AWS is driving cloud transformation in India with a focus on developer community-building initiatives and engagement with startups. In an interaction with NFAPost N V Vijayakumar, AWS India Global Enterprise Head Chandra Balani explains how AWS is building AWS User Groups and AWS Heroes as part of the increasing focus on developing the cloud ecosystem in India and building initiatives with the participation of tech enthusiasts from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in the country.
Could you give me an overview of how re:Invent has transformed the landscape, and how developers throughout the globe got more of an overview of your activities? Please take us through those announcements and what is happening in India, on the ground.
Chandra Balani : Sure, but before that, let me quickly introduce myself. I’m based in Hyderabad, I head the global enterprise business for AWS in India, where we work with our top global customers who have a sizeable presence in India. We have thousands of developers and technologists sitting in India. So my charter and my team’s charter, is to delight them and provide them with the same experience that they get globally. We help them in their innovation and transformation journey.
I’ve been with AWS now for more than seven years and joined in 2013. And before this role, I was taking care of geographic expansion for AWS in India and started the business for AWS in Hyderabad, then in Kolkata, which is covering the East, then Pune for the rest of the Maharashtra business and now we’ve also expanded to Gujarat, in Ahmedabad. The idea is to give a local presence for developers and customers to ensure that they get to use AWS Cloud.
Before I go to the re:Invent announcements, I just wanted to first share with you what we’re doing from a developer ecosystem perspective. We have AWS User Groups, which are created by AWS users. We have 20 user groups today in India, including additional user groups – one each in Sri Lanka, Nepal and two in Bangladesh. They typically use Meetup as a platform to engage with each other. Meetup.com also has a partnership with WeWork. So prior to the lockdown, any physical meetings were also done using WeWork as well as through other customers who were offering their premises for meetups. And from an India perspective, we have Meetups as I said in 18 cities, not just metros, but even in tier two cities like Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar, Coimbatore, Jaipur, Kochi, Pune, Ranchi, Surat, Vadodara, and Trivandrum as well.
In which city was the first user group started?
The first AWS User Group in India started in Bengaluru in 2011. There is also an online User Group, which is pan India User Group, especially in the virtual times that we live in. These are User Groups that are created by passionate cloud enthusiasts who believe in community learning.
We support those who are keen to start communities in their cities and towns if it is not already available. We have this programme called AWS Heroes. AWS Heroes are some of the leaders who are enthusiastic to share learnings and content; they organise and build a lot of content, and they also create social media blogs. They are active participants in these communities, so we recognise them as AWS Heroes – worldwide we have about 200 plus AWS Heroes.
In APAC there are about 58, and, we have 11 AWS Heroes in India that are helping us in our community efforts. It’s a very structured programme, where we recognise and honour the most engaged and influential developers who have a significant impact. It also provides the Heroes with a place to tell their story and connect with like-minded developers. Essentially, through this engagement, developers can learn from their peers about the services of AWS, which can be used in multiple ways, with customers that they are part of. So they get to share with each other some of the best practices in AWS Cloud.
Heroes by themselves, play an active role… some of them even build podcasts and videos and tutorials, they even work on some open-source projects and share those on GitHub, including code samples. They also speak at some of our tech events worldwide. They answer questions on AWS forums or sites like Stack Overflow. So essentially, what we look for are developers with high enthusiasm to engage the community, and they bring in their expertise to keep up on top of all the trends that are happening at AWS, build relationships and strengthen the ties in the community.
Do you also have Developer Advocates?
Developer Advocates are AWS evangelists working at AWS. For community programmes, we have AWS Heroes and Community Builders. AWS evangelists are AWS employees, whereas AWS Heroes could be working with any AWS customer or partner, in any organisation. AWS Heroes are the ones who are creating these communities.
Talking about community, we used to conduct AWS Community Days in an offline format in various cities, which were driven by the community, for the community. In some of the Community Days, we saw 800-900 people participating in the physical format as well. Those were completely designed end to end by the AWS User Group participants as well as AWS Heroes.
