AWS re:Invent 2021: Few new services suggest AWS is maturing (in a good way)


Commentary: AWS didn’t fill re:Invent 2021 with new product announcements. Instead, AWS seems to be trying to help customers make better use of what they already have.


Attendees walk through an expo hall during AWS re:Invent 2021, a conference hosted by Amazon Web Services, at The Venetian Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Image: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

“However transformational AWS was back in [its early] days, it chose a rather conservative path for the most important two hours of its year,” Tom Krazit noted after AWS CEO Adam Selipsky’s re:Invent 2021 keynote. That’s a polite way of saying Selipsky didn’t announce much. Sure, there was the gee-whiz private 5G network (gee-whiz because it’s technically interesting, not because millions of enterprises will want it), and it’s impressive to see continued innovation in the company’s ARM-based Graviton chip family, but everything else felt … samesy. 

This might be the best sign that AWS is growing up.

A new kind of innovation for AWS

This is not to suggest that AWS engineers are sitting around, lazily enjoying the spoils of years of service launches. (Disclosure: I formerly worked for AWS.) Far from it. As Gartner analyst Lydia Leong stressed, “We’re mostly past the days when a #reinvent would come with a ton of brand-new major services. There are still IT markets that AWS hasn’t eaten yet, but much of what’s being released now is incremental capabilities (which might still be impressive engineering feats).” No, it’s not that AWS isn’t “innovating on customers’ behalf,” as they like to say, but that the form of innovation has changed.

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More innovation-through-integration, as it were. Less “here’s this new thing you didn’t know you needed [e.g., serverless]” and more “here are improvements to what we already offer.” 

To wit … when was the last time that AWS did not announce at least one new database at re:Invent? (Charles Fitzgerald quipped during Selipsky’s keynote, “30 minutes in. Still no new databases.“) This time, AWS announced a series of new features for existing databases to make them incrementally better (e.g., Amazon DynamoDB Standard-Infrequent Access table class, helping customers reduce DynamoDB costs by up to 60%). This sort of thing is arguably more customer-obsessed, to use the AWS lingo, than yet another purpose-built database.

Taming the AWS complexity beast

It’s great that AWS didn’t “dive deeper” into product proliferation, but AWS also didn’t do much to start organizing its chaotic mess of 200-plus services. Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady was clear on this: “If AWS has a bright future of higher level abstractions, as I have argued they do, the future is not this year.” O’Grady wrote about this in June 2021, arguing that “[I]t’s been evident for some time that its current market dominance aside, AWS’ rapidly growing portfolio was a liability in certain contexts as much as a strength.” 


Amazon Web Services CEO Adam Selipsky delivers a keynote address during the AWS re:Invent 2021 conference at The Venetian Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Image: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is fond of saying that it’s customer obsessed, and, in my experience working there, this is largely true. But it’s equally true, at least from what I’ve seen, that customers are emphatically, unequivocally not asking AWS to roll its own service for every product category known to humankind. But what customers are asking AWS to do is to make sense of its Byzantine array of services. Forrester analyst Boris Evelson suggested that AWS should “lead with solving business problems,” to which dbInsight principal Tony Baer responded, “A first step would be putting the pieces together rather than requiring customers to do it.”

Yet AWS didn’t really say much about service synthesis at re:Invent 2021. The closest it came was during Selipsky’s keynote, in which he talked a bit about vertical solutions: “Over the past couple of years, we’ve built abstractions or higher-level services that make it even easier and even more accessible for people to consume the cloud and interact with AWS across a wide range of industries, from health care, where we’ve launched targeted services like Amazon Health Lake to financial services or manufacturing or automotive.” He went on to talk about AWS Automotive as an example, and announced a financial services-focused partnership with Goldman Sachs to build a finance-oriented cloud. He then concluded, “We’re going to continue to build more of these abstractions on top of our existing foundational services, collaborating with industry leaders on new offerings or building brand-new applications.” 

All for the good. 

As I heard someone say at re:Invent 2021 this week, “I like to think we are starting to ‘rationalize’ more than we are continuing to ‘produce.'” It turns out that such “rationalization” is every bit as innovative and arguably more important at this phase of the company’s existence. Enterprises not only want to figure out how to use the best of AWS native services, but they also need to pair them with their existing infrastructure, which is why AWS Mainframe Modernization was the very first product that Selipsky addressed and possibly the most important thing mentioned during all of re:Invent 2021 (the Graviton3 chips excepted, perhaps). 

Yes, mainframes. Impossibly dull, but also an enduring anchor holding enterprises back from modernizing. As the people running mainframes age out of the workforce, AWS is throwing these enterprises a lifeline, helping them embrace a future built into the cloud. It’s a positive, customer-centric approach.

Less so are the 200-plus services that customers are made to wade through. In response to Selipsky’s statement that “YES! [Customers] need all of these services,” Duckbill analyst and bête noire for AWS, Corey Quinn, wrote: “I assure you, while AWS needs to offer them all, ‘YOU’ do not need to collect them all as if they were Pokémon, dear reader.” 

Disclosure: I used to work for AWS and now work for MongoDB, but the views expressed herein are mine alone

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