A Deep Dive into Amazon Web Services

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Entering E-Commerce Service

Amazon's E-Commerce Service provides facilities that turn you (or, rather, your Web site) into a reseller for Amazon's merchandise. Others will turn Amazon into a reseller for your merchandise. Still others let you employ the same payment authentication and collection system that Amazon uses. In short, the Amazon E-Commerce Service enables an organization to tap into the e-business facilities that Amazon uses 24/7 to operate its own affairs.

Amazon Flexible Payment Service (FPS). Amazon's FPS lets users tap into the company's existing payments collection infrastructure (for a fee, of course). The idea of FPS is particularly attractive when you read that it will "take on the complexity of managing security and fraud protection" so that you don't have to.

Two aspects of FPS are especially interesting. First, it supports micropayments, those that involve cents -- or even fractional cents. This is useful when business activities involve piles and piles of transactions, each having little monetary value, but the sum of which has measurable value. Imagine selling bubblegum for 10 cents. That doesn't seem like much -- unless you're selling, say, 100,000 pieces a month. Amazon FPS lets you aggregate micropayments into a single transaction, thus eliminating the problem of transaction costs swamping whatever profits the transactions involve.

FPS's other interesting aspect is its support for "middleman" operations. That is, you can facilitate a transaction in which you participate neither as a sender (buyer) or recipient (seller). You can, however, take a cut of the action.

There are two ways to employ FPS in your Web application: using an Amazon-supplied "widget" (of which there are two), or hard-coding an interface. The two available widgets are Pay Now and Marketplace (both designed to be easily added to a Web site's UI).

Amazon has automated the creation of Pay Now widgets. Connect to the online Pay Now Widgets Implementation Guide, and it walks you through the process of building a widget by prompting for various parameters (for example, the destination URL after the payment has been placed), then generates the HTML that you cut and paste into your Web site's code. The Marketplace widget lets you act as a third party between buyer and seller. In essence, it turns you into an instant reseller. You can use a MarketPlace Widget to let sellers do business on your Web site and pay you for the privilege.

The hard-coded approach is more difficult, but more flexible, as it enables any application that can communicate with a Web service to tap into FPS. You have to express the parameters and processes for payment transactions in a specialized mini-language called Gatekeeper. Once you've done that, you install those instructions into the Amazon FPS, which returns a token that is essentially a handle to the Gatekeeper code. Future transactions that employ that token are shepherded by your Gatekeeper program. Details for this process can be found in the online Amazon FPS Technical Documentation.

Amazon DevPay. Suppose you've written an amazing application that runs in Amazon EC2. You're convinced that people would be willing to pay you to use your application. Enter the Amazon DevPay Service.

Amazon DevPay is built on the same payment management infrastructure as Amazon FPS. But DevPay -- as its name attests -- is designed specifically to let developers charge for the use of their EC2- or S3-based applications.

Interaction with DevPay takes place via tokens (unique identifiers). One token identifies your application; the other identifies a specific user allowed to employ your application. The first, the product token, is generated by Amazon when you register your product with DevPay. That token, combined with a user's activation key (created when the user signs up with AWS), is implemented during product installation to generate credentials that include the second token, the user token. Your product embeds these tokens in service calls it makes to AWS, and in that way, DevPay tracks your application's usage by a given customer.

When you register your application with DevPay, you establish how your application is priced. Users can be billed on a metered (pay for what they use) basis, they can be charged monthly, or they can pay a one-time up-front fee. Of course, you have to be careful how you structure your billing. While your clients pay you for the use of your application, you must pay Amazon for the use of its services. So, at the very least, you have to make sure that your customers pay you more than you pay Amazon. Unfortunately, Amazon does not provide a sandbox for testing your application's integration with DevPay, so you have to do your testing with real money. Fortunately, the cost of Amazon services is low enough that this is not a substantial problem.

Amazon Associates and Amazon Fulfillment Web Service (FWS). Anyone who has clicked through a site to order something from Amazon has used Amazon Associates: It's the service that lets you sell Amazon stuff from your Web site. You get a percentage -- a referral fee -- for each sale. There is not much more to be said about Amazon Associates.

A more interesting Amazon e-commerce service, however, is a remarkable kind of inverse of Amazon Associates: Amazon Fulfillment Web Service. With FWS, instead of your selling Amazon stuff, Amazon sells your stuff. Not only that, but Amazon will also warehouse, package, and ship your stuff.

FWS is actually two Web services: inbound and outbound. You use the inbound system to inform Amazon of incoming shipments bound to their warehouse. When a customer orders one of your products, you use the outbound service to inform Amazon of the sale. Based on the details of the order, Amazon packages and ships the product, and even provides tracking information that you and your customer can use to monitor the shipment's status.

Of course, there are warehousing and handling fees involved, but it's a compelling model. A small company, unable to afford warehousing and shipping costs, can "virtualize" those components with Amazon FWS, until that company is large enough to provide them for itself. And any developer interested in exploring the mechanics of the inbound and outbound services will be happy to discover that Amazon has provided "scratchpad" applications -- tools that let you exercise simulations of the services.

Mechanical Turk. Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a peculiar service. (It is difficult to categorize; I have listed it with the other e-commerce services.) Its name comes from the famous 18th-century robotic chess player invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen. The robot, however, was no robot; inside the machine was a human chess player who operated the mechanism, unbeknownst to the human opponent. The idea of Mechanical Turk, then, is an automated front end, behind whose machinery hides a human.

Only, in this case, it's not just one human; there're lots. Whereas EC2 provides an elastic cloud of computers, Mechanical Turk provides an elastic cloud of humans. But this analogy goes only so far; the computers in EC2 are virtual, the humans of Mechanical Turk are not.

Here's how it works. Suppose you have a big pile of identical tasks that must be performed by humans. Perhaps you have a large quantity of text files that must be translated from one language to another. In the world of Mechanical Turk, you are a requester; you submit your tasks to the Mechanical Turk service, which places them on a kind of global bulletin board. Using that same service, workers log onto this bulletin board, select tasks, perform them, and post the results back to the service. Later you return to the Mechanical Turk, review the posted results, select those that are acceptable, and release funds to pay the workers. In short, the Mechanical Turk service is a middleman between employers and employees.

When I first read Mechanical Turk's description, I thought it was a great idea. It may yet be, but if my perusal of the tasks that are available is any indication, this is not a way to make any appreciable amount of money. Most of the HITS ("Human Intelligence Task," referring to a unit of work) posted paid mere pennies, and reading some of the descriptions gave me the uneasy feeling that workers would be used as human spam-bots.

It is possible that, in the future, Mechanical Turk will become a marketplace of decent work for reasonable money. For now, though, I am confident that I can make more money in less time -- and do more good -- by mowing the old lady's lawn next door.

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