AWS Storage Blog

Customer innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic

To call 2020 a challenging year would be a considerable understatement. The prolonged period of the pandemic has made a significant impact on our daily lives, creating a “new normal.”

What used to be normal, connecting face-to-face to conduct business and socialize with friends and family, has turned even more digital. This was inevitable and necessary given the new guidelines for safe and considerate social distancing practices. Individuals and corporations are relying more and more on the internet, computers, and information to keep making progress in businesses and in life. Many brick-and-mortar organizations have found themselves needing to expand their digital presence quickly, and shift their way of serving customers, and the way employees work together.

Children no longer learn primarily from attending class in person as digital learning has become an increased necessity. For many of these children, vacations and holidays, normally spent on beaches, playing sports, traveling, and celebrating birthdays, have not been the same all year, and won’t be for some time. Instead, these moments are more likely to be spent watching and listening to streaming entertainment, playing video games, or virtually getting together with friends and family.

As we reflect on the challenging past year, I am thoroughly inspired by how our customers have endured the challenge of the pandemic, and by how they have set themselves up for 2021.

Data continues to grow, pandemic or not

While an exponential growth in data generated is not new, this growth has exploded in 2020. According to IDC, enterprises typically see 30–40% increase in data year over year. So where does all this data go? How does all this data get stored so that data owners can make the most of its value?

To answer this, IDC tells us that by 2023, more than 40% of the world’s data will be stored in hyperscale or cloud data centers.[1] This means that much of this data will end up in the public cloud.

Here at AWS, we are very fortunate that our customer base stretches across so many different industry segments, company sizes, geographies, and includes both public and private organizations. As such, we are in a unique position to observe the commonalities and differences in the way customers choose storage deployment models, strategies, and the way they leverage cost optimizations. One thing that seems to be common across all of our customers is that the current pandemic is making IT leaders revisit fully managed cloud services versus an on premises, self-managed model. In many cases, we have seen a large majority of customers accelerate their journey to the cloud.

To stem the spread of the coronavirus, most of us are advised or required to stay close to home, including IT professionals, which can make managing on-premises data centers challenging. In areas where there is an acute cluster of people impacted by the pandemic, the access to on-premises data centers may be further limited. This in turn means that regular hardware faults and failures may need to remain in a degraded state for extended periods. This can have an impact on a customer to conduct normal business operations.

I have been at AWS for over 8 years. In all that time, I’ve had the honor to work with the gifted engineers here at AWS to build out a shared cloud storage infrastructure designed for security, sustainability, and scale. During this time, I’ve seen step-function increases in innovation from our customers in the way they use and extended the capabilities of the services we build.

Our customers are highly inspirational

During this pandemic, I am in awe of the ingenuity, resilience, invention, and unwavering dedication that our customers have demonstrated in ensuring that to their best ability, some level of normality can persist. Everyone, and every organization, has had to learn to use, rely on, and extend the application of technology in many parts of our daily lives.

In preparation for the year ahead, I wanted to look back on this year to see how our customers have used AWS services to help them throughout this difficult time. Our customers have inspired me with what they have done, and I feel compelled to share some examples with you, in the hope that these stories may inspire those who may be struggling.

When I think about storage and managing data in these times, I feel fortunate that we have developed services that enable our customers to pay only for what they use. It also enables them to grow (or contract) their storage, in either capacity or performance, dynamically, and in relation to the state of their business.

One of our customers, Direct Supply, uses a combination of our services to present to its file-based applications with the data and performance it needs. Instead of making large capital purchases, they now only procure the exact amount of storage that they require. There is no overprovisioning, as is necessary with on-premises storage systems. Additionally, we have been able to help them show to their leaders, exactly which part of the business is using what data, and at what cost.

“Leveraging AWS Storage Gateway’s File Gateway we are able to store and access objects in Amazon S3 from our NFS and SMB file-based applications with local caching, which helped Direct Supply reduce our costs to store large datasets. The consumption-based pricing model for Amazon S3 means we’re not paying for storage that we’re not using. Asset tagging has streamlined our ability to introduce a showback/chargeback model to our business leaders.”

Dave Stauffacher, Chief Platform Engineer, Direct Supply, Inc

While Direct Supply benefits from aligning its expenditure with utilization, other customers like Discover Financial Services are benefiting from the savings they have gained by not having to administer storage.

