Amazon S3Since the beginning of this blog in 2008, I’ve written many times about Amazon and Amazon Web Services. I use AWS tools like S3 every day for mission critical web projects and applications. I back up sites there, I serve media from there, I compute there. Even with all that, I barely scratch the surface when it comes to AWS products. There are so many products they continue to roll out, including their new business analytics tool, it’s difficult to keep up with.

For me, the main product I use is S3, their Simple Storage Service. Coupled with their CloudFront content delivery network, it’s allowed me to rest easy knowing that my site and app assets, from images to CSS and javascript files, serve quickly and efficiently. For the many years I’ve used it, I’ve watched Amazon cut the price they charge for each gigabyte stored. As they get more efficient and better at what they do, they pass those savings on their customers.

Today is no different. Starting Dec. 1, 2016, Amazon is again reducing the pricing of storage in S3. For several areas, the cost per GB will be $0.023 for the first 50 TB you store. Two cents a gigabyte. Crazy.

I think its safe to say at this point that cloud storage is now a commodity. If you’re not leveraging these services for your university or business web app or site, you’re missing a great opportunity

I think you’d be surprised to know that many large service providers use Amazon Web Services to power their infrastructure, even big names like Apple.

Yes, much of Apple’s iCloud offering is powered by Amazon. Morgan Stanley estimates that Apple spends $1 billion yearly on Amazon’s web services.

Same goes for Netflix. Rather than make huge investments in IT and infrastructure, using AWS ensures they can scale, soI can watch Black Mirror with no buffering in beautiful 4k. You can watch a video case study on Netflix’s AWS usage.

The list goes on and on: Spotify, AirBNB, Slack, Major League Baseball–they all use AWS because the service is robust and the costs are low.




I’m sure you’ve either read about the Amazon Web Services outage of the weekend or visited a site that uses their architecture, such as Quora or Foursquare.

One part of their servers on demand product had issues – specifically their Elastic Block Storage product in one of their availability zones. Many servers use it for persistent storage, something the AWS EC2 product doesn’t offer by default. With these volumes being flaky, throwing errors or being office, many sites were in trouble.

The services that we use the most here at John Carroll, the Simple Storage Service (S3) and the Cloudfront content delivery network were not affected, thankfully, so I could enjoy the holiday weekend. I would have liked to play some online games on my PS3, but as you’ll see below, that too was off-line.

So what are some takeaways I see coming out of this outage?

First, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill posted a very detailed blog post about the Amazon outage and how and why his company’s servers there weren’t affected. He says:

All of our services in AWS are spread across multiple Availability Zones (AZs). We’d use 4 if we could, but one of our AZs is capacity constrained, so we’re mostly spread across three. (I say “one of our” because your “us-east-1b” is likely different from my “us-east-1b” – every customer is assigned to different AZs and the names don’t match up). When one AZ has a hiccup, we simple use the other AZs. Often this is a graceful, but there can be hiccups – there are certainly tradeoffs.

Second, if you are going to leverage the cloud for services, and you should, you must have a backup plan or set of protocols for what to do if it hits the fan.

For example, if S3 did go down, our WordPress CMS would be affected, as we store user-uploaded assets in S3. To remedy that, we keep a local copy on our server, so our assets stay available to our site visitors. If S3 goes down, we can make a change to a plugin configuration and our assets will still be available. When S3 comes back online, we’d flip the switch and go back to serving things from the cloud.

Third, have a communication plan ready and keep users updated during the day.

The only spot I was finding out official information on the outage was on the AWS Service Health Dashboard, which is fine, that’s where it should be. In addition, many sites put up their own pages (Quora, Reddit come to mind) saying their were being affected by the outage.

If you have a blog, use it. Same goes for Twitter and Facebook. Amazon, even though the info was hidden, was good with updating exactly what was going on and where they were in the process of getting services back online. For example:

Apr 24, 5:05 AM PDT: As detailed in previous updates, the vast majority of affected EBS volumes have been restored by this point, and we are working through a more time-consuming recovery process for remaining volumes. We have made steady progress on this front over the past few hours. If your volume is among those recently recovered, it should be accessible and usable without additional action.