In October 2020, we ran a virtual AWS Community Day in India. This was the biggest AWS Community Day that we ran in India, it was a two-day affair. We had 23,000 registrations and goes to show you the kind of enthusiasm that is there among developers for AWS. We had Jeff Barr, who’s our Chief Evangelist giving the keynote. The rest of the sessions were driven by the community members, there were twelve technical sessions, and day two also had hands-on workshops. The hands-on workshops were on serverless, containers, machine learning, among others.
The entire AWS Community Day was end-to-end driven and designed by AWS Heroes and community members. More than 60% of registrations for the AWS Community Day in India were from people based outside of tier I cities. We had registrations from 410 cities and towns in India. That shows the reach of AWS developers in the Indian market.
The beauty of AWS Cloud is that all you need is internet connection and a willingness to learn. So depending upon wherever you are, doesn’t matter which town or remote city you are in, you can start learning and engage with the community. In previous years, we used to sponsor all the AWS Heroes to AWS re:Invent as well. They get to be part of AWS re:Invent, see all the announcements and network, real time. Last year, given that AWS re:Invent was virtual, we gave them a VR headset and created a city environment through virtual reality. Using this, they interacted with all the AWS Heroes worldwide and took part in AWS re:Invent.
How is the current developer ecosystem functioning in alignment with our current academia in India? Do you have a game plan to come up with an industry-ready module – so that they can learn faster? You already seem to have a few people trained on a few things – but how do you plan to train freshers as a community of people – do you have any game plan on that?
We have a program called AWS Educate, where we work with education institutions to enable students to develop skills in cloud computing. AWS Educate was launched in India in early 2017 with the aim of upskilling students with the latest advancements in cloud computing technology and providing them with an environment to experiment on AWS Cloud, without worrying about cost or access challenges. Tens of thousands of students at higher education institutions in India have already acquired cloud computing skills through AWS Educate, since its launch.
As part of our developer ecosystem, we also have an AWS Educate Student Ambassador Program. Similar to AWS Heroes, we have student ambassadors who also spread the knowledge of cloud computing and help create the ecosystem of AWS among the students.
Compared with the other geographies, how is the developer ecosystem and customer base in India prospering? Can you give me some highlights on that?
A comparison might be difficult – but what can be said is that India is a very heavy tech-focused country now. From what I see, the engagement of developers is really high and the awareness is also very high. We put in a lot of effort in ensuring that all the programs and services that are there are spread across the ecosystem. And then there are multiple use cases across industries, and across customers that exist.
We have enterprises who use AWS, financial services customers like HDFC Life, RBL Bank, we have ISVs like Druva, we have startups, and SMBs make use of the AWS too. Across verticals, you will see customers like Hotstar and SonyLiv running on AWS.
We have customers in healthcare as Andy shared in the keynote – Moderna who’s building their COVID-19 vaccine using AWS, and there is Pfizer, Novartis, Cerner who are globally using AWS. We had an announcement from BMW a couple of days ago, where they are transforming on AWS with plans to enable 5000 developers and engineers. Across verticals we see various use cases being run on AWS.
Can you shed some light on any unique contribution from India, which made global headlines among your global team?
When it comes to global customers, the unique thing about them is that India plays a major role from a technology perspective. I will not be able to call out specifically what was done separately from India, but what is common among most of the global customers is that India has a good impact on whatever gets created, and with regard to new products or services which are launched globally.
From a tech perspective and from an AWS perspective from global customers, who have huge workforce in India, India plays an important role. It’s difficult to segregate what was driven from India but whatever gets driven globally, India plays an important role in that.
There are a lot of areas in which developers are working. Can you highlight or call out the areas in which developers are the most interested, whether it is IoT or Kubernetes? Can you give me some light on that – security, enterprise adoption – or some other areas that developers are more interested in?
The trend we are seeing is that enterprises are looking to transform and they are looking to migrate to Cloud and working with AWS in their transformation. As part of this transformation, one important piece that is happening is that they are also going through modernization.