Discover provides banking and credit products to help customers achieve their financial goals, such as establishing good credit, paying for a college education, and consolidating debt. Over the years, individual analytics practices sprang up within Discover’s teams and business units. Discover’s leadership team believed that bringing those practices and teams together could improve analytics and create consistent tools across the organization.

By using the on-demand consumption model of the AWS Cloud, Discover is able to measure significant savings in time and money. Savings in time are particularly valuable since the opportunity cost of time spent on managing storage can be significant. So, instead of spending money to manage storage, Discover is essentially making money by not managing storage! You can also read how Discover secures file transfers and saves cost with AWS Transfer Family.

“At Discover Financial Services our mission is to help our customers achieve their financial goals, and we rely heavily on data and analytics to deliver on that promise. To that end, Discover has built an internal data science workbench called Air9 that enables 12 internal data science teams to collaborate. Air9 runs on the AWS Cloud, scaling compute and storage on demand, using Amazon EFS for shared storage, cutting storage management time by 90%, and costs by 50–60%. Time savings have enabled our data scientists to focus on insights instead of technology, which is especially critical as we help our customers through the uncertainty presented by the COVID-19 outbreak. Discover has support in place for qualified customers who experience hardship, in addition to help with navigating challenges resulting from the outbreak.”

Keith Toney, Chief Data Officer, Discover Financial Services

During these uncertain and highly stressful times, it is conceivable that more mistakes resulting from human errors might occur. The value of backups can be justified more easily than ever in these times. However, like managing storage, managing backups is tedious, time consuming, and OK, let’s be honest, it’s just not fun!

Regardless, backup is playing an increasingly critical part when it comes to leveraging modern continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) models. The goal of CI is to provide a repeatable (read: automated) approach to building, packaging, and testing applications so that development teams can commit code change more frequently resulting in regular improvements to a given application. This gives developers the opportunity to test new ideas, features, code, logic, processes, etc. and commit successful code to production quickly.

In order to get to committing successful code, I am reminded by a quote from Thomas Edison, who cleverly said “I have not failed. I‘ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” So in CI/CD, there can be many failures, and having a reliable backup implementation is critical. Despite this, many in IT still see backups as a painful, time consuming, cost and stress-inducing part of the job. But when backups impact the ability to provide health and well-being, not having a high performance, scalable, and highly reliable backup process is not even an option. That was the position in which AdvancedMD found themselves. Their backups were exceeding the desired backup window, and instead of assisting doctors and patients, they were trying to resolve backup issues.

AdvancedMD turned to Amazon FSx for Windows File Server (Amazon FSx). After moving its on-premises workloads to fully managed Amazon FSx, the AdvancedMD team reduced time spent on managing database backups by 85% (26 hours per day to 4 hours). Removing the associated cost and time overhead freed AdvancedMD to refocus its efforts on supporting a 400% spike in demand for its AdvancedTelemedicine application — connecting doctors and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our business world changed. Supporting our business application offering became our focus—an all-hands-on-deck scenario. Without Amazon FSx for Windows File Server, we would have spent multiple hours every day on our database backups as opposed to actually helping our business grow.”

Steve Coombs, Sr. Site Reliability Engineer, AdvancedMD

When I think about examples like this, I know that it is impossible to understand the benefit in human terms that AdvancedMD were able to realize. I feel so privileged that we at AWS can make a difference.

Earlier, I noted that because of the pandemic, many customers have to reevaluate their ability to support and sustain on-premises data centers. With a workforce that became a lot more distributed overnight, resulting from shelter in place restrictions, data center operations have grown even more cumbersome. As a result, the pandemic has accelerated many of our customers’ journey to the cloud, as they aim to relieve their reliance on self-hosted data centers.

Qube Research & Technologies is a quantitative and systematic investment manager with offices in Hong Kong, London, Mumbai, and Paris. It is a technology driven firm implementing a scientific approach to financial investment. The pandemic meant that more of their employees are now working from home. However, with its data in AWS Storage, they are able to remain agile with their business decisions and processes. This is only possible without the need to maintain a data center and the network infrastructure that goes with it.

