A number of blogs I read have been talking about Amazon's S3 service a lot recently. I've seen posts from Jeff Atwood, Shelley Powers and most recently Dave Winer. I find it interesting that S3 is turning into a classic long tail service that works for both startups who are spending hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year to service millions of users (like Smugmug) to bloggers who need some additional hosting for their cat pictures. One reason I find this interesting is that it is unclear to me S3 is a business that will be profitable in the long term by itself.

My initial assumption was that S3 was a way for Amazon to turn a lemons into lemonade with regards to bandwidth costs. Big companies like Amazon are usually billed for bandwidth using 95th percentile billing, which is explained below

With 95th percentile billing, buyers are billed each month at a fixed price multiplied by the peak traffic level, regardless of how much is used the rest of the time. Thus with the same nominal price, the effective price is higher for buyers with burstier traffic patterns.

So my assumption was that S3 allows Amazon to make money from bandwidth they were already being charged for and not using. As for storage, my guess is that they are either making a miniscule amount of profit or at cost. Where this gets tricky is that, if S3 gets popular enough then all of a sudden it no longer is a way to make money from bandwidth they are being billed for but aren't using but instead impacts their actual bandwidth costs which then changes the profit equation for the service. Without any data on Amazon's cost structure it is unclear whether this would make the service unprofitable or whether this is already factored into their pricing.

On the other hand, Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) isn't something I've seen a lot of bloggers rave about. However it seems to be the service that shows that Amazon is making a big play to be the world's operating system in the sky as opposed to dabbling in providing some of its internal services to external folks as a cost savings measure. With EC2 you can create a bunch of virtual servers in their system and load it up with an Amazon Machine Image (AMI). An AMI is basically a server operating system and the platform components you need on it. Typical AMIs are an instance of a LAMP system (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP/Perl/Python) although I did see one AMI that was an instance of Windows 2003 server. You can create as many or as few server instances as you need and are billed just for what you need.

I suspect that the combination of EC2 and S3  is intended to be very attractive to startups. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars building out clusters of servers, you just pay as you go when you get your monthly bill. There are only two problems with this strategy that I can see. The first is that, if I was building the next Digg, Flickr or del.icio.us I'm not sure I'd want to place myself completely at the mercy of Amazon especially since there doesn't seem to be any SLA published on the site. According to the CEO of Smugmug in his post Amazon S3: Outages, slowdowns, and problems they've had four major problems with S3 in the past year which has made them rely less on the service for critical needs. The second issue is that VC money is really, really, really easy to come by these days judging from the kind of companies that get profiled on TechCrunch and Mashable. If the latter should change, it isn’t hard to imagine dozens of enterprising folks with a couple of thousand dollars in their pockets deciding to go with S3  + EC2 instead of seeking VC funding. But for now, I doubt that this will be the case.  

What I suspect is that without some catalyst (e.g. the next YouTube is built on S3  + EC2)these services will not reach their full potential. This would be unfortunate because I think in much the same way we moved from everyone rolling their own software to shrinkwrapped software, we will need to move to shrinkwrapped Web platforms in the future instead of everyone running their own ad-hoc cluster of Windows or LAMP servers and solving the same problems that others have solved thousands of times already.

I wonder if Amazon has considered tapping the long tail by going up against GoDaddy's hosting services with S3  + EC2. They have the major pieces already although it seems that their prices would need to go down to compete with what GoDaddy charges for bandwidth although I suspect that Amazon's quality of service would be better.


Categories: Competitors/Web Companies | Web Development
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