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Amazon reveals 'Nitro'... Custom ASICs and boxes that do grunt work so EC2 hosts can just run instances

Also bare metal EC2, that KVM-based hv, and entry to the security biz

By Simon Sharwood

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AWS re:Invent Amazon Web Services has revealed that it spent four years working on a new architecture that offloads networking, storage and management tasks from EC2 host servers to dedicated hardware.

Speaking at the company's re:Invent conference, the company's veep for global infrastructure Peter Desantis, said the company first put the idea into production with 2013's C3 instances. The reason for doing so, he said, was a desire to have EC2 instances offer as close as possible to a bare metal experience and performance. Achieving that was made difficult by the fact that AWS' first architecture ran customers' instances, networking services, storage services and management services on the same host.

Offloading networking to the “Nitro System”, as the new architecture is called, quickly reduced latency. C4 instances, launched a year later, offloaded storage services too thanks to ASICs created by a company called Annapurna Labs.

Climbing Annapurna

But Desantis said AWS then hit a wall: its early Nitro efforts used commercial-off-the-shelf silicon, which left the company feeling it was paying for generic functions and also paying for features it did not need, which drove up the overall cost of its hardware.

AWS therefore decided it made sense to invest in custom silicon, so acquired Annapurna to do so.

Since 2015 the two have worked on custom ASICs that debuted within the third-generation Nitro box. This underpins the new C5 instance type that AWS originally said ran on a new KVM-based hypervisor.

The Register inquired about that hypervisor as soon as we read AWS' early November 2017 posts which proclaimed it would power all future instance types. Desantis today explained that the hypervisor – dubbed the “Nitro Hypervisor” - is based on the subset of KVM found in the Linux kernel and is optimised for the Nitro System. The hypervisor is also optimised to run in the Nitro architecture, and Desantis said it provides better isolation for workloads and therefore better security.

As of the C5 and third-generation Nitro system, AWS hosts now offload networking, storage and general management chores. According to Desantis, doing so means “nearly 100 per cent of host resources can be allocated to customer instances. We can do instances that are nearly indistinguishable from EC2 hosts, which now achieve performance that might even be better than bare metal.”

Take that, Oracle

Desantis said AWS has commenced tests of a bare metal EC2 service that will run either non-virtualized applications or the hypervisor of your choice. The veep pitched this option as suitable for speed freaks or to run applications with “customer-hostile licensing” that are otherwise hard to run in the cloud.

It's hard not to think that's a swipe at Oracle, which in January 207 effectively doubled licence fees to run its wares in AWS by counting a vCPU in AWS as a full core.

Bare metal EC2 will first be offered on i3 instances, but Desanti said other instance types will offer the option in the future.

“This story does not end tonight,” Desantis added. He then produced an ASIC from his pocket and declared it was among the first sample from a next-generation ASIC for future EC2 instances.

Desantis also announced a new “hyperplane” load balancer that has powered AWS' operations and helps it to scale and enhance reliability, and has now become part of the “Network Load Balancer” and “AWS PrivateLink", new AWS products that balance loads and allow private networks within AWS respectively. The use case for the latter is to help AWS partners provide in-cloud services to AWS users.

Security? They've productised it!

The company also revealed a new security service that productises its own threat intelligence and remediation services. Dubbed "GuardDuty", the service was promised to have no overhead, to identify anomalies in users AWS rigs, and to monitor usage of the cloud to prevent things like a user with credentials spinning up unusual instance types in regions you never use.

The company said its own version of the new tool means it has just one security worker on duty at any given time, on six-hour shifts that follow the sun. If things go pear-shaped, plenty of others are on-call. ®

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