Amazon cloud moves spook partners and customers

AWS CTO Werner Vogels

The more features that Amazon Web Services(s amzn) adds, the more nervous its partners — and even some of its customers — get.

AWS is the go-to public cloud infrastructure for many businesses. But as the company adds workflow services and richer databases, the fear of cloud lock-in grows.

What brought many customers to AWS in the first place was its inexpensive, plain-vanilla infrastructure — basic computing and storage.  The beauty was you could “spin up” compute instances as needed when workloads spiked, and pay only for what you used. The fact that it was relatively easy to move workloads off of AWS, into your own data centers, or to another cloud, was also a draw.

Binding workloads to AWS

But the advent of new Amazon services such as DynamoDB database and Simple Workflow Services (SWF) means that workloads are getting tied more tightly into the AWS infrastructure.  If developers write to DynamoDB, it’s harder to move their work to non-Amazon platforms. And SWF, which lets developers build workflow-enabled applications that bridge on-premises and AWS resources, blurs the line between customer site and AWS itself.

In many ways, AWS actions mirror what Microsoft(s msft) did years ago. As Microsoft added more features to Windows or Office, other companies that offered those capabilities as add-ons fell by the wayside. Customers saw no reason to pay these companies for a feature that was included in software they already had — even if the third party product was better. What Microsoft added was “good enough,” was a common response.

In some cases, it makes sense for AWS to offer new services, says Andres Rodriguez, CEO of cloud-storage provider Nasuni. “Essentially anything that is useful to web applications at scale is going to be deployed at AWS. This is why they have made a big push for big data analytics, messaging (middleware or PaaS light) etc.,” he said via email.

Partners eye new features warily

Others, however, say these new services put AWS on track to become a full-fledged platform-as-a-service, a contention that AWS CTO Werner Vogels denied to ZDNet UK recently.  Since many PaaS offerings, including Heroku(s crm) run on AWS, that would be quite a conflict of interest.

SWF, which enables creation of application components that connect to each other, from a customer site to AWS, is the biggest issue for some. “Simple Workflow Services is a hose that sucks up information from the customer’s data center into Amazon’s cloud. Once that happens, it’s very hard to move off,” said the CEO of a software company that runs part of its offering on AWS but puts the bulk on another cloud provider.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company remains committed to providing flexibility, and developers are free to use as many or as few services as they wish.  “By relying on Amazon SWF to handle the coordination of distributed task execution, developers can now focus on building the differentiating aspects of their applications,” she said. And, to be fair, there are clearly are some developers who welcome higher-level services.

Critics agree with that, but also said that those higher-level services impinge on what platform-as-a-service vendors — many of which run on AWS — already offer developers.

AWS friend or foe?

Will Shulman, CEO of MongoLab, which runs its NoSQL database service on AWS, said he is not perturbed about DynamoDB, the AWS NoSQL entry, because he does not see it as a direct competitor. But that could change. “If Amazon came out with a MongoDB service or another type of document database, that would clearly concern us,” he said.

Some customers, he said, do view DynamoDB, and the earlier, lower-end SimpleDB, as ties that bind them to AWS. “If you are using  SimpleDB or DynamoDB, you can’t switch cloud providers. You can’t even develop your app on your laptop in an airplane without Wi-Fi because those databases only run on Amazon’s cloud.”

Others say the same about the new AWS Storage Gateway, which links data in the customer data center to AWS storage.

The long and short of it is that AWS remains the leader — by a wide margin — in public cloud infrastructure. But worries over whether it will stick to its knitting may lead to more defections. It has definitely already motivated many AWS customers to put at least some of their work on alternative clouds. Rackspace(s rax), SoftLayer and other companies could benefit from that.