Introduction and how it works

In the wireless world of cloud infrastructure and services, Amazon Web Services (AWS) just chucked a curve-ball. Or, rather, a Snowball. A 50TB hard drive weighing 20kg that can be quickly filled with data and posted to AWS for uploading to the cloud, Snowball is said to be a “novelty”, but one that will spread the cloud concept to companies with petabytes of archived data which they perceive to be un-cloudable, as it were.

But can a $ 200 (around £ 130, or AU $ 280) – that’s the rental price of course – slab of hardware like Snowball really be the future of the cloud?

Each Snowball can store 50TB

Why does the cloud need Snowball?

The Snowball concept was launched at October’s AWS Re: Invent 2015 event in Las Vegas in front of initially bemused developers, and it does at first seem at odds with the cloud data concept. Why is a cloud and IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) company like AWS suddenly interested in producing bespoke hardware? Because it wants business data in its cloud as quickly as possible, that’s why – and certainly quicker than the internet allows in most parts of the world.

“It’s actually very difficult to get large amounts of data from point A to point B,” said Andy Jassy, ​​Senior Vice President at AWS, at Snowball’s launch. “Even for companies with a gigabit-per-second connection, it’s unlikely you want to saturate that connection to move data. If they use 10% of that, which is pretty generous, it would take 100 days to load 100TB into the cloud – that’s a really long time. ”

Each Snowball can withstand forces up to 8.5G

How fast is Snowball?

Jassy reckons that instead of taking 100 days to move 100TB, with a couple of Snowballs you can do it inside a week. “That’s a very different model for getting your data onto the cloud,” he said.

AWS already has a physical Import / Export service that allows its customers to send it hard disks, but claims Snowball is cheaper than a company having to buy each disk separately – typically 1TB – load on encrypted data, and then sort out the logistics. “There’s a lot of opportunity for human error,” said Jassy.

What’s in a Snowball?

As well as that 50TB hard disk, Snowball is designed to be ultra-durable because it’s supposed to be posted.

It may be totally in service of AWS ‘core offering of cloud storage, but Snowball is not just one piece of hardware. It’s two. On the side of every Snowball is a Kindle – an e-Ink version like the Paperwhite rather than a tablet like the Fire – which serves as both an address label and a tracking device. Snowballs can be daisy-chained, too, so together they can carry vast datasets.

A Kindle-hosted address label on each Snowball

How does Snowball work?

Snowball is not just about storage. “Snowball is a highly secure, shippable storage appliance that’s much simpler than a disk to load your data into – and it encrypts your data end-to-end,” says Jassy. “It has a tamper-proof secure enclosure, the container is easy to close and ship, and attached to it is a Kindle that allows you to automatically have a return label that you can track the progress of – both of it being shipped, and then being downloaded to AWS. ”

Snowball is also dust-proof, drop-proof and can withstand up to 8.5 G-force. Although initial Snowballs will be 50TB, the size is expected to rise. However, although they cost $ 200 (around £ 130, or AU $ 280) per use, Snowballs remain the property of Amazon, and get sent back into the system after they’ve transferred a big dataset.

Big data

Snowball and big data

With Snowball, transferring a petabyte of data takes about 15 hours, and costs about a fifth as much as using the internet, according to AWS. This is about big data – and how to move it. “One of our customers told us they wanted to move 250 petabytes to the cloud, but worked out that it would take eight years,” said Bill Vass, VP technology, AWS, at Snowball’s launch.

An app on the AWS management console must be pointed at the dataset you want to move, and it then figures out how many Snowballs you’ll need. Kindles on the Snowballs are then automatically changed to show your address, and then they ship.

All data uploaded to a Snowball is encrypted

Who is going to use Snowball?

This hunk of hardware is not just designed to make it easier and quicker for those with large datasets to migrate to the cloud. It’s about spreading the cloud to companies who are yet to embrace it.

“I expect Snowball is going to open up a larger section of the market, especially the archival market – companies that contractually have no choice but to keep data for a number of years,” says Shane Owenby, MD for Asia-Pacific at AWS, who suggests that Snowball is aimed primarily at financial companies, call centres, governments, media entertainment companies who archive films (especially those now switching to 4K films), and any other organisations that have petabytes of data, but not the years to upload it conventionally.

“They do not want to blow-out a network pipe, and we can keep that data much cheaper than they can,” adds Owenby.

Andy Jassy, Senior Vice President at AWS

Will we see more hardware like Snowball?

“We do not have any current plans to do so,” says Jassy. “The only reason we built this appliance was to help customers get more of their data into AWS more quickly – we had enough of talking to customers who had large amounts of data and could not stomach the idea of ​​trying to put it on the cloud via the internet on their current connection. ”

AWS would rather sit underneath hardware, said Jassy, ​​name-checking Nest Dropcam , and Amazon’s own Echo as IoT devices that already use its cloud. “This was a little bit of a novelty for us.” Novelty or not, Snowball could be big news for companies sitting on the biggest chunks of big data.