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Programming Amazon EC2 by Jurg van Vliet, Flavia Paganelli

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Chapter 1. Introducing AWS

From 0 to AWS

By the late 1990s, Amazon had proven its success—it showed that people were willing to shop online. Amazon generated $15.7 million in sales in 1996, its first full fiscal year. Just three years later, Amazon saw $1.6 billion in sales, and Jeff Bezos was chosen Person of the Year by Time magazine. Realizing its sales volume was only 0.5% that of Wal-Mart, Amazon set some new business goals. One of these goals was to change from shop to platform.

At this time, Amazon was struggling with its infrastructure. It was a classic monolithic system, which was very difficult to scale, and Amazon wanted to open it up to third-party developers. In 2002, Amazon created the initial AWS, an interface to programmatically access Amazon’s features. This first set of APIs is described in the wonderful book Amazon Hacks by Paul Bausch (O’Reilly), which still sits prominently on one of our shelves.

But the main problem persisted—the size of the Amazon website was just too big for conventional (web) application development techniques. Somehow, Jeff Bezos found Werner Vogels (now CTO of Amazon) and lured him to Amazon in 2004 to help fix these problems. And this is when it started for the rest of us. The problem of size was addressed, and slowly AWS transformed from “shop API” to an “infrastructure cloud.” To illustrate exactly what AWS can do for you, we want to take you through the last six years of AWS evolution (see Figure 1-1 for a timeline). This is not just a historical journey, but also a friendly way to introduce the most important components for starting with AWS.

AWS has two unique qualities:

  • It doesn’t cost much to get started. For example, you don’t have to buy a server to run it.

  • It scales and continues to run at a low cost. For example, you can scale elastically, only paying for what you need.

The second quality is by design, since dealing with scale was the initial problem AWS was designed to address. The first quality is somewhat of a bonus, but Amazon has really used this quality to its (and our) advantage. No service in AWS is useless, so let’s go through them in the order they were introduced, and try to understand what problems they were designed to solve.

Timeline of AWS

Figure 1-1. Timeline of AWS

Biggest Problem First

If your system gets too big, the easiest (and perhaps only) solution is to break it up into smaller pieces that have as few dependencies on each other as possible. This is often referred to as decoupling. The first big systems that applied this technique were not web applications; they were applications for big corporations like airlines and banks. These applications were built using tools such as CORBA and the concept of “component-based software engineering.” Similar design principles were used to coin the more recent term service-oriented architecture or SOA which is mostly applied to web applications and their interactions.

Amazon adopted one of the elements of these broker systems, namely message passing. If you break up a big system into smaller components, they probably still need to exchange some information. They can pass messages to each other, and the order in which these messages are passed is often important. The simplest way of organizing a message passing system, respecting order, is a queue (Figure 1-2). And that is exactly what Amazon built first in 2004: Amazon Simple Queue Service or SQS.

By using SQS, according to AWS, “developers can simply move data between distributed components of their applications that perform different tasks, without losing messages or requiring each component to be always available.” This is exactly what Amazon needed to start deconstructing its own monolithic application. One interesting feature of SQS is that you can rely on the queue as a buffer between your components, implementing elasticity. In many cases, your web shop will have huge peaks, generating 80% of the orders in 20% of the time. You can have a component that processes these orders, and a queue containing them. Your web application puts orders in the queue, and then your processing component can work on the orders the entire day without overloading your web application.

Passing messages using a queue

Figure 1-2. Passing messages using a queue

Infinite Storage

In every application, storage is an issue. There is a very famous quote attributed to Bill Gates that 640 K “ought to be enough for anybody.” Of course, he denies having said this, but it does hit a nerve. We all buy hard disks believing they will be more than enough for our requirements, but within two years we already need more. It seems there is always something to store and there is never enough space to store it. What we need is infinite storage.

To fix this problem once and for all, Amazon introduced Amazon Simple Storage Service or S3. It was released in 2006, two years after Amazon announced SQS. The time Amazon took to release it shows that storage is not an easy problem to solve. S3 allows you to store objects of up to 5 terabytes, and the number of objects you can store is unlimited. An average DivX is somewhere between 600 and 700 megabytes. Building a video rental service on top of S3 is not such a bad idea, as Netflix realized.

According to AWS, S3 is “designed to provide 99.999999999% durability and 99.99% availability of objects over a given year.” This is a bit abstract, and people often ask us what it means. We have tried to calculate it ourselves, but the tech reviewers did not agree with our math skills. So this is the perfect opportunity to quote someone else. According to Amazon Evangelist Jeff Barr, this many 9s means that, “If you store 10,000 objects with us, on average we may lose one of them every 10 million years or so.” Impressive! S3 as a service is covered by a service level agreement (SLA), making these numbers not just a promise but a full contract.

S3 was extremely well received. Even Microsoft was (or is) one of the customers using S3 as a storage solution, as advertised in one of the announcements of AWS: “Global enterprises like Microsoft are using Amazon S3 to dramatically reduce their storage costs without compromising scale or reliability”. In only two years, S3 grew to store 10 billion objects. In early 2010, AWS reported to store 102 billion objects in S3. Figure 1-3 illustrates the growth of S3 since its release.

S3’s huge popularity expressed in objects stored

Figure 1-3. S3’s huge popularity expressed in objects stored

Computing Per Hour

Though we still think that S3 is the most revolutionary of services because no one had solved the problem of unlimited storage before, the service with the most impact is undoubtedly Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud or EC2. Introduced as limited beta in the same year that S3 was launched (2006), EC2 turned computing upside down. AWS used XEN virtualization to create a whole new cloud category, Infrastructure as a Service, long before people started googling for IaaS. Though server virtualization already existed for quite a while, buying one hour of computing power in the form of a Linux (and later Windows) server did not exist yet.

