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What is Amazon Web Services and can you avoid it?

Have you heard of AWS (Amazon Web Services) and wondered what it is?

In this guest article IT journalist Maxwell Cooter explains what AWS is and what you can do, if anything, to avoid it.

Anyone who shops online – and that’s most of us – might find themselves turning to Amazon.

Sure, there are alternatives in most areas but in many cases consumers choose the e-commerce giant to deliver: it may be down to cost, to range of products or convenience but Amazon is often seen as being way ahead of its competition.

There is little surprise then, that when it comes to cloud computing, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is in a dominant position.

What is Amazon Web Services (and cloud computing)?

Twenty years ago, cloud computing was an unknown concept, although the idea had been bandied around for years, but it’s now definitely in the mainstream.

In its simplest form, it means hosting an organisation’s computer infrastructure somewhere else and calling on resources when they are needed. Think of it as akin to using electricity from the National Grid. This approach became appealing to many companies, and vendors looked to capture the market. And just as Amazon set the pace when it came to online shopping, so it was the front-runner when it came to offering cloud computing services.

How did AWS begin?

The introduction of Amazon Web Services’ first products came almost by accident. The company had looked for a way to improve its e-commerce system so that developers didn’t have to spend time updating sites. The IT team put together a resource, based on open source software, that could be accessed by all the company’s developers and it was adopted with enthusiasm.

This prompted Amazon to bring together teams to develop an infrastructure that could sell compute and storage services to the outside world. In 2006 it launched its cloud storage product S3, followed closely by EC2, its compute service and AWS was born. In subsequent years, there was an acceleration of product offerings as the company covered the full range of computing, and it quickly became the cloud provider that was setting the pace.

How much of the cloud market does Amazon have?

According to research from Synergy, Amazon Web Services has about 33% of the cloud market, well ahead of its closest competitor, Microsoft, despite the latter’s domination of the enterprise software market. Third in the pecking order is Google with about 10% of the market. These three companies dominate the field, accounting for two-thirds of the cloud infrastructure market. Chinese competitor Alibaba is making some inroads but started a long way back.

While being first off the block has played a big part in AWS’s dominance in cloud, it’s not the whole story. The world of IT is littered with examples of companies who were early leaders but failed to hold onto that market share: look how quickly NetScape lost out to, first, Microsoft and then Google in the browser wars.

Why is Amazon the dominant cloud provider?

It could have gone wrong but didn’t for several reasons.

First of all, AWS focused its attention on developers and made it easy to fire up services. There was no need to go down a corporate procurement route; users simply fired up new services using credit cards. In reality, this proved to be too easy; so much so that IT managers were finding cloud links within their system that had not been approved: this so-called ‘shadow IT’ haunted managers for years.

Second, the company made sure that it wasn’t just a US phenomenon. It built data centres to provide cloud services all across the world. Currently, AWS has operations in 31 regions across the globe. In addition, there are multiple "Availability Zones'' within each region, providing a range of services, including backup in case of service outages.

This matters for two reasons:

  1. There’s the issue of latency – the delay in data transmission. Even high-speed networks still have some delay (as Scotty used to say on Star Trek “Ye cannae break the laws of physics”) and this will affect a company requiring a lot of computational power.
  2. In some countries there are issues around data governance and storage that mean customer data can’t be held outside that nation’s border. AWS’s geographic spread helps manage those restrictions.

One of the concerns about cloud was data security: could companies trust their intellectual property and customer records to a third-party? AWS has spent heavily on implementing security features and because of this attention to data protection, the company has managed to attract organisations such as NASA, GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and the UK’s Ministry of Defence, as well as many financial companies – there are few concerns about security now.

With such efforts in meeting users’ needs are there any worries about turning to AWS? After all, there have been plenty of objections to Amazon as a retail organisation: concerns ranging from the low levels of tax being paid, to its squeezing of independent retailers.

There are not many small cloud providers to squeeze. AWS’s main rivals – Microsoft, Google and Alibaba – are big enough to look after themselves. However, that’s not to say that there haven’t been concerns about AWS’s ways of working.

Ethical problems with AWS

One particularly contentious issue has been the way that the company handles open source software. As mentioned earlier, AWS has, from the outset, implemented an infrastructure based on open source software. But, this is not a practice that has met with universal approval – not for the use of open software but in the way that AWS has adopted it.

In 2017, a company called Elastic sued AWS for its launching a product called ElasticSearch, offering many of the features of Elastic’s own software, but with none of the revenue heading Elastic’s way. What irked Elastic was that the software had been ‘forked’ (taken into another direction) by Amazon. The dispute between the two companies was settled earlier this year.

It should be made clear that many providers are behaving as Amazon has, which has meant open source companies changing the terms of their licences as a result of the way that software is being deployed by vendors. It should also be pointed out that Amazon contributes to open source projects, so they are not simply building on the fruits of other people’s labours, but are actively involved in supporting the movement.

Alternatives to Amazon Web Services

If there are concerns with Amazon that may cause some organisations to think twice about using AWS, are there any alternatives?

The are options, notably Microsoft, Alibaba and Google, as well as smaller providers who often fill special requirements.

How viable are these alternatives?

All three are major players but come with their own sets of issues. Both Google and Microsoft have had their own antitrust run-ins with the US government and the EU Commission. Both have also been accused of abusing their dominant position to favour their own products, and both companies have also made no secret of their (perfectly legal) efforts to reduce their tax bills.  

There’s also a nervousness about Chinese businesses in the west, so there’s not going to be a big rush to use Alibaba, which is Chinese-owned. (Read more in our guide to mobile phones about concern with Chinese tech companies.)

So is it possible to boycott Amazon Web Services?

There's nothing individuals browsing on the web can do to avoid AWS because it's only really bought into by companies, organisations such as universities, and government bodies.

You're probably not using it as an individual – instead you might just be using websites owned by companies that use AWS, and there's not much you can do about that.

If you're a small business owner, you might use AWS. You could switch to an alternative cloud provider that isn't AWS, for example Microsoft, Alibaba or Google, all of which are suitable for small businesses.

There are also other small ethical providers, but only in other countries for the time being (for example, Infomaniak in Switzerland which talks a lot about its ethical credentials).

Amazon Boycott Campaign

Although AWS may be hard to avoid for consumers, it's possible to avoid Amazon.

Our boycott campaign highlights the reasons for avoiding Amazon as well as signposting to alternatives to Amazon for many products like books, tech and ethical online retailers.

Amazon Boycott campaign