Where Amazon Will Go Next

The other day Amazon’s Jeff Bezos admitted Amazon makes no money from the Kindle itself. That’s not as bad as it sounds. Jeff Bezos is referring to the hardware. Amazon sells content for the Kindle and that can make money. This is akin to shipping at cost and making money off the product you sell.

The Kindle isn’t a product, it’s a delivery method.

This however has me thinking. Jeff Bezos is a bright guy, and Amazon is a clever company who is constantly innovating. It’s pretty clear Amazon is looking to expand its warehouses to more locations to cut down on delivery time and perhaps even offer same day delivery in many places. It seems quite possible however that Amazon’s Lab 126 may have another trick up it’s sleeve for the (substantially) longer term: 3D printing. If Amazon can manage to create an ecosystem where products can be printed on demand, it can turn anything into eBook. Sold and delivered through their ecosystem. Simplistic items first and perhaps eventually more complicated items.

That’s not to say expect Amazon to sell 3D printers tomorrow. We’re talking years most likely. However it would be the ultimate delivery method for applicable goods.

Kindle Fire HD Is Ad Supported

PCMag quotes an Amazon spokesperson:

“[W]ith Kindle Fire HD there will be a special offers opt-out option for $15. We know from our Kindle reader line that customers love our special offers and very few people choose to opt out. We’re happy to offer customers the choice.”

Apple may have a reputation for gouging customers on things like $19 cables, but $15 to turn off ads on a new $499 device is a little absurd. Not to mention just outright tacky.

You’d think Amazon would want to make their higher end devices viewed as polished and having a great experience to compete with the iPad. If price was the deciding factor the iPad would have already lost out to the plethora of Android tablets out there. The reason it hasn’t is because the experience on Android tablets is miserable.

NASA’s Streaming Server Setup

With Curiosity’s landing just hours away GigaOM has some information on how NASA plans to stream coverage of the landing. Sounds like the big winners are Nginx and Amazon Elastic Load Balancer:

They built a test infrastructure comprised of a single origin server (a Mac Pro housed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) serving four bitrates (250, 500, 750 and 1,000) to a single Flash Media Server. Output was cached by a single “tier 1″ Nginx server, fronted by 40 “tier 2″ load-balanced Nginx servers running on Amazon EC2.

Nothing terribly shocking, though always interesting to see inside how others are handling large traffic events. Nginx is one heck of a capable server for this sort of task.

Kindle Poll And Brand Confusion

kindle 2%

I’d love to know how this question was asked so that “I don’t know” was even an option. My guess is confusion existed over the iPad, iPhone and Android apps which leads to the question: is “Kindle” the reading platform or the hardware? I’m not even entirely sure myself. Amazon should have done a better job keeping them separate.

Via: Violet Mae Lim via MG Siegler

Cable Fail

I’ve been looking for a 4 conductor male TRS connector (Apple iPhone headset jack) for a small project. Simple enough. I found a cheap extension on Amazon a week ago that seemed to fit the bill. For posterity here’s what the description says:

Technical Details

  • Made and designed to work seamlessly with the Apple iPhone.
  • Will act as an extension cable, carrying both the stereo audio and microphone signals from your device.
  • Allows the adapter to be used with stereo headphones that also have integrated microphone functionality
  • Made with Nickel plated materials, 3.5mm 4-pole plug, 3.5mm 4-pole jack and a 10 cm (L)
  • A perfect accessory for your NEW Apple iPhone.

Emphasis mine.

It arrived in an envelope containing a tiny ziplock back with no labeling (it’s barebones). When I hooked it up it seemed that audio quality wasn’t very good. I never bothered to check out the microphone. At that price it obviously didn’t make fiscal sense to return it as the postage costs about as much as it’s worth. So I decided to finish dissecting it.