It’s not just the lift and shift – sometimes it’s like the first step wherein they migrate to ensure that they have more time to focus on the transformation and the innovation given that they’ve migrated. But post that, they look to use cloud-native services, especially in the areas of containers as well as serverless and also some of our managed services.
What we have been helping customers with is a methodology called six R’s in terms of migration. Six R’s essentially stands for Re-host – Re-host is essentially lifted and shift, then Re-platform, where customers make tweaks to utilize cloud services, for example, managed database services like Amazon Aurora, which brings in cost advantage and scale advantage too. The next is Re-architect where use cloud services like serverless and containers and other managed services. Apart from that we have Re-purchase wherein customers use some of the SaaS services like Workday for HR, or Salesforce for CRM, which are deployed on AWS, and then the fifth R is Retire. As part of that exercise, what we’ve also seen is customers tend to look at what services and applications are not required at all, and they see a percentage of applications that they are able to retire and able to save costs on. Then there are a few applications which need to be retained for the time being as it may not be the right time for them to be migrated, so the sixth R is Retain. These are some of the ways we help our customers in ensuring that they have a well-planned migration on AWS Cloud and they are able to utilize all the benefits.
So, you organised your first AWS Community Day in India in Bangalore in 2017, after that it got wider and gained a lot more attention. So how have these events in Bangalore and Hyderabad helped grow developer engagement across India? Is there some light that you want to throw on that?
Once the first AWS User Group was created in Bangalore, this helped people in understanding that this is a concept where they can learn from each other. The next wave started in additional cities like Hyderabad, Delhi, and Mumbai – basically the tier-one cities. And as these groups became bigger, cloud enthusiasts realised that they can create user groups in their cities as well and ensure that peer to peer learning is happening. We support them to create AWS User Groups in their cities and towns. So far we have 20 AWS User Groups, and we will be happy to support cloud enthusiasts to create an AWS User Group in their city or town if it is not already there.
What is the size of this community approximately and the growth rate registered over a period of time? How big is it expected to get by 2022?
The AWS community in India is extensive, growing quite rapidly and taking various shapes and forms. The AWS India User Community is today over 45,000 people strong across these 20 AWS User Groups and is growing at a very fast pace.
Will you reach one lakh by 2022 or before that in 2021?
That’s difficult to predict and I’ll not put a number there. But with a very fast, growing ecosystem of customers, since we have a million plus active customers globally, and hundreds of thousands of APN partners globally, the speed at which customers are adopting, shows us the speed in which the ecosystem is growing as well.
Can you tell us a bit about the recent announcements at re:Invent?
So before I get to the announcements, I just wanted to share the way that we work at AWS. Amazon mission is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. Customer obsession is our number one leadership principle. We work backwards for customers in understanding what is it that they are looking for, and we work backwards from there. About 90% of AWS services are based on direct customer feedback. The rest is our understanding of what they might need.
AWS provides customers and developers with the broadest and the deepest cloud services infrastructure. AWS has more services and more capabilities within each service than any other cloud provider, we have 200 fully-featured services many of which have been announced during AWS re:Invent 2020. The other thing we do is try to reduce the operational burden on developers so that they can focus on what helps them differentiate in their business. All our managed services ensure that they don’t have to spend effort in managing the infrastructure, and they can rather focus on their applications.
I’d also like for you to note the way we keep reducing our prices. Since 2006, ever since AWS started, we have been reducing our prices in the initial years without any competitive pressure as well. We have touched 85 price drops so far. As we keep gaining economies of scale, as we become more efficient, we pass on the savings back to our customers by announcing price drops, which applies to all our customers. As that happens, more customers start realizing that AWS is the way to go, they start using more of AWS and more customers get on-boarded on AWS. And with that, we gain further economies of scale and then we drop our prices further. It’s a virtuous circle that we keep going through and we keep reducing our prices.
