What we learned at AWS re:invent 2019

The key announcements and takeaways from another busy week with the cloud computing giant in Las Vegas this week

Amazon Web Services (AWS) wrapped up its massive re:invent conference in Las Vegas today, here's our pick of the vast number of announcements made, including the vendor's first dive into quantum computing and CEO Andy Jassy's choicest barbs for rivals. Giddy up:

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Andy Jassy talks leadership, not technology

Building on his message from last year, replete with his schtick of using a house band to break up his keynote, AWS CEO Andy Jassy spoke about how digital transformation is "not technical, it's all about leadership".

Last year Jassy spoke about the "two types of user" of AWS services: the traditional developer and startup user base and enterprise customers who may be more willing to trade complete control for simple access to the technology. This year he outlined the "six critical components of a digital transformation," which we won't repeat here.

Of course it wouldn't be a Jassy keynote without some digs at its rivals, but this time it wasn't just Oracle that was in the crosshairs, with IBM mainframes, Oracle databases and Microsoft's SQL Server and Windows software all taking flak.

"You see this return to the ways of old from Microsoft where they’re not prioritising what matters to you guys, the customers,” Jassy said. "Companies don't want to pay the tax of Windows and the vibrant community around Linux means features and security happens quicker there and companies are less keen on having one owner of the OS when they are prone to raising prices and changing licensing terms."

Shots fired.

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Werner Vogels talks project Nitro and serverless progress

Amazon CTO Dr Werner Vogels was moved to the Thursday slot this year, where he talked about how AWS is trying to push forward the limits of virtualisation technology with its Nitro project.

Vogels also brought customers like asset management group Vanguard on stage to talk about enterprise adoption of serverless architectures, a favourite topic of the CTO over the past couple of years.

Read next: What is serverless computing?

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AWS goes big on custom silicon

Jassy's keynote also focused on compute, broken down to: instances, containers and network. This included some major chip announcements.

AWS has extended its partnership with Softbank-owned chip designer Arm to bring customers the Graviton2, a custom chip design with a 7nm architecture based on 64-bit ARM Neoverse cores.

Jassy also announced a new EC2 Inf1 instance which features AWS' own Inferentia chips and are optimised for machine learning workloads.

He also announced a new service called AWS Compute Optimiser which helps point customers towards the best instance for a job.

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Database news, managed Cassandra launched

The headline database announcement was a managed service for the open source Cassandra database in preview, especially for customers it can't get to shift to its own DyanmoDB NoSQL database.

Apache Cassandra is an open source distributed database which grew out of Facebook to manage large amounts of structured data across commodity servers and is known for its high availability.

Jonathan Ellis, CTO and cofounder of managed Cassandra leader DataStax responded to the announcement by saying: "Enterprises in every industry have seen big returns from their investments in Cassandra, an open source database uniquely architected to meet the needs of hybrid and multi-cloud deployments. The AWS announcement is further validation of the reach and growing importance of Cassandra."

The beta release of AWS managed Cassandra is available as of today in five regions but just one in Europe (Stockholm).

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Data warehouse

Data warehouse was also a major focus in Jassy's keynote, with some big advances to its Redshift service.

The first was Amazon Redshift RA3 instances, which let customers scale compute and storage separately, a common complaint of Redshift customers that have moved to born-in-the-cloud rival (and partner) solution Snowflake.

Next up was AQUA (Advanced Query Accelerator) for Amazon Redshift, a new piece of hardware which promises accelerated cache for a query performance boost of up to 10x.

Other additions include a Redshift Data Lake Export option and Amazon S3 and Redshift Federated Query, which lets customers analyse data across Redshift, S3, RDS and Aurora databases.

In light of the Capital One breach earlier this year and the ongoing issues with leaky S3 buckets, AWS also launched Amazon S3 Access Points this week. This policy management option gives users unique hostnames with dedicated access policies to clearly define how data can be accessed by each endpoint, meaning as additional applications or teams access an S3 instance, policies remain specific.

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Machine learning announcements

It wouldn't be an AWS conference without a vast swathe of machine learning announcements, from the launch of Sagemaker studio and a bunch of enhancements to that tool, to some new off the shelf options for use cases like fraud detection and code reviews.

We have broken down the Sagemaker announcements here, but AWS also announced Sagemaker Operators for Kubernetes, which allows users to train, tune, and deploy models direct to their Kubernetes clusters and run Sagemaker jobs natively using the Kubernetes API and command-line Kubernetes tools like ‘kubectl’.

Then AWS announced some new machine learning services, starting with Fraud Detector, which is based on the techniques and technology used for Amazon.com.

Next was Amazon CodeGuru, which aims to help software developers automate their code reviews using machine learning-driven insights to identify their most expensive lines of code, a bit like Grammarly for code.

Next was Kendra, an enterprise search solution which can bring together information spread across a business to allow employees to simply search for knowledge bases or company information as they would a Google search.