From what I can tell it’s actually 3 wires. Each is a different color (red, copper, green) with some white strands in the core. The female jack has two prongs with one wire attached to each and the enclosure itself which seems like it’s the ground. My suspicion is that the audio is either combined or only one channel is used making it actually mono. The jacket I dissected was molded on so it was virtually impossible to remove the plastic without severing the thin wires in the process.

Here’s what the wire and the female jack (sideways on the bottom) look like:
Full Sized iPhone Wire Dissected

Here’s the jack from the back side. I suck at photography and only have a P&S camera, so it’s a bit blurry:
iPhone Cable Female Terminal

I’m now debating trying another vendor or a more expensive 2.5 mm to 3.5 mm adapter.

My original plan was to find a new 4 conductor TRS male plug, but that proved impossible via the usual sources. 3 conductor is easy.

If anyone has suggestions feel free to reach out.

Engineering Efficiency

Internet companies have the unique ability to scale quicker than any other industry on earth. Never before has a company been able to position itself from being nothing more than an idea to being in the living rooms of millions around the globe in a matter of hours. While this introduces seemingly unlimited opportunities to grow it also allows for exponential waste if a company isn’t careful. It’s interesting to see how they scale. Scaling businesses in many ways isn’t very different than scaling servers and software stacks.

The Classic Example: UPS

Started in 1907 and adopting the name United Parcel Service in 1919 UPS has no real “high tech” background unless you include the Ford Model T. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become more efficient. UPS has made a science of the delivery business. For example it’s famous for it’s “no left” policy. Simply put they found that avoiding left turns means less time waiting at lights which means less fuel is wasted. The more efficient routing formerly done by humans now computerized saves them 3 million gallons of fuel in 2007 alone. Lets do the math:

Assuming they run 100% diesel at an average cost of $2.87/gallon in 2007 [doe] multiplied by 3 million that’s $8.61 million dollars by trying to avoid left turns.

Not bad for a souped up mapping application.

By having their drivers do things like turning of the ignition while unbuckling their seat belt at the same time, and scanning for the doorbell while walking towards the door (it’s easier to see from a distance than up close) they can shave time off of their routes.

Then of course there’s package tracking. While customers might like to know in what city their weight loss taps are sitting tracking systems help reduce loss and monitor package routing for optimal efficiency.

Cutting Utility Bills: Google

Being the largest search engine, a large ad network, email provider, analytics firm, mapping service, video site, and whatever else they do means Google needs a ton of servers. Cramming servers into data centers and keeping them cool to prevent hardware failures is a complicated and expensive task. Keeping the whole thing powered is also really expensive. Google has scrutinized server designs to eliminate all waste possible. This has resulted in Google having more horsepower at a lower cost than their competitors. Having more capacity at a lower cost means Google can do more at a lower cost than their competitors. I won’t discuss Google in too much detail since they did a great job themselves recently and I mentioned it the other day in another blog post: Google’s Data Center Secrets.

Shipping Efficiency: Amazon

Amazon’s long been improving efficiency by using data collection and analysis to encouraging their customers to spend more. Their algorithms to recommend related products you might be interested in is one of the best out there. Their ordering system is streamlined to prevent customers from bailing before completion. Their products are SEO’d to appear on the top of Google searches. That doesn’t mean Amazon can’t improve other parts of their business.

Amazon several months ago started a Frustration-Free Packaging program. Here’s how they describe it:

The Frustration-Free Package (on the left) is recyclable and comes without excess packaging materials such as hard plastic clamshell casings, plastic bindings, and wire ties. It’s designed to be opened without the use of a box cutter or knife and will protect your product just as well as traditional packaging (on the right). Products with Frustration-Free Packaging can frequently be shipped in their own boxes, without an additional shipping box.

The key here is “can frequently be shipped in their own boxes”. By shipping a box alone rather than packaging they can skip a step in their warehouses (and the packaging materials that go with packaging something for delivery). This also lowers the weight as those extra boxes don’t weigh 0 oz. The frustration free packaging is also the perfect shape for efficiently filling trucks and strong enough to not crush easily thus lowering returns due to damage.

