Home > amazon, business, smugmug, web 2.0 > Amazon S3 = The Holy Grail

Amazon S3 = The Holy Grail

August 12, 2006

I should have posted this a few weeks ago, but better late than never. We now use Amazon S3 for a significant part of our storage solution. We’re absolutely in love with it – and our customers are too (even if they don’t know it).

As you probably know, SmugMug has been profitable since our first year, with no investment capital. We’ve had a great track record for keeping our customers’ priceless photos safe and secure using only the profits we’ve accrued to purchase our storage (yes, I said purchase. We have no debt – we own all of our storage, we don’t lease). And every SmugMug customer gets unlimited storage – so that’s no mean feat. (Currently, unlimited means ~300TB of storage and nearly 500,000,000 images. To put that into perspective, that’s more than 65,000 DVDs or 480,000 CDs).

But Amazon’s S3 takes our storage architecture to the next level:

  • Your priceless photos are stored in multiple datacenters, in multiple states, and at multiple companies. They’re orders of magnitude more safe and secure.
  • We’d already built a custom, low-cost commodity-hardware redundant scalable storage infrastructure. Nonetheless, it’s significantly cheaper to use S3 than using our own – especially when you factor multiple states & datacenters into the equation.
  • Perhaps even more importantly, our cash-flow situation is vastly improved. Instead of paying $25,000 for a handful of terabytes of redundant storage up-front, even before they’re used, we now pay $0.15/GB/month as we use it.
  • When we have some sort of internal outage with storage, it doesn’t matter – Amazon’s always on. They eat their own dogfood – S3 is in production use on dozens of Amazon products. We’ve had storage-related internal outages a few times already, and our customers haven’t been able to tell. We’ll still have rare outages on our site, unfortunately, (everyone does), but storage is now vastly less likely to be part of the cause.
  • I started writing our S3 interface on a Monday, and by that Friday, we were live and in production. It really is that simple to pick up and use, and it was basically a drop-in addition to our existing storage.
  • It’s fast. I don’t mean 15K-SCSI-RAID0-fast, but I do mean internet-latency-fast. It’s basically as fast as our internal local storage + the roundtrip speed of light to Amazon. I can measure the difference with computer timing, but in blind tests, humans haven’t been able to tell the difference. Everything we serve from Amazon feels fast.

I hate to admit this, but Amazon has built a playing-field leveler. It’s now much much easier for a competitor of ours to spring fully-formed from two guys in a garage than it was. Anyone who doesn’t get on board with Amazon S3 (or the inevitable S3 competitors) may get left behind. I’m glad we’re first, but I doubt it’ll last.

Tim O’Reilly, technology visionary extraordinaire, recently said of Sun’s new ‘Thumper’, the Sun Fire X4500: “This is the Web 2.0 server.” While I think Tim has perhaps the clearest vision in the industry, and the Thumper does truly look awesome, this time I think he may have missed the mark. The Web 2.0 server is *any* cheap Linux box coupled with utility storage like S3.

Initially this post had a lot of technical detail (I am the ‘Chief Geek’, afterall), but I removed it since it was probably getting boring. So this is the quick-and-dirty ‘Business Case for Amazon S3 and How it Helps our Customers’ post. If there’s enough interest, I can write up a detailed post about exactly how we use S3, how it works in conjunction with our own local distributed filesystem, and post our S3 library (which was derived from someone else’s). Post in the comments if that’s of interest.

Also, we’ll be presenting at a storage conference in Florida in late October (I’m sorry, I don’t have the name of the con with me, but I’ll update this post when I do), and have had a few other people request conferences talks on the subject. Comment if that’s of interest, too, so we know where to go speak.

Finally, one last geek thought: Anyone using the SmugMug API is now actually using multiple APIs through ours (depending on what you’re doing, you may be using Google and/or Yahoo, but you’re almost certainly using Amazon). The stack continues to grow.

UPDATE #1: In response to a comment below, I don’t feel like we “bet the company” on S3 – every photo our customers entrust us with, we keep local copies in our existing distributed storage infrastructure. We use S3 as redundant secondary storage for use in cases of outages, data loss, or other catastrophe.

Categories: amazon, business, smugmug, web 2.0
  1. August 13, 2006 at 2:39 am

    I’d love to hear more about how you use S3. It sounds fascinating. I’ve got a client who pays big monthly bucks for some dedicated commerce servers and doesn’t want to have to add more servers just because they’re starting to serve a lot more static content.

  2. August 13, 2006 at 6:22 am

    as a geek, the more info, the better! i never get board of reading stuff like this. i would, as Mark Draughn said, like to here more. S3 is an amazing peice of (software) engineering, and its pretty impressive to use that the price they are selling it. Out other question i would have to ask is in relation to the data being served. do you download from amazon and then serve to your customers, or do amazon do the serving of content?


  3. August 14, 2006 at 1:31 am

    The moment I saw Amazon S3 I knew it was something special – the first thing I did was make sure that support for it got built into Cardbox (http://www.cardbox.com).

    In a more reflective mood I’ve just started a two-week series of blog postings about S3 – the way it can transform business models and (in the second week) a careful look at the risks of using it. Before you bet the company on S3, you should check whether any of those risks apply to you! The first posting is at http://cardbox.wordpress.com/2006/08/14/s3-in-business-1/

  4. John Smith
    August 14, 2006 at 3:05 am

    I have a small site am interested in saving some $$. The technical details willl be quite helpful. There is not a lot of info out there.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Richard Steele
    August 14, 2006 at 6:56 am

    I’d love to hear more of the internal details.

