Officially Certified: AWS Business Professional

AWS Business Professional Certification

That’s added another badge, albeit the primary reason was to understand AWS’s products and services in order to suss how to build volumes via resellers for them – just in case I can get the opportunity to be asked how i’d do it. However, looking over the fence at some of the technical accreditation exams, I appear to know around half of the answers there already – but need to do those properly and take notes before attempting those.

(One of my old party tricks used to be that I could make it past the entrance exam required for entry into technical streams at Linux related conferences – a rare thing for a senior manager running large Software Business Operations or Product Marketing teams. Being an ex programmer who occasionally fiddles under the bonnet on modern development tools is a useful thing – not least to feed an ability to be able to spot bullshit from quite a distance).

The only AWS module I had any difficulty with was the pricing. One of the things most managers value is simplicity and predictability, but a lot of the pricing of core services have pricing dependencies where you need to know data sizes, I/O rates or the way your demand goes through peaks and troughs in order to arrive at an approximate monthly price. While most of the case studies amply demonstrate that you do make significant savings compared to running workloads on your own in-house infrastructure, I guess typical values for common use cases may be useful. For example, if i’m running a SAP installation of specific data and access dimensions, what operationally are typically running costs – without needing to insert probes all over a running example to estimate it using the provided calculator?

I’d come back from a 7am gym session fairly tired and made the mistake of stepping through the pricing slides without making copious notes. I duly did all that module again and did things properly the next time around – and passed it to complete my certification.

The lego bricks you snap together to design an application infrastructure are simple in principle, loosely connected and what Amazon have built is very impressive. The only thing not provided out of the box is the sort of simple developer bundle of an EC2 instance, some S3 and MySQL based EBD, plus some open source AMIs preconfigured to run WordPress, Joomla, Node.js, LAMP or similar – with a simple weekly automatic backup. That’s what Digital Ocean provide for a virtual machine instance, with specific storage and high Internet Transfer Out limits for a fixed price/month. In the case of the WordPress network on which my customers and this blog runs, that’s a 2-CPU server instance, 40GB of disk space and 4TB/month data traffic for $20/month all in. That sort of simplicity is why many startup developers have done an exit stage left from Rackspace and their ilk, and moved to Digital Ocean in their thousands; it’s predictable and good enough as an experimental sandpit.

The ceiling at AWS is much higher when the application slips into production – which is probably reason enough to put the development work there in the first place.

I have deployed an Amazon Workspace to complete my 12 years of Nutrition Data Analytics work using the Windows-only Tableau Desktop Professional – in an environment where I have no Windows PCs available to me. Just used it on my MacBook Air and on my iPad Mini to good effect. That will cost be just north of £21 ($35) for the month.

I think there’s a lot that can be done to accelerate adoption rates of AWS services in Enterprise IT shops, both in terms of direct engagement and with channels to market properly engaged. My real challenge is getting air time with anyone to show them how – and in the interim, getting some examples ready in case I can make it in to do so.

That said, I recommend the AWS training to anyone. There is some training made available the other side of applying to be a member of the Amazon Partner Network, but there are equally some great technical courses that anyone can take online. See for further details.

Customer, Customer, Customer…

Jeff Bezos QuoteI’ve been internalising some of the Leadership principles that Amazon expect to see in every employee, as documented here. All of these explain a lot about Amazon’s worldview, but even the very first one is quite a unique in the IT industry. It probably serves a lesson that most other IT vendors should be more fixated on than I usually experience.

In times when I looked after two Enterprise Systems vendors, it was a never ending source of amusement that no marketing plan would be considered complete without at least one quarterly “competitive attack” campaign. Typically, HP, IBM and Sun (as was, Oracle these days) would expect to fund at least one campaign that aimed squarely into the base of customers of the other vendors (and the reseller channels that served them), typically pushing superior speeds and feeds. Usually selling their own proprietary, margin rich servers and storage to their own base, while tossing low margin x86 servers running Linux to try and unseat proprietary products of the other vendors. I don’t recall a single one working, nor one customer that switched as a result of these efforts.

One thing that DEC used to do well was, when a member of staff from a competitor moved to a job inside the company, to make it a capital offence for anyone to try and seek inside knowledge from that person. The corporate edict was to rely on publicly available data only, and typically to sell on your own strengths. The final piece being to ensure you satisfied your existing customers before ever trying to chase new ones.

Microsoft running “Scroogled” campaigns are a symptom (while Steve Ballmer was in charge) of losing their focus. I met Bill Gates in 1983, and he was a walking encyclopedia of what worked well – and not so well – in competitive PC software products of the day. He could keep going for 20 minutes describing the decision making process of going for a two-button mouse for Windows, and the various traps other vendors had with one or three button equivalents. At the time, it followed through into Microsoft’s internal sales briefing material – sold on their own strengths, and acknowledging competitors with a very balanced commentary. In time, things loosened up and tripping up competitors became a part of their playbook, something I felt a degree of sadness to see develop.

