Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Nine Questions for Andy Jassy, Head of Amazon Web Services

andy_jassy_speakingIt’s pretty clear that this cloud computing thing that has so rocked the world of enterprise IT is here to stay, and no one has had more to do with that than Amazon. The Web retail giant’s Amazon Web Services unit has in seven years and change made an indelible mark on the way companies consume computing — by renting it remotely, not buying it permanently. Meanwhile, other computing companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard are scrambling to build their own cloud computing services that look and feel a lot like AWS.

Next week Amazon will hold its second re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, giving customers a chance to learn about AWS’s latest capabilities. I recently had a chance to talk to Andy Jassy, the Amazon SVP who heads up AWS, who will deliver that conference’s first keynote next week.

AllThingsD: We know AWS is a big business for Amazon, but we still don’t know exactly how big. Next week you’re holding your big conference. Give us a preview of what you’re going to talk about.

Andy Jassy: I am really excited for re:Invent next week. It’s our second conference. What’s a little bit different about re:Invent is that it’s not really a marketing conference. It’s much more about sharing information and education, which is why I think people liked it so much last year. So we’ll have about 175 courses and 40 percent of them will be taught by customers or partners. And what we’re really hoping for is that attendees will learn a lot more about what AWS is, how the services work, how they’re architected and other use cases that people are implementing. So they can leave with the knowledge they need to go and build applications on the platform.

A couple of the themes that I will focus on are innovation and agility. The challenging economy has led to a real sense of helplessness in a lot of companies. We’ve heard that employees are feeling like there’s no point in waking up and coming into the office because they’re not empowered to experiment and innovate. In most enterprises today, there are too many gatekeepers between employees’ ideas and the infrastructure required to turn them into reality. When the cost of experimentation is high, and requires the approvals of a lot of committees and getting IT to schedule a project often weeks out, it’s really hard to foster a culture of innovation.

The agility that you get with cloud computing changes all of this. With AWS, you can try new ideas for your customers and business quickly, easily and inexpensively. And if they fail, there’s no collateral damage, which is really exciting since it removes the paralyzing fear of failure that often stifles creativity. In fact, our customers are telling us that new ideas are now coming from across the organization and that employees are excited to innovate on behalf of their customers.

I’ll also talk about hybrid IT architectures, which is pretty different than some of the old-guard IT vendors. The old guard believes that companies want to run almost everything on-premises, behind the firewall, with just a little surging to the cloud when they need it. We believe that, in the fullness of time, very few companies will own their own data centers and those that do will have much smaller footprints. The vast majority of computing is moving to the cloud. If that is your perspective, you build tools that allow companies to do what they currently do on premises, but make it simple to make the transition that will inevitably happen. We will have some exciting new capabilities to introduce along these lines.

So it seems like you’re launching new services almost every few days or so. You’re moving so fast that it’s actually hard to keep track. So bring me up to date. What’s the newest service that AWS has launched?

Probably the newest one is mobile push. It’s part of our simple notification service. It allows push on mobile devices. Customers are already sending millions of messages a day. But you’re right, this year we’ve launched a lot of new services. Just to give you an idea of the pace: In 2010 we launched 61 of what we considered to be significant products and services. In 2011 it was 82. In 2012 it was 159. This year through September it’s 179, and we’ll be well above 200 by the end of the year.

Another is Cloud HSM, the hardware security module. These are tamper-proof boxes that customers with very sensitive crypto keys use to store them. If an unauthorized person tries to access it a certain number of times it shuts down and you can never use it or open it. We had a couple of customers who wanted us to put their HSMs in our data center. We didn’t want to do that. When we started to hear customers ask for it often enough we decided to build a service around it.

You recently won the CIA’s cloud computing contract. It surprised me that the CIA, which you would think of as being very conservative in its IT approach, would be willing to embrace the public cloud. What does it mean to have the CIA as a client?

I have to think about what I can say here. The CIA and the intelligence community are trying to change the way they do computing. They wanted a platform that was transformational in how fast they could get their work done, how readily it scales, the array of services available for them to do their workloads. We were certainly pleased and gratified they chose us. … They were looking for a very robust and fully-featured infrastructure platform.

