Amazon and Instagram Crash: A Simple Guide to Why the Amazon Cloud System Went Down


Cloud computing is a rapidly changing industry with multiple product offerings that help offset the cost of network maintenance for small to mid-size companies. In today’s world of instant gratification, many were shocked that Amazon didn’t simply "flip a switch" when one of their central solutions offices lost power during an electrical storm. 

In a previous article, I walked through the high-level basics of how a network outage works. One of the questions from that article was, “What is the ‘cloud’?” This is a great question for the simple reason that virtually everything that is not considered on network is considered a part of the cloud. So how did the "cloud" come into fruition and what is it?

For starters, the cloud is not new. In all likelihood, some clever marketing person looked at a system, process, or network engineering diagram showing a function in a cloud form and asked, “What’s that?” The person who drew the diagram stated, “It’s a cloud. We use it to represent services and/or processes that are outside of our domain.” Thus a new buzz word was generated along with a host of new services. 

In our day-to-day use of web-based services, rarely do we stop to think about how the companies we interface with work and how that relationship applies to us. To better understand why Instagram "went down" when Amazon’s power was cut, I’ve created a simplistic visual representation of how the end user/Instagram relationship may work*:

What most don’t realize is Amazon has built a suite of web-based cloud products that impact all of our daily lives. Businesses large and small in multiple industries have realized the cost savings potential of out-sourcing and reduced their maintenance needs, thereby lowering their head-count and human resource overhead. As the economy continues to crawl along, many budget hawks view this as a natural fit that allows them to better focus on building their brand and business to further ensure long term viability. 

Amazon’s available services include content, server space, application hosting and development, and so on. The following diagram (courtesy of Wikemedia Commons) provides a partial view of Amazon’s cloud potential:

Cloud computing does have its downsides and risks that must be considered before making the big leap into the cloud. Questions that businesses should be asking are:

1) Where are the services located? This is important to ensure that your data is located in a safe area. If the cloud provider has their main servers in a country in the midst of political strife, known for corruption, or has a history of political instability your data, and your customer’s personal information, is at risk.

2) What are their disaster recovery plans? As we learned from 9/11, complete obliteration of one or more data centers (the World Trade Center housed numerous hubs for many industries) poses an inherent risk to your business. You want to make sure that your data can be easily retrieved when you’re ready to get your business back online. Natural disasters happen so you also want to be sure that they have at least one back-up center located in completely different areas of the country.

3) What types of security practices does the cloud provider follow? This is your data and you want to make sure that they follow the same rigid back-ground checks you do.

4) Who owns the data? Incredible as this may sound, I once encountered a vendor who tried to write into a contract that the company I represented would pay a hefty data retrieval fee should the contract be severed. It’s your data, your company, your information. Not a vendor's.

5) How do they ensure privacy is maintained and not stolen? Stolen information is the biggest theft we encounter on a daily basis. You want to ensure that the company has your customer’s information tucked away in a safe place.

Other questions include the uptime SLA’s (service level agreements), planned maintenance, cost, change schedules, and so forth. 

Amazon has amassed a large cloud clientele and is definitely one of the major players in the world wide cloud arena. They have a direct impact on our daily lives and, as the industry grows, products become more diversified, and companies consolidate interests, Amazon and, their customers, should be mindful of the inherent risks and costs associated in maintaining their services to avoid leaving millions of customers in the lurch

Author’s disclosure: The author of this article has no inside information regarding the current structure of Amazon or Instagram’s operations. The visual representations and assumptions are based on generally accepted business practices spanning multiple industries.