  6. Phil
    August 14, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    This is really fascinating. It’s great that you’ve been able to leapfrog the competition by offering unlimited storage as part of your standard plans (and that the plans are differentiated by *traffic* limits, not storage limits).

    It’s a bit of a gamble–what if suddenly lots and lots of users started pumping hundreds of gigs more per day into the system? But I suspect that’ll never happen. “Unlimited” is one of those things that appeals to everyone, but is taken advantage of by only a few. Probably a standard power-law here where 20% of the users cause 80% of your storage costs.

  7. August 15, 2006 at 2:55 am

    I would like some of that boring technical geek detail please. Especially now with your added comment that you use S3 as a backup rather than as your live storage provider.

  8. Dan
    August 15, 2006 at 10:49 am

    I’d love to hear more about the inner workings of porting SmugMug to S3.

    Is it really only used as a backup service? Do you not “trust” the reliability of it to serve your users directly?


  9. August 16, 2006 at 9:31 am

    +1 on the details of your S3 setup…. I’m currently assessing using their service in a similar manner that you are and would be interested to see how you’re using it.

  10. August 18, 2006 at 2:37 am

    What about unfair competition? It can download terabytes of data just to get you into high costs. How do you apply protection against such attacks?

  11. Chris Bailey
    August 18, 2006 at 9:43 am

    Another +1 on the details of your S3 use and library, etc. We are using it now as well and find it very much a great solution like you.

  12. August 18, 2006 at 1:08 pm

    Please post the details on how exactly you are using S3. I am very interested to know how you guys did this.

  13. August 22, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    What made you decide not to use S3 for your primary data storage?

  14. August 23, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    This is pretty funny. I just finished publishing a blog entry on our site entitled “Amazon s3: the holy grail of bandwidth problems?” While the scale of our success is trivial compared to your current bandwidth, the magnitude of the effect was the same – s3 went a long way to saving us money, time, and letting us grow.


  15. Brenton
    October 18, 2006 at 3:37 pm

    +1 on the inner workings of how you use S3. I’d be very interested in finding out more details.

  16. Darryl
    October 18, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    Wait a minnit… Amazon’s website says that it’s:
    $0.15 per GB-Month of storage used.
    $0.20 per GB of data transferred.

    300TB = 307200GB
    307200 * $0.15 = $46,080.00/mo

    Wow — you guys spend upwards of $46K/mo for secondary storage? And that doesn’t include the cost to upload all that data there (307200 * $0.20 = $61,440.00, but let’s be generous and say that’s a “one time” cost.)

  17. October 19, 2006 at 9:58 am

    Yeah, and $46K/mo is *cheap* once you factor in TCO of doing your own storage. 🙂

    We pay $46K and love it.

  18. Vald
    October 19, 2006 at 8:56 pm

    I’m surprised most posters are drinking in this Amazon propaganda so naively. Come on, was this a marketing guy at Amazon who wrote the intitial post. But the real reason is probably that Amazon is paying smugmug for a glowing report and so Catskill willingly delivered. Darryl just begins to shed light on the issues involved. I think S3 is great for a startup to get going quickly but not as viable for an ongoing concern. Would you really trust your crown jewels so willingly to the fate of another company’s infrastructure?

  19. October 20, 2006 at 12:32 am

    Vald is clearly trolling, but I’ll take the bait anyway:

    We’re Amazon’s customers, not the other way around. As anyone can tell, we’re a serious business with serious competitors and looking for any advantage we can get. We found it in Amazon.

    We’re paying them a hefty chunk of money every month, not the other way around, but the best part is that we’re actually saving money by doing so.

  20. Nirav
    January 23, 2007 at 7:22 am

    Can you pelase provide me more details about S3 and how can i implement ? If you can provide me some sample code it will be great.

  21. March 5, 2007 at 7:56 am

    Thanks for the help i got alot of customers looking for off site storage and would be interested in these services.


  22. JoeJoe
    January 29, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    I think it’s lame that the details were taken out. This article is fluff. One rule about blogs is LISTEN to your readers. Almost every posting here is requesting the information. yet no report?

  23. January 29, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    @JoeJoe: I have *lots* of S3 details up. Just search for Amazon S3 on the sidebar.

  24. July 8, 2008 at 12:48 am

    I strongly think that every new company needs to create a new account in amazon s3
    and start using it now without spending 10K on storage.

    Amazon S3 is real bless for many companies.

  25. February 1, 2009 at 12:30 am

    blogs.smugmug.com – cool sitename man)))

  26. February 5, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    to make it easier for companies and individuals use Amazon S3 we developed a freeware tool – CloudBerry Explorer. You can develop Amazon S3 into your infrustructure later on, but if you want to jump start or want to carry out simple tasks CloudBerry Explorer is your friend

  27. March 12, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Sehr gute Seite. Ich habe es zu den Favoriten.

  28. awsnewbie
    May 29, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    If your application is running in EC2, how are your flipping the switch in your appto access the smugmug local storage incase of S3 failures ? I will be very interested to see how your app is accessing the S3.

  29. November 15, 2009 at 10:15 am

    LOL! these are great!

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