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AWS on why it is finally joining the blockchain bandwagon

AWS CEO Andy Jassy opens up about the company’s earlier misgivings about the real user need for blockchain technologies

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has made a thinly veiled swipe at its blockchain-touting competitors, while going public with its plans to enter the market for the first time itself.

While a number of its competitors – namely Microsoft, Google and IBM – have all embarked on blockchain initiatives in recent years, AWS has been conspicuous by its absence in this space.  

That is now set to change, with AWS debuting two blockchain offerings – dubbed Amazon Quantum Ledger Database (QLDB) and Amazon Managed Blockchain – at this year’s re:Invent user conference in Las Vegas.

However, as referenced by AWS CEO Andy Jassy during his re:Invent keynote, there had been an expectation that a foray into the blockchain space would be a flagship announcement to come out of last year’s event, but no such move was forthcoming.

At that time, Jassy revealed, the firm was unsure of how much demand there would be for a blockchain offering, and whether there was already technology out there that could fulfil enterprise demand for it.

“From talking to customers, we just hadn’t seen that many blockchain examples in production, or that couldn’t easily be solved by a database,” said Jassy.

And it is not in the company’s nature to build things for the sake of it or because everyone else in the industry is, he added.

“We genuinely did not understand what the real customer need is. And again, unlike some other folks, the culture inside AWS is that we don’t build things for optics,” he said.

“We only spend our resource to build things where we understand what problem we’re really trying to solve, and then go solve it for you.”

To get to the bottom of this, the firm spent the latter half of 2017 and much of the early part of 2018 talking to “hundreds of customers”, said Jassy, resulting in it nailing down two potential use cases for blockchain.

The first involves the creation of a centralised ledger that tracks every change that occurs within a given company workflow keeps an immutable record of it, which is owned by a single entity but can be shared with authorised third parties.

Shawn Bice, vice-president of non-relational databases at AWS, said it is possible to achieve this using relational database technology, but the user experience can prove lacking.

“We started out trying to use relational databases, but quickly found they could not scale or deliver the performance we needed to support our most widely used services,” said Bice.

This work then lead to the discovery that AWS may already have some technology in house that could fit the bill, which it is now – accordingly – being made publicly available to its customers in the form of Amazon QLDB.

The offering can be used to create a transactional, verifiable and un-modifiable log of every application data change that occurs over time.

“[Customers] wanted a centrally owned ledger that provided an immutable way to log the transactions history of their applications and was transparent to all the parties with whom they were interacting,” said Bice.

“So we’re offering an immutable, transparent and cryptographically verifiable ledger, based on the same one that AWS teams have been using for years at scale, as a fully managed service.”

The second blockchain use case AWS identified was for an immutable and verifiable ledger that multiple third parties can transact with and use to share data without the need for a trusted central authority to oversee it.

Typically this need is served by existing blockchain frameworks, such as Ethereum and Hyperledger Fabric, said AWS, they can be complex and time-consuming to setup. This realisation led to Amazon creating its Managed Blockchain offering, which the company claims can support thousands of applications running millions of transactions.

The service supports both the aforementioned blockchain frameworks, and users can choose which one they want to use, before going on to create a blockchain network spanning multiple AWS accounts.

“When we heard people say ‘blockchain’, we felt like there was this weird convoluted and conflating of what they wanted, and as we spent time working with customers, figuring out the jobs they were really trying to solve, this is what we think people are really trying to do with blockchain,” Jassy added.

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