Amazon’s DIY web services lets you pay as you go

During the Web 2.0 Expo, I happened to walk through the tradeshow and came across the Amazon Web Services booth. As with most of you reading (including myself), when I say Amazon, you’re probably thinking about books and electronics, not web services, right? Well I managed to chat with one of their exhibitors at the Web 2.0 Expo and discovered some interesting things about Amazon Web Services.

The basic understanding of Amazon Web Services is that it is a “do-it-yourself” type approach. The company has a bunch of servers and assortment of web technology at their disposal for your use to operate your website, but unlike a traditional hosting provider, Amazon will not service your server or manage it on your behalf. Perhaps the one benefit of this situation is that you won’t have the need to wait for a server manager to address any issues if you or someone on your team already is the server manager or has the know-how to manage any issues that may arise.

You might think that there are some really critical issues about this arrangement. I’ve thought about those and here’s some of the responses that I got on the spot:

On security: Amazon has their security setup similar to any major hosting provider. They will safeguard your rented server, applications, databases, etc. from denial of service attacks, hackers, unwanted intrusion and even offers you some anti-virus security. This is all applicable to anything that could affect the infrastructure. But you are allowed to add additional security protocols and measures onto your server at any time.

On cost: From what I gathered, it seems that you pay basically based on the amount of bandwidth that you use along with the size of the hard drive that you have on the server. It does seem that you’ll be paying multiple fees just to get your site up and running. The bad news is that you’ll have to pay just to have your server up & running – regardless if anyone is even visiting your site. The good news is that the costs are based on a sliding scale.

Let me explain…you pay for a specific plan just to operate the server. It doesn’t matter if you have a static website or dynamic website with a content management system or any other application running. If the server is operational and functioning according to the specifications, then you’re paying a cost per hour just to have it up. I’m guessing that theoretically you could just turn the server on & off when you’re not using it, but that really might not be safe nor all that cost-effective in the end.

You’re also paying for bandwidth as well, both incoming and outgoing. The incoming is a flat rate that you pay per gigabyte. But the outgoing bandwidth is something more of a sliding scale. The more bandwidth being used in the outgoing process, the cheaper your overall rate will be per X terabytes per month.

On servers: The servers that you can rent from Amazon can handle pretty much anything that you want. You can have a Linux or a Windows server along with any programming language – ColdFusion, Microsoft .NET, PHP, etc. The problem with their servers is that they will not back any of your data up automatically like you would encounter with a hosting provider. In fact, you will need to back the data up to another area periodically if you want to ensure the integrity of your datat. In addition, if you want to operate an email server, you will need to install Microsoft Exchange or any other software onto the servers you rent from Amazon. They merely give you the tangible equipment. You are responsible for installation and implementation. This is also applicable to web analytics as well.

So what is the benefit of using Amazon Web Services? The way that it was explained to me by one of their Business Development Managers made pretty good sense. It’s a “pay-as-you-go” model and can serve multiple uses:

  • Create staging servers that will allow you to post up new websites or applications and conduct some QA testing. This will enable you to double-check your code development and avoid any costly mistakes.
     
  • Use whatever servers you need and increase your operational capacity quickly. This was best explained to me using CNN as an example. As you know, CNN receives a lot of traffic on a daily basis but this can really spike depending on the news of the day (e.g. inauguration of Barack Obama). To avoid paying for back-up servers on a monthly or yearly charge that sit around unused, the network could jump on board with Amazon and rent whatever server space they think they would need. There are no contracts and if CNN didn’t need the servers, they could remove them and stick with their original schematics.

So there’s some pretty good reasons to jump on board and use Amazon Web Services, but there are also some pretty big things to think about. If you’re fine with managing your own server and uploading whatever software you think you’ll need, then you should consider it, but at the same time, do a cost-benefit analysis and make sure that the payment you’re making to Amazon doesn’t exceed what you’re already paying for at your current hosting provider.