This week, Amazon Web Services gave its clearest acknowledgement to date that it doesn’t really expect everyone’s computing to happen in its data centers. With the advent of the Internet of things (IoT), which relies on millions of connected devices deployed nearly everywhere to collect and crunch data, the company knows it needs “feet on the street” in the form of its own connected devices in the field.
To accomplish that, Amazon (AMZN) announced Snowball Edge, portable hardware that incorporates both computing and storage to enable customers to run some tasks and store some data locally. The Edge, announced at the annual AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, is an offshoot of Snowball, a storage-only hardware appliance announced last year. Snowball’s job is to collect corporate data and physically ship it to an AWS data center for uploading.
Unlike Snowball, the Edge version, pictured below, is meant to remain wherever the customer places it, to act as a local computing and storage node.
AWS also unveiled AWS Greengrass, a small device powered by Intel (INTC) chips and software written using Amazon’s Lambda tool. The software can then run both locally and in the AWS cloud, under the management of IT administrators.
Lambda creates what techies call “event-driven services.” It lets developers set up actions that automatically kick in once the software detects a certain condition. That could be a user clicking on a web site, or an image upload, or a sensor detecting a predetermined trigger. If your connected home alarm senses motion near the front door, the Greengrass device can fire off a text alert to you, your security service, the police, or all of the above—all without intervention by the homeowner.
The ability to divvy up computing between local and third-party providers is known as hybrid computing, and it’s been something of a problem for AWS, which has historically provided tools to move customer data to its cloud and to run all their applications there as well. But many companies see the need to retain some local data storage and computing, which is something legacy IT providers like Oracle (ORCL), IBM (IBM), and Microsoft (MSFT) have driven home.
In the past, Amazon created polarization with enterprise IT people by saying they should leave many technology tasks up to AWS, said Peter Christy, research director for 451 Research. “Now it’s saying the enterprise mission is the edge of the Internet of things, that’s what enterprise IT should focus on.” Thus the Internet of things has given AWS entry to a mode of hybrid computing.
In an interview with Fortune, Matt Wood, general manager of product strategy with AWS, characterized the notion of hybrid as “the integration of infrastructure in the cloud with infrastructure not in the cloud,” That’s what Greengrass and Snowball Edge are about.
Having said that, he reiterated Amazon’s long-held belief that over time, companies will need fewer of their own data centers, and allocate that work to what he calls a more efficient and agile public cloud infrastructure.
So it’s clear that the company is betting that net flow of data into AWS will grow. To facilitate that, Amazon drove its latest data migration tool directly onto the re:Invent stage in the form of a big-rig truck. This was the grand entrance of Snowmobile— a secure shipping container that can transport 100 petabytes of data to an AWS data center. Transferring that amount of data over a network connection could take months or more. The truck’s unexpected arrival, with AWS chief executive Andy Jassy on stage, drew the biggest applause of the day.
Per an AWS blog post.
Physically, Snowmobile is a ruggedized, tamper-resistant shipping container 45 feet long, 9.6 feet high, and 8 feet wide. It is water-proof, climate-controlled, and can be parked in a covered or uncovered area adjacent to your existing data center. Each Snowmobile consumes about 350 kW of AC power; if you don’t have sufficient capacity on site we can arrange for a generator.
Some people laughed at what seemed to be a low-tech way to transport data. Some attendees even thought Snowmobile was a joke. And given all the security enhancements it has, it’s hardly low-tech.
For companies that generate huge amounts of data that must be stored and made accessible as needed and that no longer want to foot the cost to do that locally, this is a viable data transfer option. For example, Snowmobile seems tailor-made for DigitalGlobe (DGI), a provider of satellite imagery to Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government. DigitalGlobe’s goal is to transition out of its own data centers into AWS over time, according to chief technology officer Walter Scott. DigitalGlobe customers include Google (GOOGL), Facebook (FB), and other Fortune 500 companies.
DigitalGlobe, which collects 10 petabytes of earth imaging data annually from its five satellites, had been using the smaller Snowballs to send data to AWS. But their capacity just wasn’t big enough, Scott told Fortune.
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What most struck Constellation Research analyst Holger Mueller about the news was the notion AWS, known as a software and cloud provider to customers, is that it’s now offering them hardware devices that run outside AWS as well.
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But, he also noted that were Amazon really in tune with hybrid cloud, customers wouldn’t need a semi-tractor to move their data. Oracle, Dell Technologies, Microsoft, and IBM, all champion the hybrid model that enables companies to run their own private clouds while also using a public cloud for some jobs. That makes it easier to keep data where you need it—no truck required.