5 Numbers That Illustrate the Mind-Bending Size of Amazon's Cloud

Photographer: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

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Photographer: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon.com's cloud is so vast and complex that it basically operates the largest computer on the planet. At its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas this week, the company introduced a bunch of new stuff to make Amazon Web Services a more attractive option for businesses looking to build software in the cloud.

"It's very much analogous to a huge, general-purpose computer," said Josh Stella, who used to work in Amazon's Web Services group before leaving to start Luminal, a company that makes server-management software for gear rented from clouds such as Amazon's.

For someone just scrolling through Pinterest or surfing television shows on Netflix — both AWS customers — it's difficult to grok the sheer size of Amazon's network of servers. Here are five numbers, culled from this week's event, that express just how large and strange Amazon's cloud is.

1 Million Customers

Amazon now has more than a million people using its cloud services, Andy Jassy, the company's senior vice president, said during a speech today. When contacted for comment, Microsoft and Google declined to disclose customer numbers for their rival clouds. Amazon dominates the cloud-infrastructure industry, so it's safe to assume the competition is less than a million apiece.

2 Million Servers

Amazon has 11 cloud regions across the world, said James Hamilton, an Amazon distinguished engineer, during a presentation at re:Invent. Each region has multiple sets of data centers, and there are 28 total sets across the world. Each of those has one or more data centers, with a typical facility containing 50,000 to 80,000 servers. A conservative estimate puts Amazon over 1.5 million servers globally. Lydia Leong, an analyst at research firm Gartner, puts it at 2 million or more.

By comparison, Rackspace Hosting has a little over 100,000 servers spread across six data centers. Google has three regions with eight total sets, and Microsoft has 17 regions. Got all that? Last year, Steve Ballmer, then Microsoft's CEO, said the company had over a million servers within its data center infrastructure and that Google had even more.

Amazon's cloud could soon get even bigger. Hamilton told me that he saw no reason why Amazon couldn't eventually have a data center in every U.S. state if companies adopt cloud computing as enthusiastically as people predict.

1 Funky Map

Amazon's cloud is powerful enough to let people build things of staggering complexity, said Charlie Bell, a vice president of technology for the company. During a presentation he showed a map of the technology underpinning the Amazon.com homepage in 2009. To generate the map, Bell and his team placed some code into Amazon's underbelly to find and plot the links between the disparate services that made up the homepage. He compared the process to injecting a human with radioactive material to help map their circulatory system.

"You can look at this thing and realize that there's no way that a human being stepped back, and one person thought about all these things, and laid them out, and said, 'This is what we're going to go build,'" Bell said. "That didn't happen." Instead, the site evolved over time as engineering teams built hooks into existing services.

The "map" of the complexity of an Amazon.com website, from a presentation at Amazon.com Inc's "re:Invent" conference by Amazon VP Charlie Bell. Photographer: Jack Clark/Bloomberg

The "map" of the complexity of an Amazon.com website, from a presentation at Amazon.com Inc's "re:Invent" conference by Amazon VP Charlie Bell. Photographer: Jack Clark/Bloomberg

100,000 Weather-Forecasting Computer Cores

The tortured cloud analogy was taken to a whole other level at the conference in Vegas. "There is weather in the cloud," said Jason Stowe, the CEO of Cycle Computing, a company that runs supercomputing software on top of Amazon's services.

What Stowe means is that some servers or regions have different performance characteristics depending on what is going on inside of them. For example, figurative storm clouds can form during times when lots of Amazon customers are jostling for servers in a particular region, making things slow and unreliable. Though Amazon has managed to clear up many of these storms, they still happen from time to time, Stowe said.

To protect from inclement weather, his company has built software that lets customers regularly rent and monitor 10,000, 20,000 or even 100,000 computer cores on Amazon. His clients have used his company's technology to help crack tough mathematical problems. Western Digital's HGST division recently used Cycle's software to spin up more than 70,000 cores to help it model the relationship between fluid dynamics and magnetism within its disk drives. (Bet you never thought hard disks could be so thrilling.) Stowe said Amazon has never had a problem fulfilling his company's outlandish hunger for computing power.

$4 Billion

The Web Services division brought in "the vast majority" of the $1.34 billion in sales during the last fiscal quarter for a line item Amazon classifies as "North America, Other," according to Chief Financial Officer Thomas Szkutak. Amazon is often vague on providing specifics, but the "other" division is on track to bring in more than $4 billion for the year.

"AWS has the potential to be the largest business at Amazon long-term, which is significant given that our retail business is a $70 billion business," Jassy said during a press conference this week. Amazon Web Services has a 27 percent share of the global cloud infrastructure market, followed by Microsoft at around 10 percent, and then IBM and Google, according to a report by Synergy Research Group.

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