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What is Amazon EC2?

What is Amazon EC2?
(Image credit: Panumas Nikhomkhai / Pexels)

What if you could pay by the second for all of your computing needs? That’s a question Amazon has answered by offering Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) since it launched way back in 2006.

Easily one of the most well-known service offerings from Amazon (perhaps second only to  Simple Storage Service or even Amazon.com), EC2 provides an IT infrastructure that runs in the cloud and operates like a data center you have running at your own headquarters. It’s ideal for companies that need performance, flexibility, and power all at the same time.

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EC2 is relatively easy to define, but it also has many related services, product offerings, and partners that can seem overwhelming. At its core, EC2 is a service that allows you to rent a virtual server remotely for running your applications. It’s much more than that, of course -- which is why it’s important to define a few related terms as a way to describe EC2 and its value.

One term that is helpful to understand initially is instance. This word describes a single virtual computing environment made up of CPU, memory, cloud storage, and networking capacity. In the old days, Information Technology personnel might have used an entire server to run applications, but it’s better to understand cloud computing and EC2 in terms of an instance because it runs on a virtual server -- essentially, one portion that is provisioned for your applications.

A second important term related to EC2 is Amazon Machine Image (AMI). This is the provisioned part of a virtual computing environment -- essentially a preconfigured template you use as part of your virtual infrastructure. You could say the computing instance runs on top of the AMI. Once you have an instance configured for the AMI, it means you have defined the computing power, storage, memory, and networking you need.

As you might guess, an instance can run more than a business app for employees and more than a mobile app that runs on an iPhone. An instance is flexible enough to run just about anything. The word “elastic” in the name Elastic Compute Cloud is really all about the flexibility and scalability of the environment and is also related to the pay model. As mentioned at the outset, EC2 is elastic in the sense that you pay only for the compute instances you use.

An instance can contain web applications, mobile apps, a cloud database and the data used by your apps, the configuration files for a Big Data project, code libraries, and even the configuration for your computing environment. How you define and use the computing environment is up to you, and it’s not limited in terms of what you can run, for how long, the size of the applications, or even whether you run the application on the instance at all. This type of flexibility in how you start using EC2, what you can do, and how you can scale is what makes it so powerful.

Benefits of using EC2

In business, there’s a concept called “lift,” which is a good descriptor for why EC2 has become so popular and powerful. Lift is the idea that you can scale and reach more customers without as much friction. In the end, what EC2 ultimately provides for any company is lift. It’s the ability to scale and grow without having to wait for the technology to keep up.

With Amazon EC2, any discussion about the benefits and advantages has to start with the cloud itself. In some ways, EC2 and the cloud are synonymous these days -- with apologies to Google, Microsoft, and many other cloud-focused companies. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that companies like Netflix, Airbnb, User, and Pinterest might not exist if they weren’t using EC2, or that they would at least exist in some other form or without the same reliability.

That’s because EC2 has flexibility and scalability, but also a long list of features, partner relationships, supported infrastructures, security, and reliability. One example of this is the service level agreement for EC2. Amazon guarantees 99.99% availability spread out over three separate zones according to the region where you are using it.

Another example of the computing power available is that there are 275 instance types available. These types are defined by pre-configured templates, so there might be an instance type that is optimized for networking speed, memory capacity, or server performance.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits -- apart from the scaling and flexibility, the cost structure, and the instance types available -- is that any company can get started on EC2, not just the massive companies with enterprise-level needs. Even a small startup can sign up to start using EC2 and create only a single instance for their new web application. There’s no partiality in terms of who can use EC2 and what you can accomplish with it.