The rise of cloud computing provides businesses the ability to quickly provision computing resources without the costly and laborious task of building data centers, and without the costs of running servers with underutilized capacity due to variable workloads.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the first large vendor of easily affordable cloud infrastructure and services, and remains the single largest player in the cloud computing market. For startups, this low barrier to entry has enabled the rise of popular photo sharing services such as imgur, while established companies like Netflix have transitioned their workloads to AWS to decrease the complexity of their deployment while reducing costs.

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This guide to AWS is both an easily digestible introduction to Amazon's cloud ecosystem, as well as a "living" guide that will be updated periodically to keep IT leaders in the loop on new AWS services and ways in which they can be leveraged.

Executive summary

  1. What is AWS? AWS is a collection of various cloud computing services and applications offered by Amazon.com. The most popular of these services include Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3).
  2. Why does AWS matter? AWS has no upfront costs or appreciable time delay in resource provisioning—capacity is available on demand. With a usage-based billing formula, it is an economical alternative to on-premises servers.
  3. Who does AWS affect? AWS offers services relevant to any organization, large or small, with an internet presence or a need for private data storage and retrieval.
  4. When was AWS launched? The AWS platform launched in 2006, though new services and "regions" (data centers) have been added continually since launch.
  5. What services compete with AWS? Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform are two of the top competitors to AWS.
  6. How do I become an AWS engineer? Amazon has a formal certification available for AWS DevOps engineers, but the certification isn't necessary to perform the job. Regardless, interested professionals need to learn how to manage AWS instances, which involves many different skills.
  7. How do I get and use AWS? You can get started with AWS using the free tier, which allows limited free use for up to one year. For pricing at the US East region, S3 pricing starts at $0.023 per GB, while EC2 instances start at $0.0059 per hour.

What is AWS?
AWS is a platform consisting of a variety of cloud computing services offered by Amazon.com. Instead of building an in-house data center, or leasing general purpose servers from traditional data centers, the costs of resource provisioning on AWS reflect actual usage, not reserved capacity. The service in question is also a factor in billing—pricing varies based on the individual product and storage type.

For example, pricing for S3 is divided into three tiers. Presently, in the US-East region, the standard storage tier starts at $0.023 per GB per month for the first 50 terabytes, with discounts thereafter. Infrequent access storage starts at $0.0125 per GB, and Glacier storage, designed to host backups and data archives, starts at $0.004 per GB.

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In addition to the aforementioned EC2 and S3 services, other services exist in the AWS portfolio. CloudFront, a content-delivery network (CDN), mirrors resources at "edge locations" to improve page loading time. Relational Database Service (RDS) is a scalable database server that supports MySQL/MariaDB, PostgreSQL, Oracle, and Microsoft SQL Server, as well as Amazon's own Aurora implementation of MySQL. Similarly, DynamoDB offers scalable NoSQL database support. Elastic Beanstalk allows users to quickly deploy and manage applications in the cloud from preconfigured container images.

AWS also offers specialized resources that are applicable to specific use cases. Video stored on S3 can be easily transcoded for mobile devices using Elastic Transcoder, and for any process not yet automatable simple tasks can be completed by remote workers in Mechanical Turk—though, this is more crowd computing than cloud computing. Amazon Connect is a cloud-based contact center service delivered through AWS, allowing businesses to scale to thousands of customer support agents.

At the 2016 AWS re:Invent conference, a substantial emphasis was placed on AI services, with the announcement of Amazon Rekognition, a deep-learning based image recognition system; Amazon Polly, a text-to-speech system that supports 25 languages, and differentiates for different dialects of English, Spanish, and Portuguese; as well as Amazon Lex, the speech recognition and natural language processing technology that powers the Alexa virtual assistant, used in the Amazon Echo speaker and Fire TV digital media player.

AWS has specialized services for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, with particular emphasis on enabling encrypted communication between devices, and transmitting information to the cloud. AWS Greengrass is a service that allows local compute, messaging, data caching, and synchronization.

Why does AWS matter?
AWS, like other cloud service providers, offers the ability to instantly provision computing resources on demand. Compared to the laborious task of planning and building on-site data center infrastructure, along with the requisite hardware upgrades, maintenance costs, server cooling requirements, electricity costs, and use of floorspace—particularly for offices in urban centers with associated real estate costs—the savings can add up very quickly.

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The benefit of AWS extends beyond cost, however. Managed services of AWS reduce the administrative burden of IT, freeing them to work on new projects rather than spending time on general system upkeep. For example, in RDS, the administrative console can be used to automatically apply security updates to the underlying software stack, as well as manage backups, snapshots, deployments in multiple availability zones, and seamlessly replace an instance in the event of hardware failure.

How do I get and use AWS?
Developers can get started with AWS using the Free Tier, which is available to anyone without restriction for the first 12 months. It features 750 hours per month of EC2 t.2 micro instances of Linux or Windows, as well as 5 GB of standard storage in S3 with 20,000 GET and 2,000 PUT requests.

Also available is 25 GB of storage in DynamoDB with 25 units of write and read capacity each, which Amazon estimates to be sufficient to handle 200 million requests per month. It includes one million free requests in Lambda, and 20,000 free requests in AWS Key Management, and free access grants in a dozen other AWS services. After the 12 month unlimited period ends, some restrictions take effect. Free tier users should be sure they know all the details about products they need that may be affected by the end of the free tier unlimited period.

For startups, various tiers of free credits (up to $100,000) are available depending on your accelerator. These promotional credits can be applied to most AWS products, though are not usable with Mechanical Turk, AWS Marketplace, or some types of support requests.

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