Last updated: April 26, 2019
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Since launching the EC2 platform in 2006, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has become the dominant player in the $70 billion a year cloud computing services market.
With datacenters spanning the globe and over 160 services on tap, it’s easy to be impressed by AWS and confused by its offerings.
In this review, I’ll help you get a better sense of what AWS is. We’ll look at some of their most popular services and who they’re suited for. And you’ll discover some options for using AWS that you probably hadn’t thought about.
Whether you’re interested in cloud hosting for your WordPress site, you’re developer, or you just want an introduction to AWS, this review will advance your understanding.
What is AWS (Amazon Web Services)?
Amazon Web Services is a cloud computing services company operating as a subsidiary of Amazon.
With net sales exceeding $232 billion in 2018 and continued year-over-year growth, AWS remains the market leader, well ahead of Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, IBM, and Alibaba.
Their cloud products span remarkable breadth, and include machine learning applications; IoT (Internet of Things), Virtual Reality (VR) tools, gaming technologies, cloud hosting, data services, and the querying of exabytes of data.
Clients include the CIA, General Electric, Lamborghini, and video streaming competitor Netflix.
What is Cloud Computing?
Cloud computing provides web server, computing, and developer technologies via the internet on a pay-for-what-you-use model.
This contrasts with the traditional approach of building, purchasing or renting datacenters and/or hardware and software, and being responsible for the monitoring and management of these resources.
How Did AWS Get Started?
The genesis of AWS was a 2003 paper written by Amazon engineers Benjamin Black and Chris Pinkham.
While wrestling with the problem of how to scale Amazon’s infrastructure efficiently, they conceived of selling the solution. This was Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).
Three years later EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) launched.
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AWS Services: An Introduction
Innovations from AWS and cloud computing have driven down IT costs associated with growing businesses and launching startups.
Too Complicated for Main Street?
As you’ll see from perusing the table below, the majority of AWS services require some understanding of code, web hosting, or data handling.
There are exceptions such as their LightSail cloud hosting and S3 (object storage) service.
Consumers can also benefit from AWS by selecting a web host, like WP Engine or Media Temple, that provides Amazon hosting but manages all the details for you. We’ll take a look at those solutions, shortly.
Popular AWS Services
Here’s a list of some of the most popular AWS services.
|AWS Service||What is it?||Notes|
|EC2||Virtual machines in the cloud||Control and configure security and networking, manage storage, and scale up when necessary.|
|VPC||Virtual private cloud||Similar to a virtual datacenter. You can have multiple VPCs in a region and connect them.|
|Route53||DNS servers||You can use it to register domain names. “53” is the port used.|
|CloudFront||CDN||Edge locations (PoPs) cache assets like photos and video.|
|DirectConnect||A dedicated line||Used by companies pushing large amounts of data. Used for reliability and security.|
|Elastic Beanstalk||Auto-deploy your code to AWS||Automatic provision of related infrastructure including S3, EC2, autoscaling, CloudWatch, etc.|
|Lambda||Run stateless cloud functions that auto-scale.||Also referred to as a FaaS (Function-as-a-Service). No need to provision or manage servers.|
|LightSail||VPS cloud hosting for WordPress and other CMSs||Includes SSDs, SSH/RDP access, DNS management, auto-scaling.|
|S3||Object (file) storage||Low-cost data storage. Monitoring tools included.|
|Glacier S3||An archive for S3 objects||Uses: Low-cost storage, regulatory compliance.|
|dynamoDB||A NoSQL highly scalable database||Often used with Lambda.|
|Redshift||Large-scale data warehousing||Fast analysis supported by machine learning. Quickly analyze across petabytes of data.|
|Data lake||Central repository for structured and unstructured data||Can handle fast manipulation of exabytes of data. Uses S3 combined with a proprietary architecture.|
|Snowball||Petabyte-scale data transfer to the AWS cloud||A physical unit is shipped to you. The software client encrypts and transfers your data to the unit. You ship the unit back to AWS.|
Using AWS For Web Hosting
Not a developer but want to benefit from AWS’s advanced technology? Here are three options.
LightSail: Cloud Hosting For WordPress, Drupal, Joomla
Amazon bills LightSail as the “easiest way” to get started with AWS.
It’s VPS (virtual private server) cloud hosting for — among other things — websites built on popular platforms like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and Magento.
I gave LightSail a test drive. The interface for getting started is simple. The graphics include cartoon robots and flying saucers. The message is clear: “This is going to be easy and fun to use!”
