What I learned at AWS re:Invent

Beau Christensen - December 20, 2017



By the Numbers

AWS re:Invent is the largest cloud vendor conference on the planet, and it just keeps getting bigger. The lines were as long as ever, and it will be a challenge for Amazon to maintain the scale of this conference in the future.It’s still the place to be seen if you’re a new or established vendor offering services in the cloud.

I’ve been lucky enough to work at companies that have given me the opportunity of attending quite a few tech conferences over my career, even though I’m not a marketer or a salesperson assigned to booth duty. This has given me the chance to attend four AWS re:Invent conferences over the years, including the first. The event has grown tenfold since the inaugural 2012 conference of 5,000 people.

The gigantic Sands hallway is still the same length it was back then but now10 times more crowded and includes lane separators so people don’t smash into each other while staring at their phones.

The 2017 AWS re:Invent saw over 50,000 people in attendance. 49,000 paid attendees with an additional 6,000 - 7,000 invited guests and 1,100 speakers. It makes for a massive event at every scale, from lunches to wifi to long haul network links back to AWS data centers. The event brings nerds from around the globe to Las Vegas, spread across 4 different hotels up and down the strip.

News and Talks

This year for me, Elastic Kubernetes Service, cross regional VPC support, Sagemaker, Sumerian, and Aurora multi-master were the big release highlights during the show.

Netflix Rules

Like past years, Netflix brings the sauce with some of the most popular talks. Netflix speakers “walk around like the Beatles” at AWS re:Invent, as I heard someone say. And it’s true. Dave Hahn again gave his yearly talk on how Netflix SRE thinks about cloud architectures and what principals work at their unthinkable scale. Casey Rosenthal’s presentation on cloud architectures and chaos engineering was well delivered if a little light on new content. Werner Vogels talk was notable given the inclusion of Nora Jones for her work in Chaos Engineering. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a chaos type service released during next year’s docket of new service offerings.

Architectural Talks

I spent a lot of my time bouncing between architectural talks and distributed systems. These were markedly different from earlier years.

James Hamilton, AWS’s Lead Architect, has for years retained the belief that multi-regional systems are a red herring for architects and we should instead be focusing on the regional availability zone model for the majority of our redundancy concerns. Amazon’s offerings (or lack thereof) have generally reflected this belief. Now, with the introduction of cross-regional VPC connections, multi-master Aurora across regions, and DynamoDB Global table, AWS seems to be coming around to the market’s demand for services that can operate around the globe.

AWS Everywhere

Many breakout talks were highly AWS-focused, which tends to limit the credibility of technical talks for me. It’s still very informative to understand how other companies are building cloud native applications, but the constant injection of AWS solutions architected into each talk does get a bit old after a few sessions.

Keynote speeches were chocked full of new products, features, and releases as we’ve come to expect from Amazon’s break-neck platform development pace. While I don’t ever see a repeat of the 2016 Snowmachine rollout, Amazon continues to fill the keynote sessions with new offerings, hints to their scale, and some talks by big customers that seem targeted at the CTO crowd.

The Exhibit Hall

The vendor space at re:Invent is massive. Perennial cloud companies and a steady flow of newcomers, the AWS re:Invent floor seems to have evolved into a space to be seen as a reflection of relevance in the market space more than a display of new ideas and innovation. The smaller booths are where some interesting ideas grow, while the larger displays are generally filled with aggressive marketers hocking demos as quickly as possible. For those of you who like to shop schwag at tech conferences, there is no better place all year.

So Much to See

All-in-all, AWS re:Invent’s scale felt too large to fully ingest. With long travel times between talks, sessions being almost impossible to get into without registering months in advance, it will be a challenge for organizers next year to scale the event. I’m still impressed with the sheer scale of offerings AWS provides and their pace of innovation. The conference reflects this scale and all the growing pains associated with the pace of AWS adoption over the past 10 years.