Good information that’s being updated often is important to help keep customers in the loop. Compare that to Sony, who’s Playstation network has been offline since last Wednesday. Their updates have been nebulous, at best. On April 21, they posted on their official blog:

While we are investigating the cause of the Network outage, we wanted to alert you that it may be a full day or two before we’re able to get the service completely back up and running.

The last update given by the company, on April 23, said this:

We sincerely regret that PlayStation Network and Qriocity services have been suspended, and we are working around the clock to bring them both back online. Our efforts to resolve this matter involve re-building our system to further strengthen our network infrastructure. Though this task is time-consuming, we decided it was worth the time necessary to provide the system with additional security.

We thank you for your patience to date and ask for a little more while we move towards completion of this project. We will continue to give you updates as they become available.

And then, silence. It’s now Monday morning in the US and the service is not online and the current status/ETA for being online hasn’t been updated since Saturday. IGN has more on Sony’s PR response to this outage.

That type of communication wouldn’t work on our campuses. Part of your planning must be a communications plan for who is responsible for keeping a certain audience up to date on the status of services.

My colleagues at Allegheny are doing it right this morning. They had a power outage over the weekend and took to their intranet to update the campus community, on a Sunday.

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Am I going to stop using Amazon’s cloud services over this outage? No, definitely not. Is this going to make Amazon improve the service? Yes. Is this a sucky way to do it? Of course.

I’ll be updating this post with feedback from other higher ed web and marketing folks. Andrew Careaga has some interesting thoughts on the outage looking at it through a lens of education.

AWS logoIf you’ve been hesitant to try out the cloud and some of the services that Amazon offers, you may want to pay attention to this.

Beginning November 1, new Amazon Web Services customers will receive an unprecedented amount of services for free to introduce you to their services and how you can implement these into your web workflow.

Here’s what you get.

  • 750 hours of Amazon EC2 Linux Micro Instance usage (613 MB of memory and 32-bit and 64-bit platform support) – enough hours to run continuously each month*
  • 750 hours of an Elastic Load Balancer plus 15 GB data processing*
  • 10 GB of Amazon Elastic Block Storage, plus 1 million I/Os, 1 GB of snapshot storage, 10,000 snapshot Get Requests and 1,000 snapshot Put Requests*
  • 5 GB of Amazon S3 storage, 20,000 Get Requests, and 2,000 Put Requests*
  • 30 GB per of internet data transfer (15 GB of data transfer “in” and 15 GB of data transfer “out” across all services except Amazon CloudFront)*
  • 25 Amazon SimpleDB Machine Hours and 1 GB of Storage**
  • 100,000 Requests of Amazon Simple Queue Service**
  • 100,000 Requests, 100,000 HTTP notifications and 1,000 email notifications for Amazon Simple Notification Service**

Seriously – you get all this. I’m stunned. That’s basically a free server for a year from Amazon, storage, load balancing and more.

So how can you integrate these into your web workflow?

1. Backups and content delivery

With 5 GB of free storage, use it to backup your blog or website. There are automated plugins for many CMS and blog systems, especially WordPress.

If you run WordPress, use the TanTan S3 plugin to have media that you or your content creators upload go right to S3 and be served from there. Why? Bandwidth and storage space mostly.

2. Try out a new plugin, code framework, blogging tool, CMS, etc.

With the micro server, you can fire up whatever you want and try it out – especially if you’ve always wanted to run, say, Ruby on Rails on a CentOS server, this is your opportunity to try it out.

3. Get out of your comfort zone.

I’m a pretty heavy AWS user, and I’ve never used their SimpleDB or Simple Notification Services before. I’m going to use this free tier (on a new account, naturally) to put them through their paces and see if they are things might make my job easier on any given day. I’m especially interested in the notification service.