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The New Enterprise

Slowly but surely, AWS sets a course beyond its comfort zone

AWS CEO Andy Jassy still believes "the vast majority" of business applications will wind up in the cloud, but the cloud leader continued to hedge that bet at re:Invent 2020.

Andy Jassy presenting his keynote at this year's AWS re:Invent conference.

"We think of hybrid infrastructure as including the cloud along with various other edge nodes, on-premises data centers being one of them," said AWS CEO Andy Jassy during his re:Invent keynote.

Image: Amazon

As cloud computing matures, AWS is coming to terms with the fact that the late adopters are going to want to do things a little differently than the early adopters.

Usually it's a little hard to find a common theme for AWS CEO Andy Jassy's traditional three-hour keynote addresses that kick off each re:Invent gathering, and this year's virtual event touched on everything from advanced machine learning techniques to custom silicon to customer service call centers. But Jassy began and ended this year's re:Invent keynote by talking about "hybrid infrastructure," the mix of public cloud resources and traditional data centers that is emerging as the preferred approach for larger companies that have already invested a lot of time and money in their own software and equipment.

"We think of hybrid infrastructure as including the cloud along with various other edge nodes, on-premises data centers being one of them," Jassy said, unknowingly echoing experts we talked to for a story coming in Wednesday's edition of The New Enterprise Manual.

Just a few years ago, AWS executives did not care for the H-word. As Bloomberg reported last year, energy giant Siemens asked in 2016 for a hybrid cloud product that would allow it to take advantage of AWS' services when it made sense while maintaining links to applications and data on its own infrastructure.

"Andy was very clear that he's not interested in that," former Siemens executive Peter Weckesser told Bloomberg. But AWS changed its mind shortly after that conversation, right around the same time Microsoft made it clear that it intended to embrace the hybrid cloud concept with Azure Stack.

AWS took a step toward a hybrid world by unveiling a partnership with VMware to run applications built around its virtualization software on AWS servers in 2016. It moved even further at re:Invent 2018 with the announcement of AWS Outposts, actual servers loaded with AWS software designed to live in a customer's data center.

And on Tuesday, AWS announced that customers will be able to run its container and Kubernetes management services within their own data centers, with additional plans to open-source the Kubernetes service as a distribution that companies can manage on their own if they so choose. Containers — which are fast, lightweight and easily portable across different servers — have rapidly become the atomic unit of modern cloud computing.

It added new, smaller server options to Outposts, bringing its custom Graviton2 processors into the thinnest version of the new servers. And it expanded the AWS Local Zone initiative, announcing new mini-data center regions in Boston, Houston and Miami, with plans to add 12 new locations in places including New York, Chicago and Atlanta next year.

Outposts, Local Zones and data-center container services are all a nod to the fact that some applications simply can't run as effectively in the cloud as they will closer to their end users. As more and more applications promise real-time capabilities, the cloud data centers run by AWS and all cloud providers are sometimes too far away from critical masses of end users to avoid sluggish performance. And there are also lots of companies that simply can't move their applications to the cloud for security or regulatory reasons.

Microsoft and Google Cloud have been much faster than AWS to acknowledge this new reality, in part because they've had to move faster to catch up to AWS' lead. Microsoft has continued to add features and capabilities to Azure Arc, and Google's Anthos also gives customers a way to manage computing resources across different operating environments.

Cloud computing isn't going anywhere. It's as much a new way of building software and managing resources as it is a server-rental service, and the concepts born and proven out on the cloud have had an incalculable impact on the modern software development process, no matter where that software is running.

But sometimes it was a little hard on Tuesday morning to tell if Jassy was talking to current and potential customers or talking to AWS employees.

"If you're going to be a leader that's going to reinvent, you have got to be maniacal and relentless and tenacious about getting to the truth," he said early on in the keynote. "You have to know what competitors are doing in your space, you have to know what your customers think about your product and where you sit, relatively speaking. You have to know what's working and what's not working."

And it was also a little hard for re:Invent veterans to accept Jassy's declaration that a move toward concepts like Outposts, Local Zones and AWS software running on customer hardware was part of the plan all along.

"AWS spent a bizarre amount of time and energy in the keynote convincing themselves they invented hybrid, which just isn't true," said Charles Fitzgerald, an angel investor and former executive at Microsoft and VMware. "They have a strange psychological need to believe they are the 'best' and invented everything, which makes for strange contortions when they run into all the cases where that isn't true."

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