On the ground in Las Vegas, where Amazon’s annual tech conference has become a gold rush for those with their heads in the cloud.
Nick Amabile is standing in a Las Vegas hotel complex passing out cardboard flyers covered in QR codes. With a rammed sushi restaurant behind him and a karaoke nightclub pumping out bangers nearby, he points towards the Chinese-themed cocktail lounge he’s hired for the week and tells everyone within earshot: “Come have a drink … there are cocktails and plenty of food.”
With his maroon jacket and grizzly brown beard, the amiable Amabile doesn’t resemble a typical pushy bar owner. Instead, he comes across as a gentler, nerdier version of late-night comic James Corden. It’s nearing midnight on a Tuesday and there’s scepticism about his offer. What’s the catch? “No catch,” is his stock-standard reply. “Just come and have fun.”
For a full week in late November, Amabile has hired the entirety of The X Pot, an immersive bar with interactive light displays at the top of the Palazzo tower, as a promo opportunity. His New York-based business DAS42 has just received private equity funding – something he confirms to me twice – and has grown to 65 staff who offer data migration services onto the cloud, a catch-all term for the delivery of remote computing and data storage.
He’s in the right place to show off his success. Vegas is crammed with a who’s who of the tech world for the entire week thanks to Amazon’s annual tech conference, re:Invent. With multicoloured lanyards swinging around necks, it feels like a daytime indoor music festival with bottomless coffee, DJs spinning tunes and bottlenecks everywhere.
More than 55,000 people show up – most of them, it should be noted, men – to attend keynote speeches, chase networking opportunities and bag free swag. Companies like Amabile’s have rented bars all around the city. Outside The X Pot, Christmas pandas munch on candy canes on the bar’s frosted digital glass. Inside, people Amabile’s only just met enjoy his hospitality, drinking expensive cocktails and eating mini cheeseburgers on his dime.
Yet Amabile smiles. This isn’t wasted money – it’s a flex, a show of power, a statement of intent. Amabile’s head is in the cloud and he wants everyone to know it. The economy might be tanking and a recession is forecast to kick in sometime next year. Yet, for anyone working in the cloud computing space right now, business appears to be growing with unprecedented demand.
Amabile’s DAS42 is still small – he calls it a start-up – but he’s hoping to grow quickly. “Oh, I want thousands of staff,” he says. He rates his chances. Twenty other companies just like his are operating in the same niche, he says, but there’s no need for them to compete. There’s more than enough work to go around. Of the companies that could be in the cloud, Amabile estimates only 20% of them have made the switch.
That means big money for those willing to stake a claim and get big enough, fast enough, to claim domination. Amabile admits he’s double-dipping: he’s paid by Amazon to recruit new customers for Amazon Web Services, and he also charges those same customers for his cloud migration experience.
Is this a gold rush? As Amabile hands me his business card and ushers me inside to drink as many of his cocktails as possible before closing time, he nods his head. “Yes,” he agrees. “It’s definitely a gold rush.”
Adam Selipsky’s eyes glint so much it looks like laser beams could shoot out of them at any moment. Thousands of people are in front of him, and even more on the livestream, hanging off his every word. As the Amazon Web Services CEO talks, throwing around buzz terms like “machine learning” and “data explosion” with abandon, they stand and cheer his announcements. “There’s no other show like it,” he promises. “The excitement’s going to continue.”
Thousands of guests filed patiently into the Venetian’s conference centre to hear Selipsky’s keynote address, a midweek highlight of re:Invent. Most have paid up to US$1899 to attend this and the rest of re:Invent, but many will have charged that to their company credit card. To add to the hype, a covers band belts out hits by Def Leppard and Linkin Park, footage beaming around the hall thanks to five massive screens on a stage longer than a football field.
When Selipsky arrives in a classic tech uniform of jeans, sneakers and a suit jacket, that same leather-clad band bursts into 20 seconds of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ like a perfectly calibrated human jukebox. It has just ticked past 8.30am.
To keep the vibe up, Selipsky has to connect. But, unlike an Apple or Samsung event, he has no sexy products to show off. In the cloud, there’s nothing physical to look at. He’s here to showcase Amazon’s latest innovations in its cloud service AWS, an arm of the company so big, it’s among the largest in the world – and remarkably, it’s more profitable than Jeff Bezos’ retail offering.
Instead of phones or tablets, Selipsky relies on stock images, stories and cloud service announcements to wow those in the room. His eyes get bigger as he compares the cloud computing boom to astronauts, Antarctic explorers and deep sea divers, making it sound like he’s conquering a new frontier. “It took centuries to enter the rocket age,” he says. “Then we put telescopes into space itself. Now we could truly tackle the magnitude of space.”
At one point, Selipsky shows off a number so huge, one that includes so many zeroes, it nearly runs off the screen behind him.
It may be ridiculous, but that number indicates something. Cloud computing is growing so fast even those in the industry struggle to keep up. Thanks to AWS’ growing cache of databanks – including one costing $7.5 billion being built in New Zealand – companies are rushing to move their data into the cloud, making the most of safer security levels and supersonic levels of computing power. Hosting your own servers, which need constant monitoring and upgrading, is fast becoming a thing of the past. (Of the several companies offering cloud services – AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud Platform – Amazon’s is the biggest, with 70% market share.)
