In March 2017, many people had the impression that half of the internet no longer worked. Popular websites such as the travel portal Expedia or Soundcloud were down for hours because an Amazon employee made a typo.

The background: All affected websites used the “Amazon Web Services” (AWS) platform. Such cloud computing offers are particularly suitable for companies that cannot or do not want to afford their own data centers. They provide computing power, offer storage space and software to read databases and control websites.

What many do not know: AWS is one of Amazon’s most important sources of income. In the first quarter of 2022, the mail order company increased its sales in the division by 37 percent to $18.4 billion. With a market share of 33 percent, Amazon is now the market leader in the global cloud business, ahead of Microsoft and Google’s parent company Alphabet.

“The fact that some people are not aware of our cloud computing offering is probably due to the fact that AWS is primarily used by companies and not private individuals,” says Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Vice President of Amazon, in an interview with CHIP . “A lot of people used to think that Amazon only sold books.”

He describes AWS as a complex system made up of many different building blocks. “Amazon Web Services consists of more than 200 different services, including telephony and machine learning,” says Vogels. Whether Netflix, Facebook or Airbnb – many companies would fall back on AWS because the service, which was founded in 2006, is “efficient, inexpensive and secure”.

If companies like Netflix were to buy their own servers, it would involve some effort – there’s no question about that. Not only would the streaming top dog have to set up data centers all over the world. There is also regular maintenance work, as well as expansion of the server network, should the number of users increase.

Clemens Cap, an expert in computer networks and data security at the University of Rostock, considers AWS’ “stable, powerful infrastructure that can be scaled very well” to be a major advantage. In addition, the service includes “many ready-made standard solutions that are often more reliable than you would find in-house or small competitors”.

Amazon Web Services takes the work off many companies, for a fee, of course. However, this is also associated with risks. Because AWS customers have to rely on the provider to keep the infrastructure on which their website is based running – and to protect it adequately.

Vogels says: “We have developed security tools that you won’t find anywhere else. The type of protection that we offer our customers could never guarantee themselves.” Of course, the CTO emphasizes that security is a top priority at AWS. That it’s a key reason companies choose Amazon Web Services in the first place. “Protecting our customers is our top priority.”

And sure enough, there haven’t been headlines about security issues related to AWS for a long time. But maybe also because the provider learned from an extreme case. In 2011, more than ten years ago, researchers at the Ruhr University Bochum discovered a security gap in Amazon’s cloud offerings. They could have penetrated the Amazon subsidiary’s systems and manipulated data. The group corrected the error immediately.

Amazon man Vogels is convinced of the security of the cloud infrastructure at AWS. He says: “Every customer is different, the SAP systems sometimes vary greatly. We have security tools that can be adapted to the situation at each company. This is how you offer the best possible protection against cyber attacks.

Also, as the Amazon VP explains, you shouldn’t think of AWS as “one thing.” “Amazon Web Services is not a building that collapses when one part breaks,” he says. It is not for nothing that financial or pharmaceutical companies that manage sensitive, personal data would also use the service.

It is important to know that the responsibility for the security of individual applications operated in the cloud lies with the respective customer – AWS only makes recommendations for appropriate measures. Data security expert Cap says: “But the system is quite complex, which is why incorrect configurations by the customer are possible.”

He also sees other downsides to using AWS. “As always with out-of-house production, there is a dependency on the service provider if something doesn’t work.” Cap also warns of an increasing “interlocking of one’s own business processes with the systems of AWS, which can then make it difficult or at least costly later on, switch to other providers.

In the end, one thing is clear: AWS is an important and, above all, practical service for many companies. Netflix, Facebook and other companies do not have to set up their own server networks, but can conveniently use those of the cloud computing provider. “Efficient, inexpensive and safe,” as Vogels sums it up.

But the truth is that companies that use AWS make themselves dependent on Amazon. They must trust that the mail order company will protect their data. And: Because so many corporations use AWS, Amazon holds a dominant position in the field of cloud computing.

Cap summarizes: “So we see a field of tension. On the one hand, you will outsource a lot to experts who can do things better than you can do yourself – who still has their own waterworks these days?” But it should also be noted “that a cloud always means external computers that you don’t have control over yourself “.

So the expert, who heads the chair for information and communication services at the University of Rostock, finally has one question. “In many areas, data is the absolute core business – should that now be outsourced?” In Cap’s opinion, a very precise risk assessment is necessary. A process that “unfortunately often enough is not carried out in the necessary depth”.

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