Some aspects will be easy for the novice. Some won’t.
To begin, you’ll be asked to click on a button that reads “Create an instance.” You could be forgiven for wondering, “What’s an instance?”
Next, your datacenter (or “instance location”) will be picked for you. (You can override this and select another location.)
Then you’ll be asked to “Pick your instance image.”
If you click the blue “Help” tab at right you’ll find a lot of technical detail, that will likely seem overwhelming and unclear to the newbie.
To be fair, LightSail has features to please both novices and geeks, and the support material necessarily speaks to both audiences. If you’re a non-geek, watch this video to get an idea of what it’s like to sign up for LightSail. It will help you decide whether this is a good option for you.
WordPress: Use the Quick Start Guide
If you decide to sign up for a WordPress site, search in the LightSail documentation for the “Quick start guide: WordPress on Amazon Lightsail.” Use this guide while getting your WordPress site created and launched.
Once you’re done getting your instance set up, how/where to find your WordPress site isn’t intuitive. This is why you need to stick to the guide.
You’ll have to log in via SSH and follow some instructions to retrieve your password. (This entails typing in a command.)
I’ll Take One Instance, and a Database on the Side . . .
Currently, the lowest cost for a VPS “instance” is $3.50 a month and you get a free month to test drive it.
However, the database incurs a separate fee. (You’ll have to click a button to set it up.) The lowest database fee is $15/month. The “high availability” version costs $30/month.
Features For Developers
Using S3 to Host a Static Website
S3 stores files (objects) in “buckets.” Creating a bucket takes a few clicks.
You can turn a bucket of website files into a hosted website.
This only works with static websites. In other words websites that don’t use databases (and don’t need traditional servers). Since WordPress, Drupal, and other popular CMSs do have databases, you cannot use S3 as a host for them.
The reasons for using S3 is that it automatically scales up to millions of users and is an extremely low-cost hosting solution.
You’ll find instructions in the AWS guide “Configuring a Bucket for Website Hosting.”
Developers may want to explore Netlify Edge. It’s built for JAMstack websites, is based on a Github workflow, and deploys to AWS, Google Cloud, and Digital Ocean.
If you don’t have a technical background, you may become frustrated by the S3 instructions. That leads us to your third option.
Get Amazon Hosting Without the Complexity
If you want the benefits of AWS’s “infinitely scalable” and “flawless” hosting performance (WP Engine’s description), the good news is you can get it without tinkering under the hood.
Here are some vetted options for you to explore.
WP Engine: Managed WordPress Hosting
Just pick a plan and you’ll get AWS-powered hosting without having to interact with the AWS dashboards. WP Engine‘s technical staff handle it all for you.
Their “managed” service includes automatic updates to the WordPress core and a platform optimized for WordPress security and performance.
Pagely: Managed WordPress for Growing Businesses
Pagely provides AWS-powered hosting to big brands like Visa, Virgin Atlantic, and Disney.
They’re also known for their custom solutions and customer support.
Media Temple: An AWS Partner
Media Temple employs AWS-certified engineers to set up, optimize, and manage your AWS hosting.
They handle all aspects of managing and configuring AWS and have a detailed process for capturing your requirements and ensuring client satisfaction.
Wix: A Website Builder With Hosting Included
If you don’t have a website and are considering a beginner-level drag-and-drop builder, explore Wix.
They run their sites on AWS to easily handle traffic spikes and for reliability and automatic backups.
The AWS global infrastructure is made up of:
Regions: these are geographic areas spanning 2 or more “availability zones”
Availability zones: these are datacenters
Edge locations: these are nodes (or “PoPs” – points of presence) for their CloudFront CDN (content delivery network).
AWS routinely adds availability zones and edge locations.
Amazon’s datacenters are highly secure facilities with restricted access, state-of-the-art surveillance, and intrusion detection.
Once inside, access is restricted to the data servers themselves, and third-party auditors regularly assess system or security threats throughout the year.
Finally, all major systems (water, power, internet) have layers of redundancy, ensuring that they continue operating in most emergency conditions.
CloudFront is a global CDN that’s highly secure, has high transfer speeds, and low latency.
It’s especially useful if you use Amazon S3 to host your website (or LightSail for dynamic websites), as CloudFront integrates easily with other Amazon products.
A Note on Costs
While cloud computing services have lowered the entry barrier for startups and created vast economies of scale, some firms allegedly reach a tipping point and find data egress fees taking a big bite out of revenues.