AWS DataSync has allowed us to quickly and easily move large amounts of market data from our collocated servers to the cloud. DataSync’s ability to transfer data into Amazon S3, Amazon EFS, and Amazon FSx for Windows File Server covers most of our usage scenarios and enables us to optimize where our data resides in the cloud. This made it possible to expand our AWS compute usage, which we can scale up and down on an as needed basis, instead of using permanent physical machines. In addition to the cost savings we achieved by using DataSync for migrating to AWS, we were also able to create a seamless experience for our employees working around the world.”

Marius Popovici, Quantitative Technologist at Qube Research & Technologies

Perhaps one of the most poignant quotes I received is from INEOS TEAM UK, who use AWS high performance computing for optimizing their boat to race in the America’s Cup.

In recent months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has spent less time on the water than usual, making their simulation work become more important than ever. As part of their HPC cloud architecture, they used Amazon FSx for Lustre for fast, scalable, high-performance file storage to power their AWS Cloud design. Using AWS, INEOS TEAM UK can process thousands of design simulations for its America’s Cup boat in one week, versus in more than a month using an on-premises environment.

“They say that ‘time cannot be bought,’ but by working with AWS, we can do just that.”

Nick Holroyd, INEOS TEAM UK


Many of our customers, despite not being able to conduct their regular operations, still muster capacity to contribute something back to our society. Whether providing resources that aid in the rapid advancement of vaccines, or helping others who are less fortunate in other ways, many of our customers strive to make positive contributions.

I can say one thing with certainty. We are living in a “new,” or at least a “different,” normal. Many of us are working from home, with video conferences replacing classrooms for our children. In our attempts to emulate the same working conditions from home as opposed to our offices, many of our customers have turned to Amazon WorkSpaces, our managed, secure Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) solution. Our customers often combine Amazon WorkSpaces with our shared cloud storage, Amazon FSx. By doing so, they can deliver an end-to-end solution for work from home employees that delivers an operating environment and performance that is similar to working from the office. Businesses don’t miss a beat as they maintain their Microsoft Windows platform.

In fact, Direct Supply again has taken such a step, in order to protect their employees from harm, and keep them healthy.

“Direct Supply also has a substantial presence in Amazon WorkSpaces, which allowed us to move more than half of our employees to working from home in a matter of hours without having to invest in any additional hardware or bandwidth. The agility to keep our staff safe and productive during the current health crisis allowed us to stay focused on delivering outrageous support to our customers.”

Dave Stauffacher, Chief Platform Engineer, Direct Supply, Inc

What this pandemic has shown to me, is the resilience of our customers and prospects. This pandemic has brought out the altruistic nature of humans around the world. But it also underscores the unpredictability of the world in which we live.

Inevitable connection between data and success

As I look towards 2021, what I see is that the choices facing customers today are not that different than those they faced entering 2020. They still have to evaluate what growth is required in terms of compute, network, and storage. They must still evaluate whether they should invest in large capital acquisitions, or if they would be better off with a pay-as-you-use model like that offered by AWS. They still have to evaluate the careful balance between people, processes, and technology in relation to limited budgets. Lastly, customers have to evaluate how to innovate with data. These are basic IT business questions that IT professionals have asked since the early days of commercial computing.

However, the key difference I see, is that many of our customers have had to adjust the way business is conducted from in-person or analog means, to primarily digital means. Customers also have to face that in order to keep its employees and the rest of the community safe, the workforce will most likely stay considerably more distributed than before. And, finally, leveraging data to gain insight and generate innovation should be a primary business goal for leaders. And it is this last point that I feel so grateful for the team around me. They are indispensable to building the necessary data infrastructure that best serves our customers to store, protect, move, and distribute data, enabling them to do their best work.

And finally, to our customers…

You, our customers, inspire us to do our best every day. You allow us to scale with you, innovate with you, and most importantly, succeed with you.

Everyone who has shown their ingenuity, innovation, and resourcefulness in ensuring that we have a brighter tomorrow, no matter what, have inspired me to no end. I am honored to be an Amazonian, and even prouder of all the Amazonians around the world.

Be safe, and stay healthy!

[1] IDC Market Spotlight, Sponsored by AWS, Cloud Storage Adoption: From Cost Optimization to Agility and Innovation, Doc. #US46772420 September 2020.