Amazon are much more specific. Start with the customer and work back from there.

Unfortunately, I still see server vendor announcements piling into technologies like “OpenStack” and “Software Defined Networking” where the word “differentiation” features heavily in the announcement text.  This suggests to me that the focus is on competitive vendor positioning, trying to justify the margins required to sustain their current business model, and detached from a specific focus of how a customer needs (and their business environment) are likely to evolve into the future.

With that, I suspect organisations with a laser like focus on the end customer, and who realise which parts of the stack are commoditising (and to follow that to it’s ultimate conclusion), are much more likely to be present when the cost to serve steps off the clifftop and heads down. The real battle is on higher order entities running on the commodity base.

I saw an announcement from Arrow ECS in Computer Reseller News this week that suggested a downturn in their Datacentre Server and Storage Product orders in the previous quarter. I wonder if this is the first sign of the switching into gear of the inevitable downward pricing trend across the IT industry, and especially for its current brand systems and storage vendors.

IT Hardware Vendors clinging onto “Public” and “Hybrid” cloud strategies are, I suspect, the final attempt to hold onto their existing business models and margins while the world migrates to commodity, public equivalents (see my previous post about “Enterprise IT and the Hall of Marbles“).

I also suspect that given their relentless focus on end customer needs, and working back from there, that Amazon Web Services will still be the market leaders as that new landscape unfolds. Certainly shows little sign of slowing down.

Pricing: How low can you go?

Limbo Dancer under very low poleWhile I was at Demon Internet, and a good year before Amazon appeared in the UK, we used to promote a small local company called Bookpages, who were selling Books online. At one point, I heard that US-based Amazon had a meeting with the Directors of the company in London, so guessed they’d enter the UK soon – but kept absolutely quiet. In the event, they jumped into the UK market by buying Bookpages, inheriting all their management team – all a complete surprise to me. Just very glad that I had kept shtum throughout.

Around a year later, I called in to see the Business Development Director in Amazon Slough for a chat about advertising to our customers. I was offered a tour after our meeting; I ended up confronted with a football pitch size warehouse that looked exactly like this:

Amazon Book Warehouse
Having been used to walking around warehouses from my time in IT Distribution, I asked the Business Development Director how many days inventory was in the building. He said: 2 days. Like, wow – they’d fill and empty that warehouse 180 times a year; the scale was absolutely intimidating.
We finished the tour passing the packing/shipping area, where a flood of books were being served on conveyor belts to four or so teams; all items relentlessly being sealed into cardboard packing to the incessant bass of loud beat music, and sent over the loading bay into one of the waiting 40 ton Royal Mail lorries.
I’ve been a customer of Amazon ever since, and these days hold shares in the company. At some point i’ll get the bandwidth to read the The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, one book waiting for me on my iPad. There are several strokes of genius in their business model, one of which is their focus to live on the bottom rung of the value chain ladder. To suck all the oxygen out from potential competitors trying to attack them from underneath – which is the way most large companies get disrupted.
I found this great article that explains Amazon’s pricing strategy very eloquently. It’s also the first time I’ve heard that Apple rotate their stock faster than Amazon do, which is an amazing feat for a manufacturing company.

Amazon Web Services

The one surprise to me these days is the public perception of Amazon Web Services being the 100 pound industry gorilla selling Cloud Computing Capacity at lowest prices, that keep ratcheting down as their scale advantages allow them to do so. The largely unknown secret is that they are being completely murdered at the low end and with software developers by relative newcomer Digital Ocean, who have recently got VC funding from Andreessen Horowitz (A16Z).

Future Trouble at t’Mill?

The WordPress network from which this site is served is hosted on Digital Ocean in Amsterdam – cost $12/month for a Linux virtual server, 30GB of flash storage and 3TB of Network capacity per month, which includes the cost of backups and snapshots. When I talk to AWS and indeed to Google, it doesn’t take long to be given special offers paying the first $2000 of my hosting cost – which suggests their pricing is way higher than what i’m able to develop on already. Probably more sophisticated than I need right now, but I guess it’ll be some time before I need to scale to a size that will become interesting to them.

Amazon are far from alone. While folks like Rackspace are a leading proponent of OpenStack to commoditise Hosting Centre Infrastructure, Digital Ocean are walsing way with thousands of their previous customers; it is almost like they are paying no attention to Netcraft Hosting Provider Switching Stats – and at the same time, issuing profit warnings of their own.

I wonder if Amazon similarly start feeling the same heat in the months ahead – and if they are likely to address it before Digital Ocean go flying past.