What is Amazon S3?

What is Amazon S3?
(Image credit: Image Credit: Pixabay)

Amazon S3 is the foundational product in the Amazon Web Services lineup. Well-known and well-regarded, it is the bedrock for most of the Amazon cloud computing services available. Without it, many web applications we use would not function, including Amazon.com itself.

To understand what S3 is and what it does, it’s important to start at the beginning and define the concept of object storage. Unlike the files stored on your own laptop, which use a hierarchical block storage system invented decades ago, Amazon Simple Storage Service (or S3) uses object storage which stores data as an independent object. An object can store related metadata and an object identifier. With object storage, there are not the same limitations in terms of reliability, speed, storage location, or flexibility as traditional file storage.

With S3, cloud storage is not only possible but provides a high level of functionality for Big Data analysis using a data lake, incredibly complex social media apps like Facebook, vast data warehousing initiatives at research institutions, data modeling at companies like Ford to develop materials used in cars, and mobile app development to run on a wide variety of devices for millions of users, and e-commerce platforms like Amazon.com.

Introduced in 2006, Amazon S3 made waves right away because of how flexible it is for a wide range of industries. The health care sector can trust that it is secure, reliable and meets compliance regulations for storing electronic health records. Big Data companies can rely on the fact that it is robust enough to handle massive quantities of data at Petabyte scale. Automakers can rely on S3 because it has the performance required in a highly competitive market to manage and track data of all forms. Universities and even government entities using S3 don’t have to worry about uptime or security issues. Large corporations know that S3 is capable of scaling to meet user demand, which can fluctuate widely based on user trends and market needs.

In short, S3 became one of the founding technologies for the Internet, e-commerce, web applications, social media, Big Data analytics, data discovery, mobile apps on your smartphone, Internet of Things devices in the connected home, business dashboards, and just about any other tech trend you can think of -- and a few you might not even know about.

S3 is also reliable. Amazon states that the service provides “the eleven 9s” of reliability (or 99.999999999% uptime), which meets the demands of any mission-critical application. It’s no wonder that Netflix, Airbnb, Pinterest, Dropbox, Reddit, and thousands of other services use S3 and would potentially not even exist if it wasn’t for the cloud storage product.

Benefits of Amazon S3

In some ways, Amazon S3 is such an important product for cloud computing that it can help you understand the benefits of the cloud itself, not just this Amazon product. It all starts with scalability. Any user can sign up for S3 for free and start using object storage for a simple in-house app you build over lunch. The console is not designed only for developers and computer scientists, and the service is not meant only for massive companies to process massive amounts of data. Even startups can sign-up and use Amazon S3, gaining access to a platform that provides 5GB of storage, 20,000 “get” requests for an app, and 2,000 “put” requests without having to build a data center. (The “put” and “get” terms have to do with how object storage works -- they refer to the data upload and download functions.)

In fact, while S3 can work with an existing data center, it doesn’t require that you have any IT infrastructure in place -- no servers, no memory, no storage allocations. Amazon S3 works within the Amazon ecosystem with services like Amazon Glacier (for long-term back-ups) or Amazon Cloudfront (for distributing content securely).

For that startup with one app using the base level S3 object storage allocation, it is possible to then scale up with S3 to handle massive growth -- even becoming the next Facebook or Instagram app. As with cloud computing in general, there are no limitations in terms of lacking the needed infrastructure, performance capability, or security requirements.

As your needs change, and as your data needs evolve, you don’t need to suddenly build a data center and learn about server configuration and storage arrays. Related to this are the benefits of usability, cost structures, security, networking, performance -- in short, S3 matches up with all of the typical cloud computing benefits to handle growth in users and your own needs.

As your business changes, S3 keeps pace without requiring that your staff build out a storage infrastructure, add more servers and storage, or even deal with any of the typical IT-related complexities that come with a complex, technology-enabled project.

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.