Amazon CTO: Cloud infrastructure keeps companies focused on innovation

On the night of the historic U.S. presidential election, news outlets across the country streamed live video of the news coverage on their Web sites.

On the night of the historic U.S. presidential election, news outlets across the country streamed live video of the news coverage on their Web sites. Obviously, the Web traffic that night, compared to others, was exponentially greater. But it’s not as if news organizations went out and spent boatloads of money to build massive datacenters to handle one or two days of heavy traffic to their sites. Instead, many of these news agencies were powered by Mogulus, a company that offers live broadcast technology via Amazon Web services.

At the Cloud Computing Expo in San Jose today, Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels opened the event with a keynote speech that focused, obviously, on the advantages of cloud computing – however you choose to define it. Pointing out the increased traffic on election night, compared to traffic a week later, Vogels pointed out how news outlets were able to scale up their virtual infrastructure to meet the needs of the moment and subsequently scale down when the demand dwindled.

But, increasingly, the power of cloud computing and infrastructure as a service is benefiting the Silicon Valley spirit of innovation. Developers are focused on developing, testing and then launching their services. But what about the big obstacle in the process – the infrastructure costs? Innovators can suddenly finding themselves spending less time on innovation and more time on things like hardware costs, software costs and maintenance issues.  In some cases, that could keep the business from ever getting off the ground.

Take the example of a startup called Animoto, which takes images and audio clips and combines them to make on-the-fly movie-like slideshows. They started off small, college kids working out of a coffee shop and growing to about 25,000 customers. Then, one day, the company launched a Facebook application and customer signups skyrocketed to 25,000 per hour, Vogels said.

Without the infrastructure in place to handle rapid growth, a company like that might have crashed under the sudden demand conditions and users, in turn, might have given up on the service before even giving it a try. For a startup like this, the choices were either 1) use a cloud infrastructure service like Amazon’s or 2) find someone to give you $10 million so you can build a datacenter – just in case you suddenly become popular. These days, the latter seems almost laughable.

Because things are changing rapidly and the technologies are still evolving, it’s tough to say what “cloud computing” or “infrastructure as a service” will look like in one year, five years, or ten years, Vogels said. There’s still plenty of innovating going on but the importance of five key elements will stay in place: security, scalability, availability, performance and cost-effectiveness.

Cloud computing has the potential to be a real game-changer. Imagine the possibilities if startups spent less time, money and energy dealing with infrastructure issues and more time focused on innovating their products and services.