How the Amazon Silk browser works

How the Amazon Silk browser works
Amazon's Silk browser does much of its processing in the cloud

Innovation is often a slow process. Companies take a few fumbling steps, invent minor new technologies, and sometimes put them together into a new product.

With Amazon Silk, the new browser that will debut on the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, the innovation is that part of the processing occurs on the handheld device but most of the heavy-lifting is done on a massive cluster of computers, an existing platform called Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud).

So how does it work? Jon Jenkins, the director of Amazon Silk, told TechRadar that every page request is analysed in a split second to "dynamically determine a division of labour". That means analysing every web component: the HTML files, the CSS, the JavaScript, and even the layout and design of the page.

Silk splits these chores, sometimes by percentages (40% handled by the phone, 60% handled by the cloud), and also looks at network speed, the page complexity, and cached content.

Few companies could pull this off - Amazon currently has 450 billion stored objects in its cloud database. But the real innovation is how the device is intelligently connected to this cloud - it's not just a split of content between local storage and the cloud, says Jenkins, but an intelligent management of all the web components, in split seconds, to speed up browsing.

Kindle Fire browsing speed

Amazon has not released any data about how much faster the Kindle Fire will run for web browsing. And, there are some questions about privacy (since the sites you visit will be analysed routinely and some data will be processed on Amazon servers) as well as how Silk will handle complex pages.

We asked Jenkins specifically about a complex page at our colleagues' site, which is good example because of its rich Adobe Flash content, advertising, and scripts.

For a typical page, there are 58 files to download from about 13 domains for a total of about 450K per page. (That figure does not include the streaming files such as audio clips or videos that do not download automatically.)

Silk handles this complex page in a unique way. Most browsers, including the one you are using to read this, will handle a block of browser requests at the same time, but will wait to handle any additional processing until the first request is complete, says Jenkins.

That's why a page might load slowly, especially if some of the information has to be processed from another site. Silk's innovation is that all of the page requests are handled at the same time and parsed out to the cloud.

Local vs cloud

Another interesting trick: Silk keeps track of this parsing. Jenkins says Silk can keep track of how the processing worked for, say, the last 100,000 users - that in all cases, the same logo header was downloaded and that the page did not change this routine. When you visit using the browser, Silk might decide to use a "smart push" and send you that logo header to speed up browsing even further.

Even with Flash files, Jenkins says Silk intelligently analyses the content and can decide if it would be faster to run a Flash file locally or in the cloud, depending on the content.

So what happens if you connect in a low bandwidth area? Jenkins says Silk will respond in kind, pushing most content processing out to the cloud and relying even more on smart push.

Some people might wonder about whether Silk compromises on privacy. After all, if you visit a hacker site or a BitTorrent repository using the Silk browser, Amazon is splitting out these files. Some of them will be processed and tracked by the browser. Jenkins says all of the data processing occurs in aggregate - Amazon does not keep a record of your identity and which pages you visit.

Of course, that doesn't mean Silk won't track your IP address. The browser obviously knows which IP you are using to request the page load, and must keep track of this data in order to understand how many people are accessing a page and whether to push some content. As for the actual speed increases, we won't know that until we write our Kindle Fire review on 15 November.

John Brandon

John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.