The Unbelievable Power of Amazon's Cloud
The company's Web Services—which undergird Netflix, Healthcare.gov, and Spotify—might be the single most important piece of technology to the modern tech boom.
On Thursday, we’ll finally get a sense of the true scope of one of the most important businesses for the Internet.
Amazon is due to announce the size of its Web Services product. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a set of cloud services often used by startups, big companies, and government agencies. You might know AWS better as “the servers that run Netflix and Instagram.”
AWS lets companies buy powerful computers cheaply and whenever they need them to handle traffic, to store video, to power a database. It’s not an understatement to say that AWS is the piece of infrastructure that has enabled the current tech boom. The only single technology which might come close to it is the smartphone.
Why? The 2010s tech industry is built on quickly scaling a product to as many users as possible. It’s based, on other words, on fast growth. AWS and its competitors are what permit that fast growth. They have taken the normally considerable equipment costs—of servers, cables, hard drives, and power supplies—and abstracted them away. Entrepreneurs and coders can think about and purchase computing power on an as-needed basis, while the physical data centers they’re actually using sit far away in Virginia or Oregon.
Since its launch nine years ago, when it was the first such cloud service, AWS has come to dominate the market. But this is the first time Amazon will report AWS’s size. (Previously it reported AWS revenue and profit as part the rest of the company’s business in North America. In 2014, that segment claimed revenue of $5.4 billion.)
You can catch glimpses of the vastness of AWS, but it’s hard to get a sense of the true importance of the service. What’s enchanting about AWS is what’s enchanting about the cloud: It works in the background, silent, invisible, and powerful, never announcing itself—until Vine, Instagram, and Airbnb all go down at once.
So while we wait to learn just how much money AWS makes, here’s an incomplete (yet still mind-boggling) list of technological, social, economic, and cultural infrastructure powered by Amazon’s quiet goliath.
AWS provides the guts that lets Netflix stream billions of hours of movies and TV shows, so both the modern habit of unplanned binge-watching and the aversion to network TV shows is made possible by the service.
AWS is what kept Paper Mag’s servers from not breaking when it (and Kim Kardashian) broke the Internet.
When Healthcare.gov was being revamped, parts of the website were moved to AWS.
Spotify hosts its music on the company’s cloud storage service, S3. The ability to listen to any album, whenever, at work or home—AWS permits that.
Even the police body camera debate turns on AWS. Taser’s hosted service for body-cam footage and other kinds of digital evidence, Evidence.com, is actually a shell built on AWS.
And finally: Last year, the CIA moved much of its computing power to a custom AWS setup.
Though the information Amazon releases Thursday will offer a clearer picture of just how integral its cloud services are to the Internet as a whole, those same services will likely keep growing. As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, Amazon says that it now adds computing power on a daily basis that’s equivalent to its entire capacity just 10 years ago.