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October 13, 2019 5:43 AM   Subscribe

Meet America's newest military giant: Amazon - "How the most powerful company in e-commerce positioned itself to become one of the world's biggest national security contractors." (via)
"'Amazon wants to become the preferred vendor for federal, state, county, and local government when police and intelligence solutions are required'. [Then] Amazon will move beyond the US law enforcement and intelligence markets and look globally."
also btw...
posted by kliuless (25 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh no.
posted by percor at 7:42 AM on October 13


Now THIS is the dystopian future I was promised!
posted by some loser at 8:14 AM on October 13 [13 favorites]


MetaFilter is running on those same services discussed in post, and probably could no longer afford to exist if it decided to go back to bare metal servers like in ye olden days.

The other players in the space (Google, Oracle, Microsoft) have their own brand issues, and their services are far inferior.

Of course the Feds could roll their own, but MeFites of a certain age will remember the “$600 hammer” days, and I personally find it hilarious that the narrative these days is changing to “why doesn’t the gov spend shitloads more money on things that are far cheaper and better in the private market?”
posted by sideshow at 8:31 AM on October 13 [5 favorites]


> The other players in the space (Google, Oracle, Microsoft) have their own brand issues, and their services are far inferior.

Google and Microsoft have proprietary reasons to not provide you access to the same quality of service they provide themselves. Basically, they're vastly diversified corporations who want to ensure they don't enable their diverse competition. Oracle will only give a fuck if you pay them enough to, and you probably can't afford that level of service. Amazon's internal data services were intended from the beginning to also be provided as a turnkey vendor service, so they're not only eating their own dogfood, they're motivated to make the cheapest, most delicious dogfood in the world. Or else the relevant staff are fired.
posted by at by at 8:46 AM on October 13 [6 favorites]


I am so irritated by the TED Talk rhetorical questions posed by the Pentagon's "original hoodie-wearing digital guru" that I can barely refocus on the article's main points:
“What if we were to take advantage of all these incredible solutions that have been developed and driven by people who have nothing to do with the federal government?” he asked during his speech to the packed ballroom. “What if we were to unlock those capabilities to do the mission of national defense? What if we were to take advantage of the long-tail marketplaces that have developed in the commercial cloud industries? That’s what JEDI is.”
What if we were never to use this type of sentence construction again? What if we could excise the "just asking questions" vibe of tech industry leaders? What if we were to take advantage of our ability to imagine other futures than the one where we get really efficient but not any more equitable?
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:10 AM on October 13 [22 favorites]


lol, gj conflating clause 6 currency counterfeiting with fake handbags, you disingenuous fucks
posted by ryanrs at 9:13 AM on October 13


Google and Microsoft have proprietary reasons to not provide you access to the same quality of service they provide themselves.

Not to necessarily disagree with you but to offer context: From what I hear from a reliable source, development teams in Amazon's retail and other non-cloud businesses must all use AWS, but Google's divisions do not need to use Google cloud service products internally, and can instead either contract with third-party vendors or roll their own.

It is generally understood that AWS is still a couple years ahead of its competition in scale and functionality (which helps it win these contracts), and having the rest of the company use it to work out the kinks and drive feature needs (especially at the scale that Amazon operates at) may be one reason why.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:30 AM on October 13


MetaFilter is running on those same services discussed in post

"Because metafilter relies on AWS and can no longer afford not to, everything about AWS is fine and anyway the alternatives are worse."

This . . . doesn't actually make Amazon's military contracts or any of the rest of their ethically and socially dubious behavior any more ok, however many times you point it out.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:31 AM on October 13 [15 favorites]


I mean, the obvious solution is to break up Amazon and make AWS a separate company.
posted by Automocar at 10:41 AM on October 13 [3 favorites]


Would anybody actually be any happier with either entity in that scenario?
posted by schmod at 10:49 AM on October 13


AWS would still be used by all the other entities that would be broken away from it.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:52 AM on October 13


Back in 1996, Amazon.com was just a small company with a simple dream: to make money any time anybody does anything, anywhere.
posted by mbrubeck at 11:05 AM on October 13 [11 favorites]


They may have set it up to subtly fuck with serious techies brains but several years ago logging into an EC2 virtual machine (free or a few pennies) and run the standard unix df command that shows the total and used disk storage it comes back with

8E

that's eight Exabytes (1000000000000000000) of available storage, that's dozens and dozens of year 2000 giant corporate data centers available right there for you. Now using a significant percent the price goes up, but it's there ready to be used. In one zone, there are many zones. Google is running hard to catch up. Small companies all over the world and bootstrapping free or almost to create new stuff, it's seriously changing the world. (hopefully more to the better). But it's a force of nature at this point and accelerating.

