The 5 Most Important Announcements from AWS re:Invent 2016

AWS re:Invent 2016 was attended by over 32,000 enthusiasts, almost double the 2015 attendance.  Over 450 technical sessions were held over a four-day period in Las Vegas.  It was quite a conference, with AWS providing breakfast and lunch for all attendees.  How do you feed over 32,000 people in a two-hour window?  You better have an established system in place, and that they did.  Beyond the logistics to pull this off, the technical coordination to herd folks into sessions and keep things running on schedule is a tribute to the organizers of this conference.
So, what where my top takeaways from this conference?
Over a two-day span, AWS announced 24 new or expanded service offerings.  It’s hard to keep up with the pace of change AWS has delivered over the past year, but Amazon continues to extend their lead in the cloud computing space.  From start-ups to large enterprises, the benefits offered by cloud computing with AWS are a compelling reason to improve businesses’ competitive advantage and time to market.  Of the 24 new services announced at re:Invent, here are my top five most impressive announcements (in no particular order – they are all impressive!):

1. VMware on AWS

Although this was announced prior to AWS re:Invent, after attending a joint demo by VMware and AWS representatives, I’m convinced there is little reason for companies to purchase their own hardware.  In a span of just 10 minutes, the presenters spun up a fully operational vCenter cluster, with the option to select 4, 8 or 12 nodes, or to customize the number of nodes desired.
Behind the scenes, VMware procures a vCloud account in AWS, on bare metal – they are not abstracting the existing AWS hypervisor. The vCloud account in AWS is a fully managed service offered by VMware.  When first setting up, the vCloud AWS account is also linked to a customer-owned AWS account.  Once setup, the combination of the vCloud AWS account and the customer-managed AWS account provides a comprehensive set of features, leveraging the best of VMware and AWS services.
For example, a customer can vMotion a VM in their internal datacenter live to their vCloud AWS account.  Once their VM is running in the vCloud AWS account, additional AWS services from the customer-owned AWS account can be linked to the vCloud account.  For instance, a local VM database could be replaced with a RDS-provided Database-as-a-service.  Or local filesystem storage could be swapped out for the unlimited AWS S3 storage system.
Bottom line, the announcement provides businesses that already heavily utilize VMware a path to get the cloud with very little disruption and an impressive upside potential!

2. AWS Shield – DDoS protection at no additional charge!

Anyone in the tech field is aware of the risk of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks in today’s Internet-connected world.  AWS is responding by offering protection from DDoS attacks to customers using Elastic Load Balancing, Cloudfront distributions, and Route 53, at NO ADDITIONAL CHARGE!  In fact, AWS Shield is freely available immediately to all customers utilizing these services. AWS Shield Standard protects you from 96% of the most common attacks today, including SYN/ACK floods, Reflection attacks, and HTTP slow reads. This protection is applied automatically and transparently to your Elastic Load Balancers, CloudFront distributions, and Route 53 resources.
AWS Shield Advanced provides additional DDoS mitigation capability for volumetric attacks, intelligent attack detection, and mitigation for attacks at the application & network layers. You get 24×7 access to our DDoS Response Team (DRT) for custom mitigation during attacks, advanced real-time metrics and reports, and DDoS cost protection to guard against bill spikes in the aftermath of a DDoS attack.
As outlined by Jeff Barr in his AWS blog on this topic, there are three common DDoS attacks:

  • Application-Layer Attacks consist of well-formed but malicious requests (HTTP GETs and DNS queries are popular) that are designed to consume application resources. For example, opening up multiple HTTP connections and reading the responses over the course of many seconds or minutes will consume excessive memory and prevent legitimate requests from being serviced.
  • State-Exhaustion Attacks abuse stateful protocols and cause stress on firewalls and load balancers by consuming large numbers of per-connection resources.
  • Volumetric Attacks disrupt networks by flooding them with more traffic than they can handle or by issuing fake queries that will flood an unsuspecting victim with a surprising amount of low level “surprise” replies (also known as Reflection attacks).

3. Amazon Polly – Text to Speech in 47 Voices and 24 Languages

Many of us remember all the computerized voices from our childhood like the computer from Star Trek, HAL from A Space Odyssey, and Rosie from the Jetsons, but who would have thought they could become a reality!  Well, Amazon Polly is a step towards that level of text-to-speech, and it makes me realize the potential suggested so many years ago by those TV shows and movies.
Polly is a cloud service that converts text to lifelike speech that you can use in your own tools and applications. Polly currently supports a total of 47 male & female voices spread across 24 languages, with additional languages and voices on the roadmap. Polly was designed to address many of the more challenging aspects of speech generation. For example, consider the difference in pronunciation of the word “live” in the phrases “I live in Seattle” and “Live from New York.” Polly knows that this pair of homographs are spelled the same but are pronounced quite differently. Or, what about the “St.”  Depending on the language and the context, this could mean (and should be pronounced) as either “street” or “saint.” Again, Polly knows what to do here. Polly can also deal with units, fractions, abbreviations, currencies, dates, times, and other speech components in sophisticated, language-specific fashion.
Give Polly a try by going to the Amazon console and submitting a text string.  I think you’ll be surprised at the level of intelligence of Polly!

4. Amazon Rekognition – Image Detection & Recognition Powered by Deep Learning

Deep Learning – what does that really mean?  In order to provide the powerful image recognition available in Amazon Rekognition, Amazon analyzed millions of images to train their system to recognize faces, objects and scenes.  It’s essentially the process our human brains go through in learning from a young age.  The result is an impressive ability to abstract objects from images.
Amazon Rekogition analyzes billions of images per day to extract tags.  For instance, in a picture of a dog, Rekognition may add tags for dog, pet, animal and even Golden Retriever.  Powered by a neural network that only improves with more analysis, Rekognition has the ability to power many visually-based applications. Upload photos and apply facial recognition of your friends. Compare a face on a webcam to a badge photo before allowing access to a secure location.  Index photos based on attributes for fast searching. You can perform visual surveillance, inspecting photos for objects or people of interest or concern. The capabilities are almost endless!
As part of the AWS Free Tier, you can analyze up to 5,000 images per month and store up to 1,000 face vectors each month for an entire year. After that (and at higher volume), you will pay tiered pricing based on the number of images that you analyze and the number of face vectors that you store.
Rekognition is available immediately in the US East (Northern Virginia), US West (Oregon), and EU (Ireland) Regions.

5. Amazon Lex – Build Conversational Voice & Text Interfaces

Who remembers Spock talking to the “computer” in Star Trek?!  Anyone that has played with the Amazon Echo or Amazon Dot has experienced the powerful speech recognition used in those devices.  Amazon announced Lex, using the same deep learning technologies (ASR – Automatic Speech Recognition, NLU – Natural Language Understanding) that power Amazon Alexa, available to you for use in your own conversational applications. You can use Amazon Lex to build chatbots and other types of web & mobile applications that support engaging, lifelike interactions. Your bots can provide information, power your application, streamline work activities, or provide a control mechanism for robots, drones, and toys.
Amazon Lex is currently available in preview form in the US East (Northern Virginia) Region and you can start building conversational applications today. After you sign up, you can make 10,000 text requests and 5,000 speech requests each month at no charge for the first year. After that you will pay $4.00 for each 1,000 speech requests and $0.75 for every 1,000 text requests.
Imagine using your voice to control your computing environment.  It’s not that far out.  In fact, at the end of the VMware on AWS demo, the presenter asked “Alexa, add 5 more hosts to environment vcenter_useast” and Alexa connected to the VMware cluster to add 5 more hosts.  Maybe not the fastest way to effect this change, but pretty cool nonetheless.

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