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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Amazon’s Scorpion Problem

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I expect most of you know the fable of the scorpion and the frog, but if you don’t, it goes like this (quoted from Wikipedia):

“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behaviour of the fundamentally vicious.”

Over the weekend, there was some commentary on AWS in fight of its life as customers like Dropbox ponder hybrid clouds and Google pricing. Amazon turned in slightly declining quarter-over-quarter revenue on AWS, although significant year-over-year quarterly growth, as explained in Sign of stress or just business as usual? AWS sales are off slightly.

“Could Amazon Web Services be feeling the heat from new public cloud competitors? Maybe. Maybe not. Second quarter net sales of AWS — or at least the category in which it is embedded– were off about 3 percent sequentially to $1.168 billion from $1.204 billion for the first quarter. But they were up 38 percent from $844 million for the second quarter last year. In the first quarter, growth in this category year over year was 60 percent. So make of that what you will.”

Could Amazon’s nature be catching up with it, or is it just operating in a more competitive market? A set of emails went around from some of the CEOs of our companies talking about this followed by a broader discussion on our Foundry Group EXEC email list. It contained, among other comments:

  1. AWS is not the low price provider.
  2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products.
  3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support.
  4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure.

While we are in the middle of a massive secular shift from owned data centers to outsourced data centers and hardware, anyone who remembers the emergence of outsourced data centers, shared web hosting, dedicated web hosting, co-location, and application service providers will recognize many of the dynamics going on. Predictably in the tech industry, what’s old is new again as all the infrastructure players roll out their public clouds and all the scaled companies start exploring ways to move off of AWS (and other cloud services) into much more cost effective configurations.

Let’s pick apart the four points above a little bit.

1. AWS is not the low price provider. When AWS came out, it was amazing, partly because you didn’t need to buy any hardware to get going, partly because it had a very fine grade variable pricing approach, and mostly because these two things added up to an extremely low cost for a startup relative to all other options. This is no longer the case as AWS, Microsoft, and Google bash each other over the head on pricing, with Microsoft and Google willing to charge extremely low prices to gain market share. And, more importantly, see point #4 below in a moment. Being low priced is in Amazon’s nature so this will be intensely challenging to them.

2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products. We’ve watched as AWS has aggressively talked to every company we know doing things in the cloud infrastructure and application stack, and then rather than partner eventually roll out low-end versions of competitive products. We used to think of Amazon as a potential acquirer for these companies, or at least a powerful strategic partner. Now we know they are just using the bait of “we want to work more closely with you” as market and product intelligence. Ultimately, when they come out with what they view of as a feature, it’s a low-end, mediocre, and limited version of what these companies do. So, they commoditize elements of the low end of the market, but don’t impact anything that actually scales. In addition, they always end up competing on every front possible, hence the chatter about Dropbox moving away from AWS since AWS has now come out with a competitive product. It appears that it’s just not in Amazon’s nature to collaborate with others.

3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support. While they’ve gotten better at paid support, including their premium offerings, these support contracts are expensive. Approaches to get around support issues and/or lower long term prices like reserved instances are stop gaps and often a negative benefit for a fast growing company. I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends at Amazon about this and I’ve given up. Support is just not in Amazon’s nature (as anyone who has ever tried to figure out why a package didn’t show up when expected) and when a company running production systems on AWS is having mission critical issues that are linked to AWS, it’s just painful. At low volumes, it doesn’t matter, but at high scale, it matters a huge amount.

4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure. I’ve now seen this over and over and over again. Once a company hits $200k / month of spend on AWS, the discussion starts about building out your own infrastructure on bare metal in a data center. This ultimately is a cost of capital discussion and I’ve found massive cost of capital leverage to move away from AWS onto bare metal. When you fully load the costs at scale, I’ve seen gross margin moves of over 20 points (or 2000 basis points – say from 65% to 85%). It’s just nuts when you factor in the extremely low cost of capital for hardware today against a fully loaded cost model at scale. Sure, the price declines from point #1 will impact this, but the operational effectiveness, especially given #3, is remarkable.

There are a number of things Amazon, and AWS, could do to address this if they wanted to. While not easy, I think they could do a massive turnaround on #2 and #3, which combined with intelligent pricing and better account management for the companies in #4, could result in meaningful change.

I love Amazon and think they have had amazing impact on our world. Whenever I’ve given them blunt feedback like this, I’ve always intended it to be constructive. I’m doubt it matters at all to their long term strategy whether they agree with, or even listen to, me. But given the chatter over the weekend, it felt like it was time to say this in the hope that it generated a conversation somewhere.

But I worry some of the things they need to be doing to maintain their dominance is just not in their nature. In a lot of ways, it’s suddenly a good time to be Microsoft or Google in the cloud computing wars.

Boulder AWS Anonymous Email Group

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Boulder AWS Anonymous held its first meeting last week, and there were eleven attendees despite the fact that the meeting had been inadvertently scheduled at the same time as Obama’s inauguration. Attendees represented a wide variety of uses and potential uses of Amazon Web Services, ranging from hosting popular websites and application development to load balancing, autoscaling, and internet telephony. The group is encouraging anyone in the area interested in getting updates to join their Google Group and/or to attend the next meeting at The Cup, 1521 Pearl St, at 10:00 am on Wednesday February 18.

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