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12/18/2008
01:15 PM
John Foley
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Chief Of The Year: Amazon CTO Werner Vogels

Amazon's external-facing CTO is helping to devise a cloud computing architecture with customer requirements built-in.

Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon -- InformationWeek's Chief of the Year for 2008 -- Photo by Brian Smale
Werner Vogels
CTO, Amazon

InformationWeek's
Chief of the Year
for 2008

Photo by Brian Smale
From an eighth-floor conference room at Amazon.com's headquarters on Beacon Hill, with an expansive view of downtown Seattle to the north, Werner Vogels contemplates how large companies might use cloud computing. He points to system automation and "autoscaling" beyond what IT departments have implemented internally. He envisions "partner clouds" of shared IT resources, data, and applications. He even suggests FedEx could one day run its vital package-tracking application in the cloud.

"For most of these things, it's really Day 1," says Amazon's bearish CTO--he's 6 feet, 5 inches tall--dressed, as usual, in gray and black.

If we're on the cusp of the computer industry's next major architecture, the one beyond client-server, Vogels has played a key role in getting us to this point. A former researcher in Cornell University's computer science department, where he specialized in large-scale distributed systems, Vogels joined Amazon in 2004 to help the e-retailer design and scale its IT infrastructure to handle workloads many times Amazon's own. "Amazon was reaching a point where they needed to rethink how they were building their software--what scale really meant, what reliability really meant," he says.

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The overhaul was required to support the emerging Amazon Web Services business, which over the past four years has come to represent the state of the art in on-demand, pay-as-you-go computing. With a user ID and a credit card, application developers and others can provision servers, storage, and other IT infrastructure with unprecedented ease.

Vogels' name and face are often associated with Amazon's cloud, but AWS isn't a one-man show. Senior VP Andy Jassy conceived the business model five years ago and has had his hand at the wheel ever since. VP Charlie Bell is the lead technical manager of AWS. VP Adam Selipsky is the liaison to the 440,000 developers who have signed up so far. Vogels, Bell, and Selipsky report to Jassy, and Amazon balked at our suggestion that one of them could be singled out. But we did it anyway, selecting Vogels as InformationWeek's Chief of the Year, our highest editorial honor. Here's why.

Amazon's 50-year-old CTO has emerged as the right person at the right time and place to guide cloud computing--until now, an emerging technology for early adopters--into the mainstream. He not only understands how to architect a global computing cloud consisting of tens of thousands of servers, but also how to engage CTOs, CIOs, and other professionals at customer companies in a discussion of how that architecture could potentially change the way they approach IT.

Amazon aspires to be "the earth's most customer-centric company." Vogels' job description as "an external-facing technologist" isn't just consistent with that mission statement, it's cutting edge. Too many CIOs, CTOs, and IT organizations as a whole remain internally focused. They get treated like a cost center because they are a cost center--they don't venture outside their organizations. Vogels, in contrast, is constantly on the road talking with customers about what Amazon can do to address their computing needs in its data centers, then reporting back to the rest of the AWS team with ideas on how to make that happen. If you think Vogels' situation is different because he works for a "vendor," think again. CIOs and CTOs in a variety of industries must get better at articulating the business value of their technology to customers. Vogels even talks about Amazon building a "customer-oriented architecture."

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"Everybody has a lot of questions," says Thorsten von Eicken, CTO of RightScale, a startup with a management platform for AWS and other cloud services, and a former colleague of Vogels at Cornell. Vogels, he says, can both "explain the vision" of cloud computing and dive into the technical minutia.

If all goes as planned, Amazon's cloud will serve as an extension of corporate data centers for new applications and overflow capacity, so-called cloud bursting. Over time, Amazon will then take on more and more of the IT workload from businesses that see value in the model. Customer-centric? What Amazon's doing goes beyond that. Amazon's cloud becomes their cloud; its CTO, their CTO.

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