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AWS Outposts in 1U/2U sizes: A shot across the bow to traditional infrastructure providers

December 18 2020
by James Sanders, William Fellows


Introduction


When AWS Outposts – a full-size (42U) fully managed server rack accessible through the AWS Console – was announced at re:Invent 2018, it represented Amazon's largest embrace of hybrid cloud since the launch of AWS in 2006. Likewise, the announcement of 1U and 2U rack-mountable Outposts hardware represents Amazon's smallest embrace of hybrid cloud – and may prove to be the more popular variant. Competing cloud platforms offer similar solutions, in the form of Azure Stack and Google Anthos - in essence, a first-party solution to connecting hybrid workloads to their respective cloud platforms. While Anthos operates on any existing modern hardware and Azure Stack hardware is built by traditional infrastructure vendor partners, AWS Outposts is not beholden to infrastructure firms, leaving it free to compete with the ground-to-cloud initiatives from the likes of HPE and Dell.

The 451 Take

AWS Outposts, by its own merit, makes sense as an idea - enterprise customers have circumstances (or 'needs,' contingent on proof) that require workloads to be run on-premises. Amazon is providing a solution to meet this demand, though does so juxtaposed with initiatives - such as AWS Local Zones and AWS Wavelength - that bring compute closer to the customer but still fully managed by AWS. While AWS Outposts has - to some degree - counterparts in competing cloud platforms, Outposts compares favorably to the ground-to-cloud hybrid initiatives with flexible purchase plans marketed by traditional infrastructure vendors. These initiatives typically feature a cloud management platform nominally intended to bridge control of cloud-hosted and on-premises resources, though this 'single pane of glass' interface also usefully serves as a purchasing portal for traditional infrastructure.

The conceit is that if traditional vendors play a large role in supporting a cloud transformation journey undertaken by a customer, the more likely it is their services will be retained for long-term management and optimization of cloud resources. Adoption of AWS Outposts largely removes these vendors from the conversation - particularly as Outposts hardware is manufactured and sold by Amazon, not as a co-branded effort (cf. Azure Stack). Likewise, use of Amazon Graviton2 CPUs in the 1U offering is a further level of integration. Amazon touts Graviton2 processors as providing 2-3.5x better performance per watt compared to other processors in AWS. Furthermore, the integration of hardware and software provided by AWS parallels similar integrations to Apple's M1 CPU in the client device market - both M1 and Graviton are Arm CPUs.

Context


AWS Outposts was released to general availability in 2019 as a full-size (42U) fully managed rack. Deployments of AWS Outposts can run a subset of AWS services on-premises, managed identically to AWS-hosted resources in the AWS Regions. 451 Research characterized this launch as "a hybrid-flavored overture toward enterprises moving their remaining legacy workloads to the cloud - principally, by bringing 'cloud to ground' (i.e., on-premises) to meet enterprise needs."

The same year, AWS announced the second generation of its internally developed ARM-powered Graviton CPUs. Likewise, 451 Research noted at the time that Graviton2 was "only the second generation of Amazon's ARM-powered CPU, although it represents three generations of advances in the underlying ARM microarchitecture," adding that "Amazon is likely to leverage Graviton to deliver other services when practicable to do so seamlessly," and "the company's focus on custom silicon and on-premises hardware in the form of Outposts provides another avenue to deploy Graviton CPUs."

At re:Invent 2020, AWS announced 1U and 2U rack-mountable versions of AWS Outposts, with the former pairing a 64-core Graviton2 processor with 128GB RAM and 4TB NVMe storage. The latter uses Intel CPUs to provide up to 128 cores and is paired with 512GB RAM and 8TB NVMe storage. Amazon also introduced Graviton2-powered c6gn instances with 100Gbps network capacity at re:Invent 2020, alongside other AMD and Intel-powered instance families.

Hybrid theory


The newly announced Outposts options bring AWS one step closer to head-to-head competition with the traditional infrastructure vendors. Organizations that deploy workloads on AWS -yet have workloads that remain on-premises due to regulatory concerns, modernization friction or specific performance requirements - are strongly courted by traditional infrastructure vendors, which have introduced flexible purchasing options and a hybrid-focused 'single pane of glass' through which to manage it all (e.g., HPE GreenLake, Dell Project APEX).

While Amazon's public messaging is particularly enthusiastic about the merits of hybrid cloud, it is realistic about the realities of hybrid cloud. To that end, AWS cites four use cases requiring local data processing and storage for the new diminutive-sized hardware offerings:

  • Factory floors with low-latency needs for manufacturing and process control equipment.

  • Applying analytics and machine learning to on-premises health management systems.

  • Telecommunications companies using cloud services to manage virtual network functions.

  • In-store experiences in retail settings and point-of-sale systems.

  • Between the newly introduced Outposts options and the existing full-rack version, AWS represents a substantial threat to the (ahem) re-invented business models of the traditional infrastructure vendors: the utility for a 'single pane of glass' to manage AWS and on-premises compute resources is obviated if the on-premises hardware is managed seamlessly inside the AWS Console. Furthermore, while many enterprise workloads are dependent on x86-64 CPUs, the debut of the ARM-powered Graviton hardware outside the walls of AWS datacenters should be given due attention.

    Comparisons between Apple's M1 CPU in the recently refreshed MacBook and Mac Mini products and Graviton2 are inexact, but salient - both have established higher performance in specific workloads. The newer, custom design used by Apple is regarded as a critical hit among consumer hardware reviewers, in part due to Apple's tight integration of hardware and software to deliver a single, unified experience.

    Both AWS and Apple have years of experience in custom silicon - AWS Nitro System, a custom security platform and hypervisor, serves a broadly similar role in servers that the T1/T2 security chips serve in recent Intel-powered Mac systems. This tightly integrated combination of hardware and software is used to deliver a customer experience that would not be possible with off-the-shelf hardware.

    While AWS does not publish specifics about the TDP of Graviton2, 100W is a reasonable estimate - this would represent approximately 40-55% lower power than competitive AMD or Intel processors. Within the walls of AWS facilities, this is academic to the end user, though may be a modest consideration for on-premises deployments. While Graviton2 is functionally an implementation of the Arm Neoverse N1 platform - as is the Ampere Altra - the value of Outposts is in being managed identically to AWS-hosted resources, and running AWS services on top of it; a traditional infrastructure vendor would not be able to replicate this experience simply by shipping an ARM-powered 1U server.

    Points of authority


    Hyperscalers, not content with only hosted services and recognizing that hybrid IT is here to stay, are going after the on-premises opportunity with 'cloud to ground' initiatives such as AWS Outposts, Azure Stack, Google Anthos and Alibaba Apsara. These are managed, on-premises versions of their services where data resides on-premises and things are managed from a control plane in the cloud. For IT managers still unwilling or unable to move to hosted cloud, these could be seen as 'having your cake and eating it.' Certainly, enterprise interest in these cloud offerings is sky high.

    We think these offerings make sense where latency and data sensitivity (up to a point) are concerned. But there's also an underlying sense that this is about control, giving IT the opportunity to take advantage of a cloud-like model but at the same time keeping servers (and control) close. For AWS, Outposts is a set of training wheels for customers that will ultimately move into its hosted services. Other vendors have a more permanent view about hybrid deployments. After all, there are still many applications and workloads that won't move to cloud. However, collectively, these represent a clear and existential threat for long-tail vendors as the hyperscalers are now playing in their ballpark.