AWS Summit

I’ve just been to this year’s AWS Summit in London. I arrived at the event to find a suspiciously large density of suit-wearing managers. After shaking off the initial fear that I might be at the wrong event, I forged on…

The Business Design Centre is an agreeable sort of place for a conference. There’s plenty of space for cows (it did start life as the Royal Agricultural Hall), and there’s probably a joke about conference delegates and sheep around here somewhere. Lots of people complained about the queue to get in (the organisers had the bright idea of printing name tags as people arrived rather than having them ready), but I’d arrived slightly early and didn’t have to wait for long. I soon tracked down some breakfast and loaded up a sandwich. Note to BDC: £1.10 is too expensive for a sausage (even if they were rather tasty). 60p is certainly too much for two slices of slightly-stale white bread.

Initial worries about the dress sense of those attending were unfortunately completely justified, as the first keynote speech turned out to be an extended sales pitch for cloud computing. I didn’t quite understand the point of this – surely lots of people attending had received the invitation, like me, because they were already AWS customers? A late night, early start, and 1½ hours of boredom made the decision to sit next to my manager rather risky, but I did manage to remain awake for the entire thing, mostly by reading Twitter.

The keynote was punctuated by testimonials from current customers. Interest was maintained by the dubious choice of guests – first a chap from News International and then one from an oil company. These interludes turned out to be the most irritating aspect of the day – most speakers took full advantage of the opportunity to pitch their product, and few said much more than “we like AWS ’cause it’s cheap and it scales.” Even the more-technical talks were hobbled by this requirement, with customer talks failing to fit in to the remainder of the content, and rarely adding any information of interest.

Twitter remained great fun, with the Chinese whispers soon getting out of control:

I’m not sure I was helping…

A lecture about Amazon’s information security was more interesting, and it was illuminating to hear of some of what they do:

  • Staff are only granted access to any system for 60 days until their rights must be renewed by their manager.
  • SSH access to production servers requires a change ticket or issue number, and all activity is logged.
  • Any hard disks leaving their facilities must be physically shredded or destroyed before they may do so.

This lecture was better – but still felt like it was for managers (“don’t worry you can trust us with your data”) rather than developers (“look at our security, it’s cool”).

The afternoon promised more interest, with deeper studies of particular AWS products. Some of these talks were great (presentations about DynamoDB and OpsWorks being highlights of the day), and delivered on the promise of a technology conference – with more detailed information (DynamoDB indexing) and a live demo (using OpsWorks to deploy a web stack during the lecture). Other talks weren’t, with an “Advanced Topics” lecture about “Architecting for High Availability” covering little more than what was in the product overview pages for Elastic Load Balancing and Auto Scaling.

Ultimately I was expecting a tech conference which gave some deeper insight into AWS products, and thought that exposure to the AWS team might well provide that. Unfortunately most of the content was pitched at a very low level. I don’t necessarily think this Amazon’s fault: I evidently wasn’t the target audience, but I was a little bored. I can’t complain too much – the food was pretty good for a free conference!

The next day an email arrived inviting me to supply feedback on my experience, and I thought I might as well do so (the offer of a free Kindle didn’t sway my decision at all, *ahem*). Their survey was hosted by a third party site run by a company called “Qualtrics,” but quality was mostly lacking. For a start, radio buttons aren’t meant to do this:


Oh well, I could at least supply some feedback at the end:


… or not – as the input box was nowhere to be found.

I think it’s fair to say my appreciation of the day was fairly mixed. I got a day off work, and some free stuff (stickers, food and beer). I paid for it though, as I’m sure I’m stupider now.

There was one astonishingly cool feature – the presentations all used really cool little graphics (see for a great example). It’d be really cool if these were freely available.

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