AWS Re:Invent 2018 Reflects an Industry Coming of Age

As a first take, the 2018 AWS Re:Invent conference event held in Las Vegas seemed to be slicker, even though bigger, than previous years. While conference sessions were far too distributed across multiple hotels to feed a coherent view, the big-barn expo exuded a feeling of knowing what it was about. Even the smallest vendors had stands which went beyond the lowest-common-denominator quick-assembly cube, suggesting either (a) the organisers had put more thought into it or (b) the vendors were better-established and (therefore) had more money. All in all, it felt less of a bun fight — more space between stands, less urgency to get from one place to another.

It would be too much of an extrapolation to suggest this reflects the state of the cloud marketplace in general, and AWS in particular; however, it does serve as a useful backdrop upon which to paint a picture of an industry maturing beyond its “look at us, over here, we are different!” roots. From the sessions held for analysts, a couple of notably aligned moments stand out: the first involving use of the H-word, met with a smattering of laughter as an AWS representative spoke of embracing (my word) hybrid architectures and deploying (in the form of AWS Snowball Edge) capabilities inside the enterprise boundary.

The second, also met with more of an accepting shrug than anything, was a presentation by Keith Jarrett, AWS’ worldwide lead on cloud economics, which accepted, nay endorsed the fact that AWS’ cloud models wouldn’t always be the cheapest option for everything. Any thoughts of “ah-HA! Got you!” were almost immediately overtaken by, “Well, of course, how could it be?” — unless someone has also invented the perpetual motion machine or some other magical device. At a risk of repeating the obvious, there is no silver bullet/single solution/one-model-to-rule-them all in technology, never has been and never will be. Keith went on to present a series of KPIs around value creation, rather than pure cost.

So, with maturity comes the circumspection of understanding one’s place in the world, what one brings to the party, and therefore a level of differentiation based on competence, not capability: in a nutshell, it’s not about “use cloud” but, “if you want to use cloud-based services, work with us as we do it better than anyone else.” We saw this across the AWS portfolio, for example through the repeated theme of ‘frameworks’ — AWS has one AI (as presented by Swami Sivasubramanian, VP, Amazon Machine Learning), one for IoT (thank you Dirk Didascalou, VP, AWS IoT), one for more general cloud adoption (hat-tip Dave McCann, VP, AWS Marketplace and Todd Weatherby, VP, AWS Professional Services).

It all makes sense — if the platform is (increasingly) a commodity, the differentiator becomes how it is used. We see this over and again: now that Kubernetes is (becoming) the de facto target for containerised applications for example, to say “we do Kubernetes” is no longer interesting. Nor for that matter are the frameworks, from a business perspective — illustrated by the current trend away from DevOps being an end in itself and towards governance models and tooling such as Value Stream Management. Most important are whether organisations can innovate and deliver faster, harness opportunities, deliver new customer experiences and generate business value, more effectively with one provider or another.

This is all good news for the enterprise, as the terminology and philosophical underpinnings of cloud computing increasingly align with the more traditional thinking pervading our largest organisations. Across the past ten years, it has been enough to ‘do’ cloud, or ‘do’ open source in order to create competitive advantage: indeed, upstart organisations (the usual suspects of AirBnB, Uber, indeed Amazon et al) have built their businesses on the basis of rapid time-to-value. Simply put, older companies, with all their meetings, legacy systems and indeed thinking, have not been able to deliver as quickly as businesses without all that baggage.

Indeed, they still can’t. But them old companies are still there, for a number of reasons. First that the new breed have largely tackled the customer-facing elements of business, but there’s only so much of that to go around. It is completely unsurprising that Amazon is opening (albeit automated) shops, and that Uber (together with Toyota) is investing in (driverless) car fleets: someone has to do the infrastructure stuff. Meanwhile, not all customer-oriented business can be done on an ad-hoc basis. Take Healthcare for example, which (thank goodness) has not thrown itself gaily into adopting the heck-why-not-throw-away-the-old-rules-and-see-what-happens business models of the platform economy.

And indeed, while big old businesses are still big and old, and therefore unable to act quite so responsively as the youngsters, three things are happening: not only are they getting better at that whole innovation thing — or indeed, learning how to align new models of innovation with their own approaches, but also, the younger companies are having to learn that they can’t get away with avoiding complexity for ever. And in parallel, as we have already seen, technology providers such as AWS are maturing to fit the evolving needs and capabilities of both sides. It’s not just the big players: at Re:Invent I was also able to talk to both organisations in Amazon’s partner ecosystem and their customers, notably a conversation with that quite popular gaming company Fortnite about both AWS and MongoDB.

Where does this leave us? First that AWS is establishing itself not as a cloud player but as a technology provider, and rightly so, moving away from a false debate based on cost and towards one based on value. Second, AWS recognises that it cannot go it alone, nor does it need to (historically echoing of Microsoft’s attempts to play the better together card, which worked to an extent but could never be the whole answer). Third, and taking into account the fact that AWS is not the only game in town, that this reflects a more general maturing of the industry’s relationship with business, as attention moves beyond the platform and towards how to get the most out of it in what, frankly, a highly complex and constantly evolving world.

Whatever happens, complexity of all types will continue to constrain our ability to maximise the value we can get from technology. While technological complexity may appear to be a Gordian knot, it is more a Hydra — cut off one head and many more grow back. Understanding this and trying to tame and align as a platform, rather than looking to restrict and present one model above all, holds the key to unlocking future innovation for businesses of all sizes.


HT to my colleague Enrico Signoretti for his report Alternatives to Amazon AWS S3.