This history of Amazon is full of useful facts about the history of what is now — depending on the day — the world’s most valuable company. One area where the history is especially engaging is around the history of Amazon Web Services. AWS, which now accounts for a significant portion of Amazon’s revenue (and profit), started small. It initially had only two services: S3 (for storage) and EC2 (for compute).
The two services started a bit differently from each other, though:
In late 2004, Chris Pinkham, head of the company’s IT infrastructure, told Dalzell that he had decided to return with his family to their native South Africa. At this point, A9 had taken root in Palo Alto, and Dalzell was busy establishing remote developer centers in Scotland and India, among other places. Dalzell suggested to Pinkham that instead of leaving Amazon, he open an office in Cape Town. They brainstormed possible projects and finally settled on trying to build a service that would allow a developer to run any application, regardless of its type, on Amazon’s servers. Pinkham and a few colleagues studied the problem and came up with a plan to use a new open-source tool called Xen, a layer of software that made it easier to run numerous applications on a single physical server in a data center.
Pinkham took colleague Chris Brown along with him to South Africa and they set up shop in a nondescript office complex in Constantia, a winemaking region northeast of Cape Town, near a school and a small homeless encampment. Their efforts would become the Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2—the service that is at the heart of AWS and that became the engine of the Web 2.0 boom. EC2 was born in isolation, with Pinkham talking to his colleagues in Seattle only sporadically, at least for the first year. The Constantia office had to make do with two residential-grade DSL lines, and during the hot summer of 2005, one of the country’s two nuclear reactors went offline, so engineers worked amid rolling brownouts. Pinkham later said that the solitude was beneficial, as it afforded a comfortable distance from Amazon’s intrusive CEO. “I spent most of my time trying to hide from Bezos,” Pinkham says. “He was a fun guy to talk to but you did not want to be his pet project. He would love it to distraction.”
The dozen engineers concurrently developing what would become Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, or S3, did not have that luxury, despite their best attempts to keep to themselves. They worked in an office on the eighth floor of Pac Med, ate lunch together every day for nearly two years, and often played cards together after work. Neither they nor their manager, Alan Atlas, a veteran of crosstown digital-media startup Real Networks, were able to hide half a world away. Bezos was deeply interested in the evolution of Web services and often dived into the minutiae of S3, asking for details about how the services would keep up with demand and repeatedly sending engineers back to the drawing board to simplify the S3 architecture. “It would always start out fun and happy, with Jeff’s laugh rebounding against the walls,” Atlas says. “Then something would happen and the meeting would go south and you would fear for your life. I literally thought I’d get fired after every one of those meetings.” (p. 211 and following)