Amazon now even has a feedback form [login required] for users to share what they think of their package. This has the added bonus of helping further reduce the inefficient shipping practices so common right now.

Amazon’s also done a significant amount of work on their infrastructure to make their servers scale well using tech such as EC2 and S3. By selling capacity to other companies they able to take advantage of economy of scale as well as diversify their business beyond just retail. Of course they are planning their data centers to have access to cheap power.

These aren’t haphazard attempts at increasing efficiency, these are well calculated engineered approaches to removing even the smallest inefficiencies with the knowledge of how they compound as operations scale. Aren’t they clever?

Amazon S3 Outage

The buzz around the web today was the outage of Amazon’s S3. It shows what websites are “doing it right”, and who fails. This is a great follow up to my “Reliability On The Grid” post the other day.

Amazon S3 is cloud based computing. Essentially when you send them a file using their REST or SOAP interface Amazon stores it on multiple nodes in their infrastructure. This provides redundancy and security (in case a data center catches fire for example). Because of this design it’s often though that cloud based computing is invincible to problems. This is hardly the fact. Just like any large system, it’s complicated and full of hazards. It takes only a small software glitch, or an unaccounted for issue to cause the entire thing to grind to a halt. More complexity = more things that can fail.

Amazon S3 is popular because it’s cheap and easy to scale. It’s pay-per-use based on bandwidth, disk storage, and requests. Because that allows for websites to grow without having to make a large infrastructure investment, it’s popular for “Web 2.0” companies trying to keep their budgets tight. Notably sites like Twitter, WordPress.com, SmugMug and Amazon.com themselves all use Amazon S3 to host things like images.

Many sites, notably Twitter, and SmugMug didn’t have a good day today. WordPress.com and Amazon.com operated like normal. The obvious reason for this is WordPress.com and Amazon.com are much better in terms of infrastructure and design.

WordPress.com uses S3, but proxies that with Varnish. There’s a brief description here, and a more detailed breakdown here. According to Barry Abrahamson, WordPress.com does 1500 image requests per second across and 80-100 are served through S3. They have (slower) back up’s in house for when S3 is down and can failover if S3 has a problem. This means they can leverage S3 to their advantage, but aren’t down because of S3. Using Varnish allows them to keep the S3 bill down by using their own bandwidth (likely cheaper since they are a large site and can get better rates on bandwidth). This also and lets them have this have a good level of redundancy. Awesome job.

Amazon.com uses S3 themselves. If you look at images on the site, they are actually served from g-ecx.images-amazon.com. Which is actually:

g-ecx.images-amazon.com. 38     IN      CNAME   ant.mii.instacontent.net.

instacontent.net is actually part of Mirror Image, a CDN. This is essentially outsourcing what WordPress.com is doing in terms of caching. It’s similar to Akamai’s services. A CDN’s biggest advantage is lowering latency by using servers closer to the customer, which are generally going to feel faster. The other benefit is that they cache content for when the origin is having problems. Because Amazon has a layer on top of S3, they have an added level of protection and remained up and images loaded.

Twitter serves most images such as avatars right off of S3. This means when S3 went down, there were thousands of dead images on their pages. No caching, not even a CNAME in place. Image hosting is the least of their concerns. Keeping the service up and running is their #1 concern right now. The service was still usable, just ugly. Many users take advantage of third party clients anyway.

Using a CDN or having the infrastructure in house is obviously more expensive (it makes S3 more of a luxury than a cost savings measure), but it means your not depending on one third party for your uptime.

Reliability On The Grid

There’s been a lot of discussion lately (in particular NYTimes, Data Center Knowledge) regarding both reliability of web applications which users are becoming more and more reliant on, as well as the security of such applications. It’s a pretty interesting topic considering there are so many things that ultimately have an impact on these two metrics. I call them metrics since that’s what they really are.

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April Fools 2008

As usual, my list of April Fools that I saw today: