Amazon to offer data storage

Hiring out storage capacity is goal of project

With its business already firmly entrenched in the e-commerce marketplace, online retailer Amazon is now looking to leverage its massive and capacity-rich IT infrastructure by renting out storage capacity to independent and corporate software developers.

The Seattle-based company’s web services division unveiled Amazon S3, which will sell excess storage capacity on Amazon’s IT systems to outside developers for US$0.15 (NZ$0.25) a gigabyte per month for storage, plus $0.20 (NZ$0.32) per gigabyte for data transfer.

The new web-based offering expands on Amazon’s web services division, which was created in July 2002 to encourage software developers to create and offer custom applications to Amazon sellers. The sellers then pay to use the applications, including specialised inventory and tracking software, to customise their online stores in a bid to boost sales. Amazon web services now has more than 150,000 registered developers.

Adam Selipsky, vice president of product management and developer relations at Amazon web services, says the move will provide inexpensive, high-quality and secure storage to developers who need extra capacity for their work but don’t want to spend money on expensive infrastructure.

“While there are probably a lot of companies that are satisfied with their own storage [systems], others will find it compelling to have this technology at low cost,” Selipsky says.

Secure S3 storage capacity is available to any developer, with no start-up fees or monthly maintenance fees.

Dave Barth, product manager for Amazon S3, says that by offering excess capacity on its own networks, Amazon can make it easier for developers to create projects. “It becomes a big distraction for a lot of companies” to build, expand and maintain their own storage systems, he says. “A lot of companies are finding that handling it themselves isn’t working.”

Amazon S3 allows developers to write, read and delete objects up to 5GB in size, with each object stored and retrieved via a unique developer-assigned key. Objects can be made private or public, and rights can be assigned to specific users. The service uses standards-based Representational State Transfer (RST) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) interfaces designed to work with any internet-development tool kit, according to Amazon.

One early user of the S3 service is the Stardust@Home space science project at the University of California, Berkeley, which needed to store some 60 million photographs of interstellar space dust collected by NASA’s Stardust space probe. The millions of photographs must now be reviewed by volunteers looking for visible “tracks” of particles collected by the probe, so the images can be further studied by scientists.

Bryan Mendez, an astronomer at UC-Berkeley, says Amazon S3 is being used because short-term storage would have been too expensive for the school to purchase just for the experiment. “It would be more than we need for this one-time shot,” Mendez says. The photographs will be ready for inspection by volunteers next month, he says.

Analysts say the S3 service is an interesting way for Amazon to bring in new revenue from the small and midsize business (SMB) market, but they’re unsure how it will be seen by enterprise IT.

“It’s an SMB ploy” that won’t likely be alluring to large enterprises, says Chris Foster, a storage analyst at Technology Business Research. “Even if I’m an SMB, I don’t know if I want to start storing stuff outside [my own network], particularly customer data.”

Instead, there are plenty of established vendors who already offer such services, he says. “I’d rather go to someone whose core competency is managing or storing data,” Foster says. “As an SMB, I just don’t think it’s a good precedent to be storing your data with Amazon. From the vendor point of view, I don’t think they’re any threat” to established storage vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard or Sun Microsystems, he says.

Ronald Schmelzer, a web services analyst at ZapThink, says Amazon is trying to get users to look at the company as a technology platform, rather than just as an e-commerce site. “It’s a stretch of the business plan,” Schmelzer says. “The question is, does Amazon see this as a growth opportunity?”

The company has leveraged its IT infrastructure before, he said, by providing online infrastructure for companies such as global retail giant, Target.

“It’s really up to developers to see if this is going to hold; if this is going to provide traction; if this is going to work,” Schmelzer says.

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