Why Amazon dominates cloud computing yet should not be your knee-jerk choice

Long known for an expansive set of straightforward yet highly capable Web services backed by a long-term strategic vision, Amazon had a head start from the beginning. But it dominates today for other more subtle reasons that IT leaders must consider.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Will Amazon ultimately dominate the public cloud and IaaS? It's perhaps the prime question now on the minds of IT strategists today as they develop their organization's digital roadmap, for key reasons we'll examine below.

Certainly, the latest industry data sure makes it seem like it, with Gartner's brand new report on worldwide cloud infrastructure making some astonishing statements:

[Amazon] is the overwhelming market share leader, with over 10 times more cloud IaaS compute capacity in use than the aggregate total of the other 14 providers. [my emphasis]

This is essentially total industry dominance in a market that is still very much finding its way, just over a decade after credible Web services-based cloud offerings first arrived. Long-standing resistance by companies -- and really, it's mostly their IT, security, and compliance departments -- to the cloud hasn't stopped some industry watchers from claiming that up to 90% of companies have already adopted some form of it today, usually SaaS but most of the XaaS variants too. By including SaaS, this statistic is at least in the realm of possibility, though cloud still isn't used often in mission critical or risk-sensitive parts of the typical business, even today.

Gartner Magic Quadrant for Cloud Infrastructure for 2015

In reality, the adoption of the cloud as an overall percentage share of corporate IT today at the low end is around 33% based on projections through last year. However, as a measure of computing workloads, it's actually possible that we hit the historic tipping point of 50% cloud, 50% traditional IT data center sometime last year according to recent data from Cisco. Using either data set, it's obvious that cloud has seriously arrived as a leading delivery model for IT, as I noted in my recent survey of enterprise technology to watch in 2015.

Thus, given this overall data, we can appreciate that Amazon is already the foundation behind the vast majority of global IT workloads that currently employ the cloud model, offering renowned uptime and fast response times with an infrastructure that now counts in the millions of servers, delivering an increasingly robust, sophisticated, and far ranging portfolio of Web services that includes the requisite basics, like computing and storage, to the cutting-edge of technology, such as machine learning, regulatory compliance, and smart agents.

Today, as a powerhouse and market-leading provider, Amazon's impressive heft in the cloud belies its relatively humble start with its initial launch of AWS's Simple Queue Service, which my fellow ZDNet columnist Joe McKendrick initially announced to little fanfare way back in 2004. AWS has since grown into a genuine global distributed computing behemoth with over a million customers and fully fifty different categories of cloud services (see visual below.)

The Mature, Rich, Deep Cloud Stack of Amazon AWS's Cloud Services

However, adopting Amazon automatically as your cloud provider still isn't -- and almost certainly shouldn't be -- the knee-jerk choice despite the richest, largest, most used, and most capable offering in the space. As companies increasingly engage in what's now being termed digital transformation -- the fundamental rethinking, platforming, and near-continuous digitization of everything a business does -- they will be looking at how best to deliver on it in today's complex, fast-shifting operating environments. These requirements have incredibly high scale ceilings, rigorous demands for low-latency, and virtually no tolerance for slow time-to-market. At least not, not when a better digital competitor is just a quick screen tap away.

For enterprises making momentous decisions for their cloud strategy, this means being very smart when picking a cloud delivery partner -- or partners -- especially as a shake-out with many smaller, weaker providers is now appearing likely.

Businesses are therefore looking for companies that are in the cloud business for the long haul and which they can trust to build their legacies upon. This is certainly where Amazon shines: Building enduring services that last, standing behind them as bulwarks for digital business, and making their corner of the cloud better, higher performing, and richer -- and doing it more quickly -- than anyone else.

Reasons for Amazon's Cloud Success Also a Discriminator

Yet it's when we explore why Amazon is the market leader in cloud overall, that we can understand when it may not always be best for our particular use or industry.

A simple, agnostic approach to cloud services. Amazon's priority has generally been to provide capable cloud services that just work, with impressively clean API designs, that especially on offerings like EC2 (Amazon's core computing product) don't make many assumptions about which operating system, programming language, or application stack you prefer to use. This means there's a decent chance you can deploy the applications and systems that you already have today, with perhaps a little adjustment, directly on Amazon's cloud.

But because of this open and embracing approach, you also don't benefit nearly as much from having a state-of-the-art cloud architecture -- one of the key advantages of using newer cloud technologies -- that you employ off the shelf as it then constrains you to adapt to the highest performing, most efficient way to use its services using the latest advances. Ultimately, if you need something optimized for the latest cloud architectures, platforms, enterprise needs, or technical capabilities, there are indeed other choices than Amazon. In the end, however, Amazon's open and embracing model has made it very successful by appealing to the broadest potential audience. But for some edge cases, alternatives public clouds can make sense.

Pragmatism over standardization. Overall, Amazon's approach to the cloud is to design steadfast services that are easy to understand, develop for, maintain, and oversee in operations. But as I pointed out several years ago, one of the most enticing objectives of cloud computing is to be able to seamlessly move workloads between providers. This offers a laundry list of strategic benefits, including moving the next workload to the cheapest current provider, managing the risk of sole-sourcing, and putting individual workloads where they will perform the best, say geographically or based on a compliance profile.

While many have emulated their APIs, Amazon's lack of adherence to standardized approaches to cloud like OpenStack has allowed it to innovate and deliver both steadily and more quickly over the years -- as they're not waiting for the time-consuming development of cloud standards. But standards also makes what businesses want most, lots of options and avoidance of lock-in, much less likely in Amazon's cloud.

A relentless focus on back-end capabilities for pure cloud. Unlike offerings such as Microsoft's Azure or HP Helion, Amazon has generally eschewed client-side frameworks, visual developer tools, sophisticated admin dashboards, or even -- until fairly recently -- robust features for enterprise users, especially hybrid cloud. The recent rise and preeminence of devops in today's IT teams especially requires end-to-end integration of cloud development and operations capabilities. For those organizations looking for tools to support middle-of-the-road development teams or the latest devops capabilities for multi-cloud configuration, there are perhaps better suited options. (Note that Amazon does offer OpsWorks, for devops support in its own cloud.)

Staying power and stability. Amazon, unlike Google and others, has offered an amazingly steady and compelling cloud offering. Developers and businesses alike appreciate Amazon's avoidance of unnecessary design changes and cloud services that stay in business year after year after year. No one is worried that Amazon will exit the cloud business or retire their services. Adding a rich layer of ready-to-go capability on top of this solid foundation are over 1,500 solutions from 3rd party providers in the AWS Marketplace.

For many Amazon AWS is most compelling, but also an 800lb gorilla

In the end, the sheer embarrassment of riches in the depth, breadth, and maturity of Amazon AWS today is going to put it at the top of the consideration list for most organizations. Yet, although Amazon has been a very benign provider, at least compared with the battle-scorched platform wars of yore with PCs and minicomputers, tremendous power -- which the company wields in spades in the cloud industry -- always has the possibility of leading an organization astray.

In term of making cloud platforms decisions, companies with the resources will hedge their bets, while taking advantage of the best that the cloud has to offer, will be sure to use the most evolved concepts for building marketshare and avoiding commoditization, the latter being one of the top risks for immature digital businesses, as the cloud becomes the end-game of IT service delivery.

Additional Reading

Amazon breaks out cloud results for first time on Q1 earnings report

The Internet inside the enterprise, we don't have it and we need it

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