Evil or good, at this point a force of nature.
posted by sammyo at 11:36 AM on October 13 [2 favorites]


So here's the thing: at the scale that the Pentagon is looking to operate, I have serious doubts that any 3rd party cloud option actually makes sense.

I've worked for a few different companies that have used AWS. AWS has strong points, particularly making it easy to quickly get concepts up and running, and scale up/down hardware as needed. Sounds great, right?

Well ... sometimes? For specific kinds of projects... OK? However, I have repeatedly seen companies that I work for come to the realization that for a lot of the core business they're doing, having it managed by AWS is reducing the amount of in-house work required but ultimately costing a lot more money than running your own datacenter.

The whole value prop of AWS is that they can do things at scale and also make things easy for you, and since the resources they give access to are fungible between their customers they can give you more or less without you incurring big hardware buys/selloffs/etc. But, if your core business is ultimately running at a relatively steady state with reasonable growth, you hit a point where all that convenience you're paying for is not worth it.

Basically: there's a size and a level of convenience at which AWS isn't helping you get things done for less money, it's just letting you spend money on a tech contract instead of hiring staff and buying hardware -- more than you'd spend if you just hired staff and bought hardware.

Of course, somewhat depressingly, that probably makes it a perfect fucking fit for government budgets -- god forbid we hire or actually own assets, we'd much rather have perpetual sweetheart contracts to those who line the pockets of politicians.
posted by tocts at 11:36 AM on October 13 [5 favorites]


Seeking Happy Campers, Government Offers Revamped Travel Portal - "A website for booking campsites and other activities borrows a page from the commercial sector: moving to the cloud and using containers."
Since its move to the cloud a year ago, Recreation.gov has drawn more visitors to less-famous attractions and has saved paperwork—and money—for individual parks that can now be booked online...

The portal, which runs on Amazon.com Inc.’s Amazon Web Services cloud service, offers more than 45 services, including camping inventory, tour tickets, entry passes and hunting permits. Over the past year, the site has generated about $150 million in revenue for the government...

The government hired contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. to handle the Recreation.gov revamp. The 10-year, $182 million contract began in 2017.

The effort represents a small component of the government’s quest to modernize its information technology, in part by incorporating tools and practices found in the commercial sector.

Federal agencies are moving aging technology into the cloud from on-premises data centers to automate processes and cut costs, said Arun Chandrasekaran, distinguished vice president and analyst at research and advisory firm Gartner Inc...

Site development started in mid-2017 and the portal was deployed to Amazon Web Services in October 2018. This is the first time the portal was built for the cloud, which provides the foundation to cater to new interfaces like mobile, Mr. DeLappe said.

Thanks to the technology refresh, Recreation.gov has been able to release a constant stream of updates.

More than 100 sites have been added since February, among them Indiana Dunes National Park along the shores of Lake Michigan. Campsite reservations have increased about 30% from last year’s figures, said Will Healy, vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

For Olympic National Park near Seattle, the revamp cut costs. The park, which was added to Recreation.gov this year, projects it will save about 5,000 staff hours and up to $150,000 a year.
posted by kliuless at 11:56 AM on October 13


Of course the Feds could roll their own, but MeFites of a certain age will remember the “$600 hammer” days, and I personally find it hilarious that the narrative these days is changing to “why doesn’t the gov spend shitloads more money on things that are far cheaper and better in the private market?”

The "$600 hammer" days made great headlines, but were a pretty complicated story to parse, once you really dig into the details. Usually, those crazy prices were a result of very conservative government specs that demanded accountability and traceability at every stage, for sometimes one-off and/or very low volume devices and/or extremely mission critical devices. This is what grand, and not so grand, government programs cost. Additionally, government rarely "rolls its own" precisely because it really is wasteful and correspondingly costly, basically putting it in the position of reinventing the wheel for its own sake.

Interesting about Walmart's position in retail compared to Amazon. I can't believe how much Walmart is still trying to figure out how this internet thing works, let alone distribution. One of the big problems with making an antitrust argument about Amazon is that it's really difficult demonstrating how consumers are being harmed, being so competitive with giants like Walmart and Target. Or the other side of antitrust argument, of competition being harmed, when the likes of Walmart seem to hold their own, and smaller vendors rely on Amazon as a means for survival. Which also works in favor of consumers. Additionally, breaking up Amazon seems like symbolism more than anything. Forcing AWS from Amazon doesn't really make either's competitors any more competitive. In short, breaking up Amazon really should only be done to fix something. It's so far unexplained what would be fixed should it happen, or how anything would be improved for consumers or even competitors.

This . . . doesn't actually make Amazon's military contracts or any of the rest of their ethically and socially dubious behavior any more ok, however many times you point it out.

It also seems dishonest to do the kitchen sink treatment when assessing AWS. Which always seems to be the mode for discussion of Amazon, and a few other choice topics. If AWS is the best choice for whatever, so be it.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:16 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]


I think we can give people who work in government some minimal credit for not being total rubes, and assume that they are aware that there are use cases for which AWS is appropriate and ones where it is not. Anyone who has played with it long enough to burn through the initial excitement realizes not everything is well-suited to AWS-ification.

I'm not sure anyone is really saying that a Fed-flavored AWS is going to replace every government datacenter (of which there are quite a few). The idea, as I understand it, is to give the Federal government and the DoD in particular the same flexibility that a private-sector company would have, in choosing AWS where it makes sense. It doesn't take away the option of a more traditionally-designed solution if that makes more sense. I'd suspect that the ongoing bills resulting from cloud-type services, combined with how government programs tend to get funded (lots of funding upfront, never enough for downstream maintenance/sustainment) will be a significant disincentive to using them too often, unless there's a way of scaling up and down based on demand (which is to say, unless you can use it the way it generally makes sense to).
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:56 PM on October 13


I have repeatedly seen companies that I work for come to the realization that for a lot of the core business they're doing, having it managed by AWS is reducing the amount of in-house work required but ultimately costing a lot more money than running your own datacenter.

The company I work for owns many data centers, and for the most part we are outsourcing to AWS and MicroSoft cloud services and selling the data center real estate. I think that sucks, that AWS is so much better than us at running cloud services, but we have spent many years now redesigning enterprise applications to run in a distributed fashion, for load balancing and disaster recovery at first, and once that work is done, it was just minor changes to make it run in a cloud data center. It comes down to who can serve the traffic for the least money.

We do still have many apps that are too large but depreciated to be able to update them to be served by AWS and others it makes more sense to keep in-house. But the number is decreasing every year.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:36 AM on October 14


It also seems dishonest to do the kitchen sink treatment when assessing AWS.
I can't for the life of me figure out what that means. Explain?
posted by aspersioncast at 6:01 PM on October 14


AWS is so much better than us at running cloud services

Is this true, or did they just hire all the people you would have used to do so?

AWS seems like the self-checkout of technology. Where grocery stores are trying to eliminate checkers (and union participation by extension), AWS has motivated companies to eliminate systems positions. The bottom line thanks the decisionmakers the same in both cases, but now there's a whole separate whack of annoyances and it's not really all that much better.

I read a test once where cloud servers were compared to bare metal servers, and the difference in performance was radical, something like 100x: 10 times faster for 1/10 the price. Companies could throw $10,000 servers in four data centers around the world and get all of the benefits of AWS, but without spending a department's worth of sysadmin salaries per year for the privilege. Just add Anycast.

It comes down to who can serve the traffic for the least money.

And even if all of the above is explainable-away because Lambdas exist or that Amazon is willing to rent you easy-to-run software for a premium, this is the crux. Transit is expensive, not subject to hype, and it's not cheaper at AWS, who charges $0.12/GB where (e.g.) Equinix colo is $0.005/GB, a 95% discount.

Old man yells at cloud, sure, but numbers don't lie. Even the most common arguments, like "well AWS is everywhere because we need pages to be served lickety-split," meanwhile 99% of pages load the skeleton of a page quickly, but it is actual seconds until the page stops juggling late-loading hunks of itself and 3rd party APIs long enough to use it. That is, if the page's javascript allows you to interact with it before the page is completely loaded, otherwise it can be double-digit seconds.

As for the feds using AWS, I wouldn't be surprised if the move is rooted in some statute that gives the FBI rights of surveillance anywhere that government property is stored. And as much all this might simply be the choices of "there go those clowns in Congress again," hiring Booz Allen to build your website?!
posted by rhizome at 6:56 PM on October 14


Amazon's new weapon to crush competition: $1 items delivered for free by tomorrow - "Now, these workers — and consumers — are going to face a new reality where Amazon is shipping a single stick of deodorant through its supply chain and onto a fuel-guzzling truck in order to grab a bigger share of the retail market."

also btw...
Shopify and the Power of Platforms - "There is a platform alternative — that is, a company that succeeds by enabling its suppliers to differentiate and externalizing network effects to create a mutually beneficial ecosystem. That alternative is Shopify... there were 218 million people that bought products from Shopify without even knowing the company existed... instead of interfacing with customers directly, 820,000 3rd-party merchants sit on top of Shopify and are responsible for acquiring all of those customers on their own."[1]

oh and in other adventures in vertical integration and loss leading...
Costco is going to extremes to keep its rotisserie chickens at $4.99 - "For the past few years, it's been recruiting farmers for this moment: The official opening of a sprawling, $450 million poultry complex of its very own in Nebraska... Costco will control the production process from farm to store, making key decisions down to the grain chickens eat and the type of eggs hatched... It's one of the largest-scale tests of a store's ability to become its own meat supplier."
posted by kliuless at 6:06 AM on October 15


AWS has motivated companies to eliminate systems positions.

We consistently had power issues in data centers (cities couldn't provide enough-not every DC we had was brand new like many of Amazon's are), we had project financing issues and timeline issues (way more $$$ than sys analysts). We had space issues in the DCs. Then moving from dedicated hard core hardware specially made for us to linux cores saved huge money. But moving from 20 hardcore unix servers per data center to 2000 linux cores meant security and maintenance patching issues and our sys admin teams were not able to keep up.

Maybe we could have hired 3X the number of SA's and trained them to all be system experts, but that just doesn't scale at the enterprise level. Amazon takes away the security and maintenance patching issues. And not only that, but Amazon and the other cloud providers are competing, so they throw in plenty of stuff to not only compete on price. We still have internal apps and plenty of data centers, but much less than in the past.

As for the feds using AWS, I wouldn't be surprised if the move is rooted in some statute that gives the FBI rights of surveillance anywhere that government property is stored.

There is no statute like that.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:13 AM on October 15 [1 favorite]


As for the feds using AWS, I wouldn't be surprised if the move is rooted in some statute
No, I think it's very simple. AWS has the highest level of federally-mandated security compliance standards for GovCloud. And they have the broadest set of cloud services, and they can support basically any cloud infrastructure. Right now, Google and Microsoft (the two other really big players) simply haven't gotten that far. Microsoft Azure is popular in government because so many agencies have MS Enterprise subscriptions. Google Cloud is well-suited for organizations that want to completely rework their deployment infrastructure for the cloud. But there are a lot of agencies that basically want to keep doing what they're doing, but do it in the cloud instead of onsite.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:09 PM on October 15 [2 favorites]


Here's a little bit of the ol' full-circle from IBM: bare metal servers for the cloud
posted by rhizome at 3:37 PM on October 15


How Amazon.com moved into the business of U.S. elections - "Amazon.com Inc's cloud computing arm is making an aggressive push into one of the most sensitive technology sectors: U.S. elections."
The expansion by Amazon Web Services into state and local elections has quietly gathered pace since the 2016 U.S. presidential vote. More than 40 states now use one or more of Amazon’s election offerings, according to a presentation given by an Amazon executive this year and seen by Reuters.

So do America’s two main political parties, the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the U.S. federal body charged with administering and enforcing federal campaign finance laws.

While it does not handle voting on election day, AWS - along with a broad network of partners - now runs state and county election websites, stores voter registration rolls and ballot data, facilitates overseas voting by military personnel and helps provide live election-night results, according to company documents and interviews...

The company’s efforts are welcomed by election administrators, who in interviews said they often struggle with keeping outdated systems up to date at the local level.

In Oregon, for example, the state’s in-house servers that support election services shut down every time there is a power outage - an often occurrence as Oregon updates its electric grid, according to Peter Threlkel, chief information officer at the Oregon Secretary of State. A move to the cloud fixes that problem, and Oregon ran a pilot with AWS to move its voter registration system to the cloud, he said.

Some security experts like David O’Berry, co-founder, Precog Security, said moving to AWS is “a good option for campaigns, who do not have the resources to protect themselves.”

Still, Amazon’s growing presence in the elections business could undermine what many officials view as a strength of the U.S. voting system: decentralization.

Most security experts Reuters spoke to said that while Amazon’s cloud is likely much harder to hack than systems it is replacing, putting data from many jurisdictions on a single system raises the prospect that a single major breach could prove damaging...

A recent hack into Capital One Financial Corp’s data stored on Amazon’s cloud service was perpetrated by a former Amazon employee. The breach affected more than 100 million customers, underscoring how rogue employees or untrained workers can create security risks even if the underlying systems are secure...

Amazon is forging ahead. It now powers the websites for the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), according to a source and election security experts... “Some of the largest presidential, congressional and gubernatorial campaigns are also trusted to AWS,” Amazon’s Jackson told clients in the February webinar viewed by Reuters...

The privatization of voting infrastructure is part of a broader trend that has swept across nearly every aspect of government activities in America - from parking tickets to prisons - and continues under the Trump administration.
Monopoly Men - "Businesses, towns, communities, and individuals cannot thrive in an economy where access to the market is contingent on the whims and control of a few private actors."*
posted by kliuless at 5:19 AM on October 22


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