Moz and Dropbox are two examples of firms that have returned to traditional IT to save millions of dollars.
Moz’s spending on AWS peaked at $6.2 million in 2013, some 25% of total revenue. And Dropbox saved some $75 million over 2 years by building out its own infrastructure and relying less on AWS.
Pros and Cons of Using Amazon Web Services
To summarize, here are a few pros and cons of some of AWS’s hosting options.
World class infrastructure
Pay per use model, low cost for S3
Excellent support options
Integrates easily with other AWS services.
S3 is only for static websites.
LightSail may be difficult for non-technical users
Both require a basic technical skills to setup.
AWS is a natural choice for developers, startups and rapidly growing businesses. Their data storage solutions are low-cost, can handle exabytes of data, and offer ease-of-use to enterprise clients.
Readers who are comfortable using commercial software solutions should have no trouble learning how to use AWS’s LightSail and S3 hosting solutions. Non-technical users should opt for an AWS provider who manages the details for them.
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Amazon S3 Frequently Asked Questions
- What is Amazon EC2 cloud?
Amazon EC2 offers computing capacity. What this means is that you can “rent” virtual computers on which you can run apps. For example, let’s say there’s a tool that you want to use, but you don’t want to run it on your local machine; you can, therefore, use EC2 for this purpose.
- How much does it cost to host a website on AWS?
It depends; if your website is small enough that you’re within AWS Free Tier limits, hosting a static website on S3 will cost about $0.50 per month. However, AWS estimates that, if you exceed the Free Tier limits, you can expect to pay $1-$3 per month. LightSail currently starts at $3.50/month for hosting and $15/month for a database, totalling $18.50/month
- What is the use of Amazon Web Services?
Amazon Web Services offers a variety of tools and services that you can purchase on an as-needed, pay-as-you-go basis. You can get what you need without having to make significant initial investments in things like infrastructure, and you will be spending your time managing your tools, not on getting them up and running.
- Is AWS IaaS, PaaS, or SaaS?
AWS has been primarily an IaaS, PaaS, and FaaS (Function-as-a-Service) company but it has solid SaaS offerings as well. SaaS products include Amazon Connect, Amazon Chime, and Amazon Pinpoint. Some industry obsevers see AWS heading increasingly into SaaS territory. In terms of IaaS, AWS offers computing power, storage services, networking, and more. In terms of PaaS, AWS offers components required to run apps, such as databases, analytics/business intelligence features, and more. Lambda is FaaS.
- What is AWS certification?
If you want to prove to prospective employers or clients that you’re competent in working with AWS products, you can get various AWS Certifications. There are both roles-based options, as well as specialty options. The former are comprehensive and allow you to demonstrate competency in multiple areas, while the latter demonstrates skill in a specific AWS product.
- What is the difference between Azure and AWS?
Microsoft’s Azure platform is very similar to AWS in that both offer comprehensive cloud computing solutions. However, the two companies offer slightly different product options, and when you look at comparable product offerings, you might see that each company has chosen to implement them slightly differently.
- Does S3 provide a file system?
Yes and no. While AWS doesn’t explicitly offer a file system, you can mount Amazon S3 (or Amazon Simple Storage Service) for use as a file system, allowing the tools and apps of your choice to interact with your S3 bucket to perform basic operations (create, read, write, delete) on your files.
- Is Amazon S3 a CDN?
Amazon S3 is not a CDN; it is a storage service. CloudFront, however, is AWS’ CDN offering. With that said, you can use S3 and CloudFront together. S3 will store the static content you want cached, while CloudFront will secure and serve your content.
- What is AWS DevOps?
AWS DevOps is designed to support companies looking to start a DevOps program. (DevOps is the set of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools adopted by a company to manage their product releases.) Because there can be many aspects of a DevOps program, working with AWS (which offers a large number of options) can be economical for many.
- Is AWS free?
Yes and no. AWS offers a Free Tier, which allows you to try out sixty AWS products/services free of charge (as long as you don’t exceed the stated usage limits). You can use the Free Tier for up to twelve months. After that, you’ll have to pay for the products you use.
- What is AWS technology?
AWS (or Amazon Web Services) is a platform of cloud-based services that offer you things like computing power, storage, networking/infrastructure, and databases. AWS operates using an on-demand, pay-as-you-go model, so you pay for only what you use, and you can get up and running in just seconds.