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Summary:

The more features that Amazon Web Services puts on its roster, the more nervous AWS partners — and some customers — get. As the company comes up the stack, adding workflow, richer database and other services, many partners and customers fear cloud lock-in.

Amazon.com CTO Werner Vogels

AWS CTO Werner Vogels

The more features that Amazon Web Services adds, the more nervous its partners — and even some of its customers — get.

AWS is the go-to public cloud infrastructure for many businesses. But as the company adds workflow services and richer databases, the fear of cloud lock-in grows.

What brought many customers to AWS in the first place was its inexpensive, plain-vanilla infrastructure — basic computing and storage.  The beauty was you could “spin up” compute instances as needed when workloads spiked, and pay only for what you used. The fact that it was relatively easy to move workloads off of AWS, into your own data centers, or to another cloud, was also a draw.

Binding workloads to AWS

But the advent of new Amazon services such as DynamoDB database and Simple Workflow Services (SWF) means that workloads are getting tied more tightly into the AWS infrastructure.  If developers write to DynamoDB, it’s harder to move their work to non-Amazon platforms. And SWF, which lets developers build workflow-enabled applications that bridge on-premises and AWS resources, blurs the line between customer site and AWS itself.

In many ways, AWS actions mirror what Microsoft did years ago. As Microsoft added more features to Windows or Office, other companies that offered those capabilities as add-ons fell by the wayside. Customers saw no reason to pay these companies for a feature that was included in software they already had — even if the third party product was better. What Microsoft added was “good enough,” was a common response.

In some cases, it makes sense for AWS to offer new services, says Andres Rodriguez, CEO of cloud-storage provider Nasuni. “Essentially anything that is useful to web applications at scale is going to be deployed at AWS. This is why they have made a big push for big data analytics, messaging (middleware or PaaS light) etc.,” he said via email.

Partners eye new features warily

Others, however, say these new services put AWS on track to become a full-fledged platform-as-a-service, a contention that AWS CTO Werner Vogels denied to ZDNet UK recently.  Since many PaaS offerings, including Heroku run on AWS, that would be quite a conflict of interest.

SWF, which enables creation of application components that connect to each other, from a customer site to AWS, is the biggest issue for some. “Simple Workflow Services is a hose that sucks up information from the customer’s data center into Amazon’s cloud. Once that happens, it’s very hard to move off,” said the CEO of a software company that runs part of its offering on AWS but puts the bulk on another cloud provider.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company remains committed to providing flexibility, and developers are free to use as many or as few services as they wish.  “By relying on Amazon SWF to handle the coordination of distributed task execution, developers can now focus on building the differentiating aspects of their applications,” she said. And, to be fair, there are clearly are some developers who welcome higher-level services.

Critics agree with that, but also said that those higher-level services impinge on what platform-as-a-service vendors — many of which run on AWS — already offer developers.

AWS friend or foe?

Will Shulman, CEO of MongoLab, which runs its NoSQL database service on AWS, said he is not perturbed about DynamoDB, the AWS NoSQL entry, because he does not see it as a direct competitor. But that could change. “If Amazon came out with a MongoDB service or another type of document database, that would clearly concern us,” he said.

Some customers, he said, do view DynamoDB, and the earlier, lower-end SimpleDB, as ties that bind them to AWS. “If you are using  SimpleDB or DynamoDB, you can’t switch cloud providers. You can’t even develop your app on your laptop in an airplane without Wi-Fi because those databases only run on Amazon’s cloud.”

Others say the same about the new AWS Storage Gateway, which links data in the customer data center to AWS storage.

The long and short of it is that AWS remains the leader — by a wide margin — in public cloud infrastructure. But worries over whether it will stick to its knitting may lead to more defections. It has definitely already motivated many AWS customers to put at least some of their work on alternative clouds. Rackspace, SoftLayer and other companies could benefit from that.

  1. Fabian Schonholz Wednesday, February 29, 2012

    It is a silly argument. So, do not use AWS full service stack. Use only what you want based on your technology strategy.

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    1. martin english Sunday, March 4, 2012

      I agree; choose your partners and products based on the services you require, then use ONLY those services.

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  2. Got to love those monetization plans handed down from corporate that fundamentally change a service and no one stops to ask if it is a good idea.

    A good example is twitters late relationship with third party folk!

    Im just saying

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  3. Step right this way into the VIP room…

    Scott Herson
    Joyent Cloud Hosting
    Sales – Americas
    herson@joyent.com
    http://www.joyentcloud.com
    949.861.1069

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  4. adrian cockcroft Thursday, March 1, 2012

    I don’t think this should “spook” anyone. Three points:

    1) AWS is exposing higher level components like SWF because it needs these features to orchestrate AWS operations, and has customer demand for the features. One of the biggest AWS customers doesn’t care about lock-in because it’s the amazon.com web site, so the rest of us get access to useful features that are designed to work at huge scale.

    2) Apps are not locked into using APIs from a single cloud vendor. We have built apps that run in our datacenter that use AWS features like SQS, SDB, S3 etc. to help migrate data to EC2. It would be possible to use AWS SWF to orchestrate an app running across EC2, Joyent and Rackspace. These are HTTP/REST APIs that can be called from anywhere.

    3) If SWF turns out to be useful, someone will make an open source clone or cobble together equivalent functionality eventually. In the same way, it’s easy to move from SimpleDB or DynamoDB to the open source Apache Cassandra data store, which has a fairly complete superset of the features of DynamoDB. We’ve moved SDB apps to Cassandra with a few days coding effort.

    The comment that you can’t do development on a laptop on a plane makes no sense to me. Only the most trivial app code could be run standalone, and developers in real life don’t spend their time coding while disconnected.

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    1. This article is silly. As Adrian said, these are API calls not a programming language that locks you in like Python on Google and Apex on Force.com. As Fabian said, you use the services that you want and can choose whether you want to be “locked in” or not by the way you architect your solutions. AWS provides you with tools for your toolbox. You build your house however you want. You can use Amazon’s tools or bring your own.

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  5. Lock-in is something that doesn’t make sense in the context of APIs. APIs are not compulsory. If someone finds value in the AWS APIs, they can choose to use them. We bump into this question at Apprenda on the PaaS side of things all the time.

    Technology like a PaaS can inject lots of “implicit” value into an application, which is a no lock-in model, but can also offer APIs & frameworks which will create lock-in, but an application can choose to not take advantage of that value and avoid lock-in. The AWS scenario is no different.

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  6. Eirikur Hrafnsson Thursday, March 1, 2012

    Well then demands AWS open sources the services, or choose to use an Amazon compatible but 100% renewable compute cloud -> http://greenqloud.com

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