AWS is fed up with tech that wasn’t built for clouds because it has a big 'blast radius' when things go awry

Which is why it's built its own UPS, from the firmware up. And also why Graviton ignores Intel's and AMD's best tricks

Amazon Web Services is tired of tech that wasn’t purpose built for clouds and hopes that the stuff it’s now building from scratch will be more appealing to you, too.

That’s The Register’s takeaway from today’s “Infrastructure Keynote” at the cloud giant’s elongated re:invent conference, which featured veep for global infrastructure leadership Peter DeSantis revealing a little about how AWS keeps itself running.

Among the nuggets he revealed was that AWS has designed its own uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and that there’s now one in each of its racks. AWS decided on that approach because the UPS systems it needed were so big they required a dedicated room to handle the sheer quantity of lead-acid batteries required to keep its kit alive. The need to maintain that facility created more risk and made for a larger “blast radius” - the extent of an incident's impact - in the event of failure or disaster.

Cloud money

Amazon’s cloudy Macs cost $25.99 a day. 77 days of usage would buy you your own Mac


AWS is all about small blast radii, DeSantis explained, and in the past the company therefore wrote its own UPS firmware for third-party products.

“Software you don’t own in your infrastructure is a risk,” DeSantis said, outlining a scenario in which notifying a vendor of a firmware problem in a device commences a process of attempting to replicate the issue, followed by developing a fix and then deployment.

“It can take a year to fix an issue,” he said. And that’s many months too slow for AWS given a bug can mean downtime for customers.

This approach has also seen AWS design its own software to manage switchgear, the devices that cut over from mains power to UPS in the event of an outage.

Amazon’s home-grown Arm processor, the Graviton2, was developed for similar reasons.

Software you don’t own in your infrastructure is a risk

DeSantis said the reason that commercial UPSes and switchgear don’t meet its needs is that they’re designed for the many scenarios in which they’ll be put to work, rather than Amazon’s requirements. The same logic goes into developing CPUs, he said, arguing that the likes of Intel and AMD design products that will sell well by making them general-purpose devices.

The result is processors that pack in features to make them suitable for more tasks. When raw power was needed, multi-core CPUs were the answer. When utilisation rates of CPUS became an issue, simultaneous multithreading came along. None of that tech ever left mainstream CPUs, DeSantis argued, and the result is architectures ripe for side-channel attacks and which deliver variable performance. DeSantis said he thinks the HPC crowd turn off SMT to avoid the latter issue.

AWS would rather processors designed for the cloud. Hence its investment in Graviton, the many-core architecture and extra-large caches as they allow better per-core performance without the need for other trickery. The architecture is designed from the ground up for microservices, which AWS sees as the dominant wave of software development.

“Graviton 2 delivers 2.5-3 times better performance/watt than any other CPU in our cloud,” DeSantis said.

In conversation with The Register he added that such performance is only possible thanks to AWS’ Nitro silicon, to which the cloud colossus offloads virtualisation and networking chores.

DeSantis declined to tell The Register what’s inside a Nitro device but did say the company is now using a fourth-generation device and that it is not correct to characterise them as SmartNICs.

“SmartNIC is a subset of its functionality,” he said. “It is very specialised hardware for us, really deeply formed for AWS. DeSantis allowed that there are “some similarities, logically, but it is more specialised.”

And then in his keynote he showed one of the devices and said it connected to AWS’ new Mac instances over Thunderbolt.

AWS Nitro card

An AWS Nitro card, at bottom left. Click to enlarge

Much of DeSantis’ talk was dedicated to AWS’ green credentials – it has just ordered a stack more renewable energy – and not-so-subtle digs at the language cloud rivals use when describing the physical separation of availability zones. AWS, he said, is perfectly clear that its data centres are a disaster-proof distance from one another, but less than a millisecond of latency apart.

That’s a configuration that he said delivers what cloud apps need: enough distance to be safe, but not so network-challenged that stateless apps will struggle.

DeSantis also talked up AWS’ newly-revealed plans for a second Australian region. ®

Similar topics

Narrower topics

Other stories you might like

  • Experts: AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law
    Plus: Police release deepfake of murdered teen in cold case, and more

    In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

    Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

    "If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge," they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. "Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions."

    Continue reading
  • Declassified and released: More secret files on US govt's emergency doomsday powers
    Nuke incoming? Quick break out the plans for rationing, censorship, property seizures, and more

    More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

    These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America's commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

    PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

    Continue reading
  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022