Last was Transcribe Medical, a healthcare focused tool for real time speech-to-text transcription for medical professionals.

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AWS launches its first Local Zone in LA

After launching Outposts for hybrid cloud workloads last year, and bringing it to general availability this week, AWS has extended that capability for a very specific sub-set of customers with what it calls Local Zones.

"Larger organisations still say they have end users in geographies that need single digit latency," Jassy said during his keynote. "That is an interesting issue for us as it is expensive to launch these mega regions we have.

"For customers where we couldn't bring it to their data centres we built Local Zones in buildings we manage with Outposts in them for that single digital latency in those metro cities where they need it, so expect more moving forward."

The initial customers Jassy mentioned are big media or gaming companies in the first Local Zone of Los Angeles that need that latency for large rendering jobs, and financial services firms that want to be close to the source of market data in regions like Hong Kong or New York.

Nick McQuire, vice president of enterprise research at CCS Insight said: "The big take away is without doubt that AWS is investing heavily in making its infrastructure run closer to edge of the network and nearer to the users of the applications themselves that get built in AWS.

"Low-latency experiences are becoming paramount and with AWS Local Zones along with Outposts and now Wavelength, what we are seeing is AWS outmanoeuvring Azure in the early race to become the best cloud for hybrid and edge application development."

Quantum computing > ion trapping [National Institute of Standards and Technology]

AWS enters the quantum fray

AWS entered the quantum computing fray this week for the first time with the launch of Braket, as well as an AWS Center for Quantum Computing based in California in partnership with Caltech, and a Quantum Solutions Lab which aims to connect customers with quantum computing experts from across Amazon.

Amazon Braket has been launched in preview and is a fully managed service for experimenting with computers from quantum hardware providers like D-Wave, IonQ, and Rigetti.

It consists of a single environment to build, test and deploy quantum algorithms using familiar tools for data scientists such as Jupyter notebooks and an AWS environment users will be familiar with.

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AvigatorPhotographer / Getty

Containers support

AWS has been building out managed containers services over the past few years as the technology has grown in popularity, with the Elastic Container Service (ECS) and Elastic Kubernetes Service (EKS) and the serverless option Fargate. This week Jassy announced that AWS has added a fourth flavour for customers: Fargate for EKS, which is generally available immediately.

"You can get the same serverless benefits of containers on AWS, that means we have four offerings for you to choose from, you can manage at the low level to those that want to operate at the task level and use Fargate for ECS or EKS," Jassy said.

Security announcements

Of course security was a topic of conversation this week, focusing on three announcements, the headline being Amazon Detective, a new tool which is in preview and allows customers to conduct investigations into security issues across their estate in what appears to be the vendor's attempt to ease alert fatigue for security analysts.

Under the covers the tool automatically pulls together data from AWS CloudTrail and Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) Flow Logs into a graph database. It then applies machine learning techniques to provide insights in a dashboard with drill down capabilities.

That was followed up by the launch of AWS IAM Access Analyzer, a free tool which promises a simpler way to audit resource policies for unintended access, an issue which is dogging the vendor as S3 buckets continue to leak due to poor configuration practices.

Last was AWS Nitro Enclaves, a new EC2 capability which better partitions compute and memory resources for stronger isolation, which will be available in preview early next year.

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AWS gets into 5G with Wavelength

AWS got in on the 5G gold rush this week with the launch of Wavelength, a service which aims to help customers build applications which can operate at single-digit millisecond latencies over the 5G network for use cases like running machine learning workloads at the edge or operating autonomous industrial equipment and vehicles.

In practice this involves extending an existing Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) to include a Wavelength Zone and then creating AWS resources like Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances, Amazon Elastic Block Storage (EBS) volumes, and AWS Elastic Container Service (ECS) and Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Services (EKS) containers.

In terms of a UK slant on the news one of the early partners for Wavelength is Vodafone Business, which will help to launch Wavelength for customers across Europe.

“With Europe’s largest 5G network across 58 cities and as a global leader in the Internet of Things (IoT) with over 90 million connections, Vodafone is pleased to be the first telco to introduce AWS Wavelength in Europe,” Vinod Kumar, CEO of Vodafone Business said in a statement. “Faster speeds and lower latencies have the potential to revolutionise how our customers do business, and they can rely on Vodafone’s existing capabilities and security layers within our own network."

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AWS partners with the NFL to bring data to player safety

On the final day of the event Andy Jassy was joined by the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to announce a new joint project focused on player safety. The two companies have worked together since 2017 on the development of Next Gen Stats and this partnership has been presented as an expansion of that.

This will involve the NFL leveraging AWS machine learning tools to better understand what causes player injuries and how those insights can impact the rules, equipment, and rehabilitation strategies used across the league to improve player wellbeing.

"Safety is our number one priority," Goodell said. "We want to use data to change the game and that is what is exciting to me about this relationship."

The partnership will also see the two companies work together to build a “Digital Athlete” platform to model players and simulate the impact on them from various scenarios.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.