The Troposphere

Jun 17 2010   9:22PM GMT

Amazon’s early efforts at cloud computing? Partly accidental

CarlBrooks Carl Brooks Profile: CarlBrooks

Former ‘Master of Disaster’ at Amazon Jesse Robbins has a couple of fun tidbits to share about the birth of Amazon EC2. He said the reason it succeeded as an idea in Amazon’s giant retail machine was partly due to his inter-territorial corporate grumpiness and partly due to homesickness–not exactly the masterstroke of carefully planned skunkworks genius it’s been made out to be by some.

Robbins said Chris Pinkham, creator of EC2 along with Chris Brown (and later joined by Wiljem Van Biljon recruited in South Africa)was itching to go back to South Africa right around the time Amazon started noodling around with the idea of selling virtual servers. At the time, Robbins was in charge of all of Amazon’s outward facing web properties and keeping them running.

“Chris really, really wanted to be back in South Africa,” said Robbins, and rather than lose the formidable talent behind Amazon’s then VP of engineering, Amazon brass cleared the project and off they went with a freedom to innovate that many might be jealous of.

“It might never have happened if they weren’t so far away from the mothership”, Amazon’s Seatlle headquarters, said Robbins.

Now half a world away, Christopher Brown, who joined Pinkham as a founding member, architect, and lead developer for EC2, set about finding resources to test his ideas on automation in a fully virtualized server environment. Robbins, who knew about the project, gave Brown the interdepartmental cold shoulder.

“I was horrified at the thought of the dirty, public Internet touching MY beautiful operations,” he said with all the relish of a born operator. Robbins had his hands on the reins of the worlds most successful online retail operation from soup to nuts and wasn’t about to let it be mucked up with long-distance experimentation.

To this day he gets a kick out of the apparently unquenchable (and totally untrue) rumour that EC2 came about because Amazon had spare capacity in its data centers, because his attitude at the time was, like every IT operations manager in a big organization, was that there is no such thing as spare capacity. It’s ALL good for something and NOBODY gets any of it if you can humanly prevent it. It’s‘mine, mine, mine’ as the duck said.

Brown, therefore, grumbled up his own data center (not that that was a stretch for him; Pinkham ran South Africa’s first ISP), set to work, and out popped the world’s first commercially successful cloud, running independently of Amazon’s regular IT. The rest is history (the cartoon in the link is “Ali Baba Bunny“(1957)).

UPDATE: A factual error and the omission of Christopher Brown as Chris Pinkham’s original counterpart in the move from the US to South Africa has been corrected. I regret the error and unintended omission.

3  Comments on this Post

 
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  • jesserobbins
    Carl, there is an extremely important correction that needs to be made here. The people we discussed were: Chris Pinkham (the VP who wanted to move back to south africa), and [B]Christopher Brown[/B] who joined him as founding member, architect, and lead developer for EC2. It was Christopher Brown who I had that fateful conversation about not getting near the production infrastructure, and whom I "gave the interdepartmental cold shoulder" as you summarized. Christopher Brown is now VP of Engineering at [A href="http://www.opscode.com"]Opscode[/A]. I never met Wiljem, but my understanding is that he was hired by Christopher Brown & Chris Pinkham months later. Wiljem and Chris Pinkahm have now started a new company called Benguela.
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  • CarlBrooks
    Jesse, my sincere apologies to you and Chris Brown. I reviewed old coverage of Amazon in South Africa at the time (link now in post) that caused me to mix up the names and roles of Chris Brown and Wiljem van Biljon and not report our talk together correctly. Thank you for the correction and of course, the story. Carl Brooks
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  • jesserobbins
    Thanks Carl for correcting. One last comment: The point of the background story I told you was that despite me (and others) telling Christopher Brown he couldn't have Ops resources, he was still willing to come to work at [A href="http://www.opscode.com/"]Opscode[/A]. [B]I didn't (and don't) claim any credit for EC2, only for being a rabidly protective Ops guy who said "no" to things I shouldn't have.[/B] ;-)
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