Remember, Amazon was trying to decouple, to separate its huge system into components. For Amazon, EC2 was the logical missing piece of the puzzle because Amazon was in the middle of implementing a strict form of SOA. In Amazon’s view, it was necessary to change the organization. Each team would be in charge of a functional part of the application, like wish lists or search. Amazon wanted each (small) team not only to build its own infrastructure, but also for developers to operate their apps themselves. Werner Vogels said it in very simple terms: “You build it, you run it.”

In 2007, EC2 was opened to everyone, but it took more than a year before AWS announced general availability, including SLA. There were some very important features added in the meantime, most of them as a result of working with the initial community of EC2 users. During this period of refining EC2, AWS earned the respect of the development community. It showed that Amazon listened and, more importantly, cared. And this is still true today. The Amazon support forum is perhaps its strongest asset.

By offering computing capacity per hour, AWS created elasticity of infrastructures from the point of view of the application developer (which is also our point of view.) When it was this easy to launch servers, which Amazon calls instances, a whole new range of applications became reachable to a lot of people. Event-driven websites, for example, can scale up just before and during the event and can run at low capacity the rest of the time. Also, computational-intensive applications, such as weather forecasting, are much easier and cheaper to build. Renting one instance for 10,000 hours is just as cheap as renting 10,000 instances for an hour.

Very Scalable Data Store

Amazon’s big system is decoupled with the use of SQS and S3. Components can communicate effectively using queues and can share large amounts of data using S3. But these services are not sufficient as glue between the different applications. In fact, most of the interesting data is structured and is stored in shared databases. It is the relational database that dominates this space, but relational databases are not terribly good at scaling, at least for commodity hardware components. Amazon introduced Relational Database Server (RDS) recently, sort of “relational database as a service,” but its own problem dictated that it needed something else first.

Although normalizing data is what we have been taught, it is not the only way of handling information. It is surprising what you can achieve when you limit yourself to a searchable list of structured records. You will lose some speed on each individual transaction because you have to do more operations, but you gain infinite scalability. You will be able to do many more simultaneous transactions. Amazon implemented this in an internal system called Dynamo, and later, AWS launched Amazon SimpleDB.

It might appear that the lack of joins severely limits the usefulness of a database, especially when you have a client-server architecture with dumb terminals and a mainframe server. You don’t want to ask the mainframe seven questions when one would be enough. A browser is far from a dumb client, though. It is optimized to request multiple sources at the same time. Now, with a service specially designed for many parallel searches, we have a lot of possibilities. By accessing a user’s client ID, we can get her wish list, her shopping card, and her recent searches, all at the same time.

There are alternatives to SimpleDB, and some are more relational than others. And with the emergence of big data, this field, also referred to as NoSQL, is getting a lot of attention. But there are a couple of reasons why it will take time before SimpleDB and others will become successful. The most important reason is that we have not been taught to think without relations. Another reason is that most frameworks imply a relational database for their models. But SimpleDB is incredibly powerful. It will take time, but slowly but SimpleDB will surely find its place in (web) development.

Optimizing Even More

The core principle of AWS is optimization, measured in hardware utilization. From the point of view of a cloud provider like AWS, you need economies of scale. As a developer or cloud consumer, you need tools to operate these infrastructure services. By listening to its users and talking to prospective customers, AWS realized this very point. And almost all the services introduced in this last phase are meant to help developers optimize their applications.

One of the steps of optimization is creating a service to take over the work of a certain task. An example we have seen before is S3, which offers storage as a service. A common task in web (or Internet) environments is load balancing. And just as with storage or queues, it would be nice to have something that can scale more or less infinitely. AWS introduced a service called Elastic Load Balancing or ELB to do exactly this.

When the workload is too much for one instance, you can start some more. Often, but not always, such a group of instances doing the same kind of work is behind an Elastic Load Balancer (also called an ELB). To manage a group like this, AWS introduced Auto Scaling. With Auto Scaling you can define rules for growing and shrinking a group of instances. You can automatically launch a number of new instances when CPU utilization or network traffic exceeds certain thresholds, and scale down again on other triggers.

To optimize use, you need to know what is going on; you need to know how the infrastructure assets are being used. AWS introduced CloudWatch to monitor many aspects of the infrastructure assets. With CloudWatch, it is possible to measure metrics like CPU utilization, network IO, and disk IO over different dimensions like an instance or even all instances in one region.

AWS is constantly looking to optimize from the point of view of application development. It tries to make building web apps as easy as possible. In 2009, it created RDS, a managed MySQL service, which eases the burden of optimization, backups, scaling, etc. Early in 2010, AWS introduced the high availability version of RDS. AWS also complemented S3 with CloudFront, a very cheap content delivery network, or CDN. CloudFront now supports downloads and streaming and has many edge locations around the world.

Going Global

AWS first launched on the east coast of the United States, in northern Virginia. From the start, the regions were designed with the possibility of failure in mind. A region consists of availability zones, which are physically separate data centers. Zones are designed to be independent, so failure in one doesn’t affect the others. When you can, use this feature of AWS, because it can harden your application.

While AWS was adding zones to the US East region, it also started building new regions. The second to come online was Europe, in Ireland. And after that, AWS opened another region in the US, on the west coast in northern California. One highly anticipated new region was expected (and hinted at) in Asia Pacific. And in April 2010, AWS opened region number four in Singapore.

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