Let’s talk about your work on GovCloud, the Government-facing cloud computing service. It launched following work by Vivek Kundra, the former CIO of the United States, who urged the government to embrace cloud computing as a way of saving costs. Have there been other federal government clients?

Sure. There have been more than 600 government agencies worldwide that are using AWS. The Navy has put its non-classified information on AWS and is spending half of what it was spending before. NASA JPL uses it for the Mars Exploration Rover. There’s this rover on Mars that is taking pictures and sending them back to JPL to process and assess what else they want pictures of and where they want the rover to go. And that’s all done on AWS. The Obama campaign used AWS, and over 18 months built 200 applications. On election day they built a call center, they built an elaborate database to know where their volunteers were, know the neighborhoods where people appeared not to have voted, so they could go knock on doors and get out the vote.

Are you certified for health care? You can guess where I’m going with this. Obviously I’ve been thinking of AWS against the backdrop of the mess with HealthCare.gov and its botched rollout. It seems to me that this is just the sort of job that AWS was built to handle …

Our healthcare and pharmaceutical customers can be HIPAA compliant on top of our environment. We provide the right kind of capabilities for that. … We watched what happened with that site. When you’re in the space that we’re in, you never wish that sort of thing on anybody. I don’t know the details of what went wrong there. These things are always more complicated than what gets written about. It’s hard to know unless you’re inside.

So what are your priorities for the remaining weeks of the year and into next year?

There’s a lot. I think you’ll see us continue to add features in almost every single one of our services. There will be additional instance types within our EC2 service. We’ll have a number of new cross-region capabilities. I think you’ll continue to see us pushing our geographical expansion. We have nine regions around the world today and we’re not done adding to them. You’ll see more services. Customers are telling us what they want, and that drives a lot of what we put on the roadmap. And I think you’ll see us adding capabilities for companies with large data sets that want to do computing and processing, and then make that data useful. That’s the whole big data thing that everyone is talking about. I think you’ll see us add services there that make it easier and less expensive for customers to do that.

IBM recently bought SoftLayer to try and boost its cloud services footprint. How do you see the competitive landscape these days?

Every large technology company has been rushing to try and build what AWS has been working on for the last seven and-a-half years. We always expected that would happen. We expected lots of companies to pursue this. Today when we talk to customers about what the competitive options they are weighing against AWS, it is typically an on-premise solution. We try to talk to them about cloud versus on-premise. Then we let them try running their workloads in the cloud. Once they’ve tried it, they get excited and want to start making plans to migrate more of their workloads. That’s typically what we see. We have always believed there would be many successful players in this space. Think about what AWS does: We provide infrastructure, software, hardware and data center services. If you think about that market segment, it’s trillions of dollars. There simply won’t be only one player.

Do you find customers are becoming more trusting of the cloud?

I think receptivity to the cloud is much higher than it was a year ago. If I consider where we were with enterprise and public sector customers on this subject four years ago, it’s like night and day. You see it in the adoption of AWS. And yet it’s still at the relative beginning. There is more comfort with it because customers have seen it operate for more than seven years and there’s some proven operating stability.

When we launched the platform we had so few features, it was nothing like what we offer today. And that’s the challenge our competitors are facing as they enter the market now. They’re now where we were about four or five years ago. Enterprises want to take the workloads they’ve been running in a certain way and run them in largely a similar way in the cloud with the same capabilities. We’ve been iterating very quickly. Take Red Shift, our data warehouse service. We launched it in February and in about eight months we’ve added 20 features to it. That pace of innovation not only allows you to address more workloads, but it also gives enterprises confidence that you’ll be a solid partner. If we don’t offer all the functionality that they want now, we’re able to listen and quickly add what they want.

How do you do it so quickly?

Good question. I don’t know if I have a perfect answer. I think it’s a few things. It’s who we hire. We prefer to hire builders. By that I mean people who are entrepreneurial and inventive. They’re people who think launch is just a starting line. They also are people who want to use what they build. You get better ownership and accountability. We also have a culture that is really lean-forward on innovation. Some companies tend to say no to new ideas. At Amazon — and especially in AWS — the leadership team is always trying to say yes. … That has a big impact on the team. It encourages people to come up with new ideas that can help customers.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik