AWS Islands

The case for a concerted effort to build a powerful, but streamlined, platform on AWS.

By commoditizing the management of servers and other resources, AWS is indisputably an incredible tool that provides an inordinate amount of leverage to organizations that use it. Using AWS, most of us can can avoid ever setting up server hardware, changing a corrupt disk, or troubleshooting a faulty router; thus avoiding the need to bring entire technical disciplines in-house.

But AWS focuses a little too much on infrastructure. Its APIs, SDKs, and even web console are feature-rich and powerful, but don’t incorporate the workflows that its users are following as they go about their work day-to-day. It’s so low level that every company using it ends up enriching their experience by building custom tooling to help with commonly needed tasks like getting fleet-wide visibility, running deployments, or managing configuration. Generally this tooling is built using common foundational tools like Puppet and AWS SDKs, but it’s still very much custom.

This effect has a name, the Gal├ípagos syndrome; originally coined to refer to the isolated branch of development that is the Japanese mobile phone industry. Each organization’s tooling is its own branch of evolutionary development, and like the disappearing mobile phones of Japan 1, probably a dead end of development at that.

The problem with internal tooling is that it invariably sucks. Usually appearing in the fast-moving early stages of a company and not being exposed to the same rigor as open-source, it’s often self-inconsistent, undocumented, logically unsound, slow, and with no test suite in sight. That isn’t to say that it isn’t still useful, especially relative to the purely utilitarian base layer that is AWS, but it represents a huge cost of development and maintenance for software that’s generally mediocre at best.

As resource-conscientious organizations, we should be trying to pool these discrete points of considerable expenditure towards the development of a rich middle tier from which we can all reap the benefits. This tier would meet these criteria:

  1. Flexible enough to meet the requirements of organizations that will have a wide spectrum of sizes and use cases.
  2. Simple enough that smaller shops with fewer resources can use it to quickly and easily deploy just a few basic apps to jumpstart their business (ideally as easy as git push heroku master).
  3. General enough so as not to lock into features that are forever going to be specific to AWS so that it can be run on a number of different cloud providers.

The potential upside here is a significantly improved operator experience, the potential to avoid vast swaths of internal only bugs, and hugely streamlining operations effort by cutting out unnecessary software development and maintenance. The downside is having to learn someone else’s system, but this is no worse than what we already do for AWS.

Kubernetes, with its strong engineering team and with Google backing its finances and notoriety, is my favorite candidate so far, but it’s still too early to tell whether it’s going to be a clear winner.

1 While maintaining a rich domestic phone culture for a long time, almost the entirety of Japan’s population is now on iOS and Android devices.

AWS Islands was published on June 15, 2016 from San Francisco. Find me on Twitter at @brandur.

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