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With Fargate, AWS wants to make containers more cloud native

At its re:Invent developer conference, AWS made so many announcements that even some of the company’s biggest launches only got a small amount of attention. While the company’s long-awaited Elastic Container Service for Kubernetes got quite a bit of press, the launch of the far more novel Fargate container service went a bit under.

When I talked to him earlier this week, AWS VP and Amazon CTO (and EDM enthusiast) Werner Vogels admitted as much. “I think some of the Fargate stuff got a bit lost in all the other announcements that there were,” he told me. “I think it is a major step forward in making containers more cloud native and we see quite a few of our customers jumping on board with Fargate.”

Fargate, if you haven’t followed along, is a technology for AWS’ Elastic Container Service (ECS) and Kubernetes Service (EKS) that abstracts all of the underlying infrastructure for running containers away. You pick your container orchestration engine and the service does the rest. There’s no need for managing individual servers or clusters. Instead, you simply tells ECS or EKS that you want to launch a container with Fargate, define the CPU and memory requirements of your application and let the service handle the rest.

To Vogels, who also published a longer blog post on Fargate today, the service is part of the company’s mission to help developers focus on their applications — and not the infrastructure. “I always compare it a bit to the early days of cloud,” said Vogels. “Before we had AWS, there were only virtual machines. And many companies build successful businesses around it. But when you run virtual machines, you still have to manage the hardware. […] One of the things that happened when we introduced EC2 [the core AWS cloud computing service] in the early days, was sort of that it decoupled things from the hardware. […] I think that tremendously improved developer productivity.”

But even with the early containers tools, if you wanted to run them directly on AWS or even in ECS, you still had to do a lot of work that had little to do with actually running the containers. “Basically, it’s the same story,” Vogels said. “VMs became the hardware for the containers. And a significant amount of work for developers went into that orchestration piece.”

What Amazon’s customers wanted, however, was being able to focus on running their containers — not what Vogels called the “hands-on hardware-type of management.” “That was so pre-cloud,” he added and in his blog post today, he also notes that “container orchestration has always seemed to me to be very not cloud native.”

In Vogels’ view, it seems, if you are still worried about infrastructure, you’re not really cloud native. He also noted that the original promise of AWS was that AWS would worry about running the infrastructure while developers got to focus on what mattered for their businesses. It’s services like Fargate and maybe also Lambda that take this overall philosophy the furthest.

Even with a container service like ECS or EKS, though, the clusters still don’t run completely automatically and you still end up provisioning capacity that you don’t need all the time. The promise of Fargate is that it will auto-scale for you and that you only pay for the capacity you actually need.

“Our customers, they just want to build software, they just want to build their applications. They don’t want to be bothered with how to exactly map this container down to that particular virtual machine — which is what they had to do,” Vogels said. “With Fargate, you select the type of CPUs you want to use for a particular task and it will autoscale this for you. Meaning that you actually only have to pay for the capacity you use.”

When it comes to abstracting away infrastructure, though, Fargate does this for containers, but it’s worth noting that a serverless product like AWS Lambda takes it even further. For Vogels, this is a continuum and driven by customer demand. While AWS is clearly placing big bets on containers, he is also quite realistic about the fact that many companies will continue to use containers for the foreseeable future. “VMs won’t go away,” he said.

With a serverless product like Lambda, you don’t even think about the infrastructure at all anymore, not even containers — you get to fully focus on the code and only pay for the execution of that code. And while Vogels sees the landscape of VMs, containers and serverless as a continuum, where customers move from one to the next, he also noted that AWS is seeing enterprises that are skipping over the container step and going all in on serverless right away.

