For its users, AWS is a public cloud; for Amazon it’s their own cost-effective bare metal cloud.
Understanding how Amazon’s AWS supports the needs of its Amazon.com business is useful when considering the economics of building a cloud environment for your eCommerce business.
Undeniably the most popular and successful eCommerce business of our time, Amazon is unique. And with this success and scale have come challenges that no other eCommerce company has faced previously. Overcoming these challenges is what led to the birth of AWS and is why Amazon.com is now built fully upon it.
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Amazon’s Unique eCommerce Challenges
Perhaps the easiest component of the eCommerce business is providing an online store on which customers can browse and purchase products. Pages are highly templated, while images and content are driven by a database of products. The real challenges for an e-tailer with Amazon.com’s success all revolve around scaling this online store while meeting the demands of customers.
Delivering the best possible user experience, no matter where or when customers are using the site, requires infrastructure with enormous scalability. In order to maximise sales and minimise abandonment, product images and content need to load lightning fast, categories must be searchable and filterable and the site responsive when customers add products to baskets and move through the checkout process. Slow sites leak orders.
Amazon.com’s visitor numbers also vary massively over time. For instance, the number of site users on an average Wednesday will be dwarfed by the Black Friday rush. Provisioning an infrastructure to cater for the peaks in demand, while simultaneously meeting customer expectations, would simply be economically unfeasible. The only option for Amazon was to build on a shared platform that can afford the kind of scalability required.
The issue is further complicated by Amazon.com’s global reach. The same kind of scalability and performance is needed in every region – images can’t be transferred across the globe as customers try to browse products. Instead, images and content need to reside near the user in order to provide a satisfactory customer experience. The only way to achieve this is with infrastructure close to the end-user, meaning huge estates at multiple points across the globe.
AWS = Bare Metal Cloud
Amazon will have very quickly realised that, while third party public clouds offer the scalability it needs, the economics are not in its favour.
In order to be able to offer massive scalability, a public cloud vendor needs to be able to sell unutilised capacity quickly and easily. This means charging low entry points to bring customers on-board for short-term or low-level usage but then charging a premium in other areas to offset the potential cost of under-utilisation. The result is that larger businesses end up paying more for their resources.
For Amazon, building its eCommerce business on someone else’s public cloud would be too expensive. So it built its own.
But when you build your own cloud you build a bare metal cloud, a collection of physical machines, networked and at your disposal, whether it’s for use in dedicated format for databases and containerised apps, or in virtual form for webservers etc. In AWS’s case, this bare metal cloud consists of more than two million Linux servers.
Public cloud is simply an economic model applied to such bare metal infrastructures. By building its own bare metal cloud, Amazon was able to remove the cost premium of building Amazon.com on someone else’s public cloud, and create an additional revenue stream selling the public cloud model to others.
The lesson for eCommerce businesses is to never make assumptions about which type of infrastructure is right for your needs and to always look beyond attractive new-user pricing. The right infrastructure for you always depends upon the type of workloads you will be running, the patterns in demand, locations of users and the utilisation of resources.
The right solution may well be a combination of public cloud and other platforms, like private or bare metal clouds and dedicated servers. The only way to discover this is to thoroughly understand your requirements or consult with experts who can advise you on all the available options.