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Is Apple tapping Amazon and Microsoft to boost iCloud?

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Apple (s AAPL) entered into the cloud services arena with a bang with the launch of iCloud at the Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco this week. But according to a recent post at the InfiniteApple blog, Apple appears may be getting a little help from its frenemies in getting iCloud off the ground.

An anonymous tipster sent a series of screenshots to InfiniteApple earlier this week. The screenshots (embedded at the bottom of this post) purportedly show the HTTP traffic logged when an image is sent through Apple’s new iMessage service. The Infinite Loop post says the data may indicate that iCloud is utilizing Amazon’s cloud storage system S3 (s AMZN) and Microsoft’s (s MSFT) Azure cloud service to assist in delivering the message.

Does this mean that the photos of the new 500,000 square foot data center Steve Jobs showed off during the WWDC keynote are just a front? Not necessarily. We ran the screenshots by three networking and cloud experts at major companies. All three said that the screenshots did not conclusively show how iCloud was utilizing the Amazon and Microsoft technologies, if at all.

Two sources said that the log could simply show that the image sent over iMessage was itself initially hosted on Azure or Amazon. A third source said Apple may be using Azure and AWS for content delivery network (CDN) purposes. That would mean that the files are ultimately hosted on Apple servers, but Apple is caching copies of some data on strategically placed CDN servers run by Azure and Amazon’s CloudFront to help speed up delivery. In other words, Apple could be leveraging cloud services from Amazon and Microsoft for short-term iCloud caching to boost speed and reliability — not because its own servers are incapable of handling the content.

Utilizing CDNs is a very common practice even at the highest levels, the third source added. Apple itself has a history of using CDNs, but mostly Akamai (s akam) and Limelight (s llnw) to help serve media content such as iTunes. If anything, the big scandal here is not that Apple is using third-party cloud services to run iCloud, but that it’s opted to use Microsoft and Amazon’s offerings instead of its longtime partners.

But again, we ultimately did not turn up any slam-dunk verdict on exactly how iCloud is using AWS and Azure, if at all. If you have any insight, please chime in via the comments. And to learn more about clouds, CDNs and networking, please attend our Structure 2011 conference on June 22 and 23 in San Francisco.

Screenshots sourced from

5 Responses to “Is Apple tapping Amazon and Microsoft to boost iCloud?”

  1. Makes sense.
    Apple isn’t much of a technology company – they do a very decent job of integrating, packaging and marketing, but most of their products are made possible by technology developed by other companies.

    There is a significant technological barrier to entering the market for extensive cloud services at this scale ( = as big as it gets). Amazon, Microsoft and Google have some experience in this and already offer large-scale cloud services. Maybe Apple will eventually become a serious cloud service provider in their own right, but it can’t happen right away.

  2. I think iMessage is using the same Push Notification technology that it’s been using for a year or so now to deliver iMessages, so they probably are planning to gradually move over to the iOS 5 version during the developer beta phase.

  3. I attended a presentation on Amazon Web Services at Amazon’s new Seattle headquarters on Tuesday of this week. Across the table from me was a guest who worked with Microsoft’s own web services. I couldn’t get much out of him about Microsoft, but he did volunteer that Apple’s ownership of a huge new data center didn’t mean that Apple really knew how to run such a beast. Others must be helping Apple, he hinted, without giving any names. At that time, neither Microsoft or Amazon entered my mind as among the others, given their corporate-level competition. But based on the information above, it might be happening.

    Keep in mind the main points that Amazon’s web service guru made at that meeting.

    * First, the cost of running huge server farms has been dropping rapidly due to intense competition between hardware and chip makers. That explains why Microsoft, Amazon, and now Apple have gotten into the field and why many web services are free or virtually free. It probably explains why most iCloud services will be free.

    * Second, once you have a capacity as huge as Amazon has created to take care of its peak demand, selling off-peak capacity at almost any price makes sense. Getting something is always better than getting nothing. That could be what Apple is doing here. Until Lion is out and iCloud is fully operational, it may simply make good business sense to rent capacity from Amazon or Microsoft rather than buy shiny new equipment that’ll sit idle most of the time. And it is not impossible that relationship will continue after the NC center is fully online.

    * Third, for some purposes latency is a major issue. For good latency, you not only need a lot of capacity, you need to be located close to users. Amazon’s Droid game emulation links users to Amazon’s closest server farm to give the sort of latency they need. For some purposes, Apple may also find it makes good sense technically to host on someone else’s nearby servers rather than its own more distant ones.

    In short, money and a shared interest in it can smooth over a lot of differences, even those between foes as vocal as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.

    • Colleen Taylor

      Wow, that’s some interesting insight, Mike. Sounds like there may be a deeper integration there after all, based on what you’ve heard. Thanks for the comment.