AWS Fargate lets you run containers without managing infrastructure

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I’ve previously shared how Stitch Fix, Warby Parker, Everlane and Allbirds are just a few innovative companies proving the success of this model. As the master of D2C commerce, Amazon has been fine-tuning its fashion operation for over 15 years. Amazon originally got into apparel all the way back in 2002 and acquired online shoe retailer Zappos for $1.2 billion in 2009, marking the largest purchase in its history at the time. But the company’s quest to dominate fashion has faced several historical obstacles, chief among them that people have not trusted buying apparel online out of a desire to try on the items first and that Amazon was not perceived as a “cool” brand. Headwinds are now tailwinds. Online shopping for apparel took off and is now the highest online-penetration CPG sector; the majority of women have shopped for clothing online. E-commerce accounts for nearly twice as big a proportion of total clothing sales as it does for retail more broadly (17 percent vs. 10 percent). Amazon, meanwhile, has honed its apparel strategy, providing free returns, better photography and greater selection. Today, the company is the largest apparel retailer by gross merchandise volume. Mission accomplished? Not quite. Building A Private-Label ‘Fashion House’ An actual Amazon fashion shoot Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn once said, “Selling a bunch of other people’s stuff is a low margin game that requires a lot of capital and, ultimately, it’s hard to beat Jeff Bezos at that.” This is true, but when it comes to apparel, Bezos has greater ambitions than selling other people’s stuff. Currently, though, that’s mostly what Amazon does. According to analysis from Coresight Research, nearly 14 percent of listings on the U.S. Amazon Fashion site are from Amazon itself, while third-party sellers account for the remaining 86 percent. Amazon is highly incentivized to increase its share of that pie. Apparel is a highly profitable category for the company, with 40 percent peak gross margins in the last 10 years. Additionally, Prime members heavily overindex for buying apparel on Amazon – nearly two-thirds have done so in the past year. As it ramps up its private-label offerings, Amazon is clearly keen to move beyond selling the apparel equivalent of batteries and diapers through its Amazon Essentials brand. It started selling thigh-high velvet boots in September, and Coresight’s analysis indicates that the company is focusing on higher-value categories. If its recent Lord of the Rings rights acquisition was an attempt to further capture young affluent consumers’ eyeballs, and Whole Foods an attempt to lock down their stomachs, it follows that Amazon would want to ensnare their wardrobes as well. Acquiring a hot digitally native vertical brand – or brands – would be a speedy way to accomplish that. Walmart has already pursued this strategy by buying Bonobos, Modcloth and others; Amazon could take a similar path and seek to bring buzzy brands like Everlane into the everything store. This could also go a long way in helping Amazon shed its “uncool” label. Becoming A Fashion (Power)House The Echo Look is just one sign Amazon is serious about dominating fashion Last year, Amazon introduced a number of innovations designed to turbocharge its apparel business and make the online shopping experience as frictionless as possible. It launched Prime Wardrobe, a Stitch Fix-style service that allows you to try three or more items on at home before sending back the items you don’t want for free in a resealable box with a prepaid label. 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First it sells tons of clothes to learn how clothes are sold. Then it starts selling its own clothes to generate higher gross margin. And now has it has Prime Wardrobe to increase lock-in and reduce points at which customers can choose not to buy Amazon’s own clothing (all while gathering more data about individual preferences); and Echo Look to be its data collection and voice-commerce portal (and as an added bonus, it can route ambiguous purchase requests to its growing inventory of private-label items). If this strategy is successful, it will give Amazon an enormous data moat to drive high-margin sales – a competitive advantage that will be extremely difficult for fashion retailers and brands to replicate. Bezos doesn’t need to even ask. Amazon has become increasingly dominant in several increasingly important arenas: cloud services, voice assistants, self-serving brick-and-mortar stores with Amazon Go, and of course its now-traditional role as the online everything store. The company is poised to add apparel to this growing list as it changes the way people shop for clothing (again) and entices more of its customers to buy Amazon’s own threads. And it bears mentioning that Amazon Fashion will get a helpful hand from Amazon Studios as well. Bezos once shared that, “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.” If he has his way, Amazon will be doing a lot more of both in the coming years.

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