Thanks, Amazon: The Cloud crash reveals your importance

The continuing troubles of Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud show how it's making possible much of the Internet as we know it

The outage of Amazon's Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) service has shone a light on the number of Websites that use the service, which allows companies to hire computing power inexpensively on Amazon's systems.

Social link site Reddit, Q&A site Quora, social media monitor Hootsuite, geolocation tool Foursquare, iPhone app store Cydia, and programmer sites Heroku and Engine Yard have all been affected. A quick Twitter search reveals many more. (Here's my favorite tweet, from Nicolethebear: "Dear Amazon EC2 -- have you tried turning it on & off again?")

As I write this Friday morning, the downtime is continuing as Amazon engineers fight to fix things. The outage was caused by misconfigured mirroring services that filled up all available storage. More information can be found at the EC2 status page.

Inevitable finger-wagging is taking place, with many critics of the cloud claiming they're vindicated. But it's less of a drama than it might appear. I haven't yet met a computer that wasn't fallible in some way, and I'm not sure why we expect cloud computing to be any different. Amazon's uptime has been pretty exceptional otherwise.

What's been exposed, however, is how much Amazon Web Services (AWS), of which EC2 is a key component, underpins the Internet as we know it today. I'd even argue that AWS directly boosts the economy by allowing entrepreneurs to get even the grandest computing plans off the ground quickly.

The fact you pay for only what you use with AWS, with no upfront fees, is in itself extraordinary. Prior to AWS, companies liked users to sign up for lengthy contracts and charge fees that reflected what they could get away with, rather than what things actually cost. AWS doesn't play these kind of power games.

Few tech companies openly discuss their usage of AWS because that would be like the wizard revealing himself to Dorothy. Would you trust a service that's essentially a few computer science graduates in a rented office with little more than a good idea and a few Nerf guns? But that's what a surprising number of tech firms are. Services with tens of millions of users can be corralled by just a handful of guys overseeing an AWS Web control panel.

None of this is a revelation to me. In one way or another, Amazon's been making possible my career recently.

I've written many computer books over the years for various publishers but decided to self-publish my most recent title. To do so, I used CreateSpace, a print-on-demand service owned by Amazon. CreateSpace lets absolutely anybody publish a book and sell it on Amazon.com, as well as into bookstores worldwide. There's no editor employed by Amazon to tut-tut at content. Within sensible guidelines, Amazon doesn't tell the author what they can publish. They can just upload a PDF and everything else happens magically. Authors can simply sit back and (hopefully) wait for the money to roll in, which is a significantly higher percentage than they'd get via royalty deals with publishers.

I decided to give away the electronic version of the book for free download. Here again, I couldn't have done it without Amazon. Its Simple Storage Service (S3) offering, as part of AWS, makes it possible for hundreds of people every day to download the 2MB eBook file. This costs me less than a dollar a month in fees. Before S3 came along, it would have been prohibitively expensive to offer the download.

My most recent publishing project has taken advantage of Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing program to sell 99-cent eBooks. This lets me publish books for Amazon's Kindle Reader. After I'd put the books together and uploaded them, they were available via Amazon.com to buy within days. Again, nobody stood in my way, and there were no hoops to jump through.

I've done all these things as an experienced writer and journalist but anybody could have done them. There are no bars to entry.

Amazon deserves a pat on the back for the efforts it's made to empower people to make their ideas a reality, whether that's somebody with a good idea for a book, like me, or somebody who wants to create the next Internet phenomena. Amazon is a personification of the spirit of the Internet, which is one of true democracy, access to the means of distribution, and rapid evolution.

So, next time Amazon's cloud suffers a blip, just remember how the world would be a poorer place if Amazon didn't exist.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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