The Unbundling of AWS

(I’m using AWS as an example, but this post applies just as much to other cloud providers)

Over the years AWS has grown to dozens of different services,  providing virtual machines,  databases, monitoring and  deployment tools on-demand. Today, it would be considered foolish to manage your own Postgres/MySQL server when you can set up an RDS instance with excellent scalability and availability characteristics in a matter of minutes.

But that’s changing.

Container infrastructure is starting to provide similar abstractions and benefits: One-click deployments, load balancing, auto-scaling, rolling deploys, recovery from failures, data migration, resource usage monitoring, and more. Increasingly, I see companies moving away from cloud provider services in favor of containers and container orchestration platforms. Core services like EC2 and S3 aren’t easily replaced, but others are, and there are good reasons to do so:

  • Costs. AWS prides itself on pay-per-use pricing, but many services aren’t fulfilling that promise. For example, an Elastic Load Balancer costs a fixed $25/month, even if it receives only a few requests. A database that runs only few queries per day (like this blog) also comes with a fixed price tag. Containers are almost free – instead of paying with dollars you pay with the CPU/network resources actually used by the service. Often, that turns out to be cheaper.
  • Features. Many AWS services are based either directly or indirectly on open source projects. But these open source projects are typically more feature-complete than their AWS counterparts. An Elastic Load Balancer has a limited set of features compared to a HAProxy instance; so does AWS Kinesis compared to Apache Kafka. Even services that are running open source software under the hood (such as EMR with Hadoop/Spark) don’t typically support the latest versions.
  • No cloud lock-in: Most container orchestration solutions work across clouds out of the box. This means you can host parts of your infrastructure on AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, DigitalOcean, you’re private cloud, or whatever else is the best fit.
  • Full control: When things don’t work as expected you’re relying on AWS support for help. That can be convenient, but usually it’s faster to debug a problem yourself. That’s only possible with access to the internals of a service, something you don’t have with hosted solutions. What if there’s a simple feature that’d take a small configuration change or a few lines of code to implement? AWS support can’t do that for you. With containers and open source software you can.

Just like Craigslist has been unbundled by purpose-built websites, it seems natural to (not only) me that cloud providers like AWS will be unbundled by purpose-built open source software. In a way that’s ironic because the value proposition of AWS is the exact opposite – bundling  open source software in a centralized place and giving them a consistent look and feel. Up until now we didn’t have the right technology to enable unbundling of PaaS solutions. It’s only recently that container infrastructure and orchestration are becoming mature enough to make this possible.