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What the Heck Does that Mean?: Why Amazon Hosts Websites

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, December 7 2010

Photo credit: kevindooley

Recently, I was talking Wikileaks with a very smart person in my life who had to wonder, "What the heck is Amazon.com doing hosting websites, anyway?" Fair question, and the inspiration for what just might becomes a techPresident series, with the working title of "What the Heck Does that Mean?" The idea would be to engage in a bit of service journalism by crafting very brief, hopefully straightforward answers to some of the questions that pop up as we're rolling along with our discussion of the intersection of politics and technology. We're talking very quick hits that are meant to be the building blocks of the knowledge base that becomes helpful as we try to make sense of rather complicated stuff.

So, first up: Why is Amazon hosting websites, anyway? Joe Lieberman, of course, got enormous attention last week for calling on Amazon to rethink its hosting of the controversial site Wikileaks.org. Besides being a globally-known web purveyor of books and other assorted items, Amazon is actually known in the web development world as the providers of web hosting to many websites. Last year, Computer Weekly pointed to Amazon's platform Elastic Compute Cloud (a.k.a. EC2) launched in 2006, as the first widely available platform that offered customers an easy way to get the benefits of a cloud computing infrastructure, which include easy ways of setting up applications and services on their servers. In addition to that ease, cloud computing's appeal has to do with the fact that it can make a lot of financial sense. A very big company, Amazon offers up a tremendous number of servers. Customers only pay to use the portion of those resources when they need it.

That's a more dynamic approach than paying Joe's Hosting Service to keep a hulking dedicated server sitting somewhere that you're paying for full-time. But the economies of scale that Amazon can pass on to its customers also puts the company squarely in the role of gatekeeper.

Amazon's cloud computing platform clearly held appeal for Wikileaks, but that secret clearinghouse isn't alone. The Obama administration recently announced a "cloud-first policy" for federal online investments. Recovery.gov switched to the cloud in May. And just yesterday, you might remember, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that, with a switch to Amazon hosting for its revamped Treasury.gov, it had become the first Cabinet-level federal department to move its primary website fully to the cloud.

Of course, the nuances of cloud computing and Amazon hosting in particular are far more complicated than all that, but them's the basics. Have ideas for future "What the Heck Does that Mean?" posts? Do let us know.

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