It’s also changing the world as we know it. Netflix uses AWS. So does Apple. Twitch, LinkedIn, the BBC, Facebook and ESPN are all in the cloud. Data, and the speed companies can access and organise it, has gone supersonic. The reason you can scroll through bank balances, play high-spec video games and binge TV shows on your phone is all because of the cloud. That’s not all: next week’s Avatar sequel used it, teams at the Fifa World Cup are recording data to measure player fatigue in real time, and NASA is dreaming of the day it can use the cloud to build satellites in space.
All that’s super impressive, but faced with Selipsky’s data dump that lasts more than two hours, the constant jargon and acronyms have a numbing effect. At one point Selipsky utters the phrase, “We can literally go to imaginary worlds,” but at that time of the morning I’m too under-caffeinated to fully unpack it. Later in the day, with fragments of Selipsky’s keynote floating around my brain, his words begin resembling an AI chatbot programmed to create bad slam poetry.
“Malicious activity …
Distributed frameworks …
Exploring the vast data realm …
A thankless, unsustainable black hole.”
To help make sense of what’s really going on, a series of AWS experts with good haircuts, firm handshakes and excellent banter are paraded in front of me for half-hour chats about the power of the cloud. Data scientist Luuk Figdor tells me how Formula 1 teams are taking more than 1 million data points a second from their cars, then using that data to improve speeds, driver performance, and win races. “As a person, you cannot wade through all that data,” he says. “You need technology like machine-learning and artificial intelligence to help you make sense of that.”
Football teams are using it at the Fifa World Cup to measure fatigue, he tells me. Basketball teams use cloud-based data to make sure they’re fielding the best possible team, just like in the film Moneyball. Doesn’t this take the human element out of sport? “It depends who you’re talking to,” says Figdor. “If you’re talking to a club, they don’t mind. They want to win … they care about winning.”
It’s not just sport. Peggy Whitson, a 62-year-old astronaut and two-time ISS commander, says cloud-based technologies will one day allow satellites to be built in space, instead of being launched from Earth. Wētā FX may never have finished work on Avatar if it wasn’t for the cloud. “In the span of eight months we produced nearly three times our annual output,” Wētā VFX producer David Conley tells me. Here in New Zealand, Spark Business Services uses the cloud, a GoPro attached to a car, and machine-learning to detect potholes in the road. At re:Invent, a disaster response unit is also on display, ready to deploy with cloud satellite technology to help rescue efforts.
They’re the high profile examples of cloud computing’s successes. But it’s down on the huge expo floor where the gold rush mentioned by Amabile really seems to be playing out. Companies with names like MongoDB, PagerDuty and CommVault tout their niche cloud services by offering free “swag”. (“Go get your swag!” was the first one of the first things anyone at re:Invent said to me.) That means loaded up goodie bags, often earned by sitting through interminable, merciless data presentations. Over the week, I am gifted three pairs of socks, two T-shirts and a hoodie, all of which I place in a donation bin. I keep the stress balls, one shaped like a mule, another like a sumo wrestler, which came with the opportunity to pose for a pic with two huge sumo wrestlers. The company offering this? Sumo Logic.
If the daytime at re:Invent is a blur of conference rooms, data presentations and keynotes, nighttime is much the same, except in bars. Play your cards right and you can bar hop to your heart’s content, eating and drinking for free thanks to someone else’s cloud success. In one night, I hear two different cover bands play very different versions of ‘Closing Time’. One comes from two keyboardists making far too much noise for the small bar they’re in. The other comes from a comedy band called Wolves of Glendale who have opened for Tenacious D but seem to be loving life playing for a room full of tech types.
The drunker the room gets, the more they get into it. As the night progresses, shirts come off, air drumming becomes the norm, and coordinated dance moves get looser and more aggressive. During a mash-up of Backstreet Boys’ ‘Rock Your Body’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time,’ I glance to my right and see three suited up tech workers engaged in an extremely tense game of Exploding Kittens. Despite the concert nearby, they have the rule book out and are arguing over who can play what card. It’s nearly 1am.
At 73 years of age, it seems unlikely that the Michelin-starred celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck is a fan of the 26-year-old Dutch DJ Martin Garrix. But the pair formed an unlikely alliance to supply the food and the soundtrack for the climax of re:Invent – a full noise music festival called re:Play held on the Las Vegas Festival Grounds.
By Thursday night, after four days of keynotes and cloud chat, attendees are definitely ready to party. Those who have eaten their fill of slow-cooked pork rolls and brisket cheese toasties can enjoy slides or table tennis, or partake in hilariously aggressive competitions of archery tag and a game of live button mashing using their feet. The bars, as they were all week, are free.
As Garrix delivers a remorselessly intense show comprised of at least 80% drops from behind his laptop, I realise he is almost certainly already in the cloud. The man beside me filming the concert on his phone is definitely in the cloud. The camera operator aiming his lens at the stage is also in the cloud. Am I in the cloud too? As my feet slowly leave the ground and I begin to levitate, it certainly feels like I am. But it could be the effect of the chocolate edible consumed at the front gate finally kicking in.
The following morning, re:Invent is being packed up, nearby bars have their branding ripped off and the surrounding casinos are vacated by tech bros and replaced by cowboys in town for a rodeo competition. Still feeling woozy, I stand around a roulette table and watch a charismatic croupier open his arms wide, close his eyes, raise his head to the sky. “Everyone’s going to win!” he yells. “This is Vegas, baby! There are no losers in Vegas!” The clock is yet to strike 9am.
This story was written from Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent expo in Las Vegas. Flights and accommodation were provided by AWS.