaffney, Home Depot senior vice president of information technology, who also spoke at the Google event, said, “All of us have a role as consumers to drive competition so multi-cloud is a very important part of doing that.”

Snap, the social networking company that popularized disappearing messages through its Snapchat service, recently revealed in filings for its initial public offering that it has committed to spending $2 billion over five years to use cloud computing services from Google. But Snap also revealed that it would spread the wealth around, committing $1 billion over five years to Amazon’s cloud services.

One fear among businesses is that Amazon’s dominance could lead to a new form of “lock-in,” giving it huge leverage over customers because of the costs of switching providers. In the 1980s and 1990s, those costs helped Microsoft gain a seemingly unshakable grip on personal computing. Microsoft is betting that won’t happen this time.

“This won’t be a winner-take-all scenario,” said Judson Althoff, executive vice president of Microsoft’s worldwide commercial business.

Although they have become credible competitors to Amazon in the past few years — especially Microsoft — the newcomers to cloud computing have a long way to go. In the fourth quarter, Amazon accounted for 40 percent of the worldwide market for public cloud services, compared with 11 percent for Microsoft and 6 percent for Google, which was tied for third place with IBM, according to Synergy Research Group.

Disruptions like the one in late February in what Amazon calls its simple storage service remain rare, especially in relation to comparable computing services operated privately by companies within their own walls. Even with the problem, which lasted for about four hours, the Amazon storage service was up and running more than 99.98 percent of the time in the United States and Europe over the last 90 days, according to CloudHarmony, a cloud measurement service owned by the technology research firm Gartner.

“We will do everything we can to learn from this event and use it to improve our availability even further,” Amazon said in a statement on its website detailing the episode.

Lydia Leong, an analyst at Gartner, did not expect what transpired to cause a rush of companies to shift their cloud computing away from Amazon. She said it was highly unusual for companies to run the same application in more than one cloud because it introduced new complexities and costs.

To avoid being knocked offline, companies can set up their applications to run in multiple regions, across the company’s network of data centers. All of the big cloud providers offer volume discounts, the full benefits of which customers don’t get to enjoy if they divide their use of cloud services among multiple providers.

Still, there are some compelling reasons to use multiple providers, Ms. Leong said. Often companies rely mostly on Amazon for cloud service, while a specific development team inside the company familiar with Microsoft technologies will use Microsoft’s Azure cloud service.

A few years ago, Hearst, the media company, was exclusively using Amazon for cloud computing, but later added services from Microsoft and Google, said Philip R. Wiser, Hearst’s chief technology officer. He said some of the company’s internal online services had been affected by Amazon’s interruption, but nothing the public would have noticed.

Because it’s relatively early in the emergence of cloud computing, Mr. Wiser said he believed it was important to spread one’s bets around.

“Being multi-cloud as a company and having the skill and understanding of how to move between investments — that is an asset,” he said. “We have that as a stated mission for all of our infrastructure team.”

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