It's Time to Start Thinking of Amazon as a Transportation Company

The company just unveiled a huge data-hauling semi-truck called Snowmobile, following plans for cargo planes and of course, delivery drones.
December 1, 2016, 3:00pm
Amazon's new Snowmobile data truck. Image: Amazon

Amazon's newest toy is here, just in time for the holidays. Nope, it's not a drone. It's not taking flight at all, although it's in the cargo business. It's a 45-foot-long shipping container that hauls a million gigabytes of your precious data.

Dubbed Snowmobile, the truck stores up to 100 petabytes of data (a petabyte is 1 million gigabytes), allowing it to move exabytes (billions of gigabytes) to Amazon Web Services "in a matter of weeks." It's in the family of Amazon's smaller-scale data transfer project Snowball, which moves less-massive amounts of data via an appliance sent through regional carriers.

It rolled onto the stage at the Las Vegas re:Invent 2016 conference to the electric synth-guitar licks of a professional wrestler's entrance music:

AWS's latest answer to physically haul huge amts of data: a huge truck dubbed the 'snowmobile.' Angel GonzalezNovember 30, 2016

And despite the comically flashy unveiling, Amazon appears to be offering this idea as a serious business, writing on an FAQ page: "Snowmobile jobs cost $0.005/GB/month based on the amount of provisioned Snowmobile storage capacity and the end to end duration of the job, which starts when a Snowmobile departs an AWS data center for delivery to the time when data ingestion into AWS is complete."

As for how that job looks: one (or more) of these big rigs backs it up to your data center, plugs-in with a fiber connection, glug-glugs your financial data, millions of feature-length films, scads of scientific data (or whatever you've got hoarded), and trucks it away to one of Amazon's cloud storage services. This process cuts what would be a years or decades-long transfer over the Internet down to weeks.

The trailer is equipped with GPS tracking, is waterproof, climate-controlled, and comes with a security escort vehicle and guards to watch over your transfer. It takes 10 days to fill the truck, but Amazon will supply security in case someone tries to pull off a physical heist of your data.

The truck is just the latest in a series of announcements that have Amazon looking more like a transportation business than a mere online retailer. Shipping costs have long been Amazon's "big albatross," as Marc Wulfraat, president of logistics consulting firm MWPVL International, which follows Amazon closely told Motherboard last year: "They're always looking for ways to bring that under control."

Considering how Uber's self-driving truck subsidiary Otto showed off its own machismo-loaded autonomous rig last month, and given with Amazon's interest in intelligent mapping systems and autonomous delivery via drone, it's not hard to see where this project might one day end up. Amazon could be the Uber of cargo instead of people, and increasingly, that cargo is digital data. But for now at least, humans will still be at the wheel.

Correction: This story originally incorrectly implied that 100 petabytes is equivalent to 1 million gigabytes. In fact, it is equivalent to 100 million gigabytes. We've since updated the reference and regret the confusion.

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