In that spirit, let me add a little more detail on some of the announcements that were made at AWS re:Invent 2020. As I said earlier, AWS provides the broadest cloud infrastructure capabilities. If you think about infrastructure, Amazon EC2 instances, we now have 350 plus Amazon EC2 instances, which take care of various types of needs, they are optimized for general purpose, for compute-intensive, memory-intensive and storage-intensive workloads. We have the widest variety from a chipset manufacturer perspective – with Intel, AMD, ARM. AWS is the first cloud provider to Amazon EC2 Mac Instance allowing Apple developers to build and test their Mac OS, iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and watchOS applications. We’ve added an instance type called Habana Gaudi which is optimized for Amazon SageMaker training, in addition to the AWS Inferentia chip that we announced last year.
From a physical infrastructure perspective itself, AWS has 80 Availability Zones across 25 geographic regions, and we have announced plans for 15 more Availability Zones and five more AWS Regions, including a second geographic region in India, which was announced in November 2020.
Continuing with announcements at AWS re:Invent 2020 – we have added more locations for AWS Wavelength, which is a service that utilises 5G networks; we added more locations in the U.S. for AWS Local Zones; we added new form factors of AWS Outposts with one unit and two units, which again adds more use cases that can be built on the Edge. In terms of hybrid cloud, we added Amazon EKS Anywhere and Amazon ECS Anywhere, which help customers to deploy Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS) and Amazon Elastic Containers Service (Amazon ECS) anywhere including their on-premise data centers, so that they can develop on-premise and then using the same distribution, they can deploy it on AWS.
More additions on the database front – we already have Oracle, MS SQL Server with Amazon RDS, and we have Amazon Aurora which gives the same performance as a commercial-grade database at 1/10th of the cost, with Amazon MySQL as well as Amazon PostgreSQL available. Then we added Amazon Aurora Serverless, which ensures auto-scaling on the database and at re:Invent we announced Amazon Aurora Serverless v2 with which essentially can help customers scale to hundreds and thousands of transactions in a fraction of a second. Now, what that does for a customer is that instead of deploying their database for a peak workload, which usually we do, here, they get to do transactions that come in, and it can be scaled up in a fraction of a second, as transactions increase. So, essentially, it helps in bringing the cost down dramatically.
We launched a database migration service a few years ago, which has helped a lot of our customers migrate their database from on-premise to cloud. We also have Amazon Schema migration service as part of that, which helps in migrating Schema from databases with heavy and costly licenses, like Oracle, SQL, Aurora on MySQL and PostgreSQL. During AWS re:Invent 2020 we announced Babelfish, for PostgreSQL, which essentially means that customers who are running Microsoft SQL Server can seamlessly run on Amazon Aurora using Babelfish. So all these announcements add up in terms of the broadest and the deepest choices that we are giving to our customers. Also from a storage perspective, we added Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS) Gp3 version which comes with 3000 IOPS, so, huge improvement in performance there. We also announced the Amazon EBS iO2 Block Express, which is for heavy duty applications like SAP and a few others, which comes with 256,000 IOPS.
There have been a lot of additions in terms of services for our customers, giving them the choices and right tools to run the kind of workload that they would want. From an operational performance perspective, we launched Amazon DevOps Guru, which uses machine learning to add the operational performance of the application and give suggestions on improving availability. In a nutshell, there have been a lot of announcements across infrastructure, across the services, and then there are quite a few around Amazon SageMaker as well.
The Government of India has announced a lot of programmes and projects. So, how is AWS aligning with the community development program in accordance with all these government initiatives and big projects?
We have a team in India that is focused only on the government, which is the AWS Public Sector team. They focus on all those elements around helping the government. So, I’m not a specialist on this. MeitY has already empaneled AWS Cloud to run public sector workloads, and several government customers that are using AWS Cloud.
Is there any other point you want to highlight which we haven’t been able to discuss?
So I would just like to recap, from an AWS perspective, we provide customers and developers the broadest and the deepest cloud services infrastructure. All the services and announcements that you heard of are from the fact that we work backwards from our customers and 90% of all our services are built from the direct feedback from our customers. We work towards reducing our costs on a regular basis. From a community perspective, we support AWS users in the User Groups and also have the AWS Heroes program and of course, AWS Community Days. We definitely encourage users to learn from their peers – if any of your readers are not part of these user groups we’d definitely encourage them to sign up.