The South African who helped build Amazon Web Services with a team of Cape Town engineers

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the world’s top cloud computing platform. It has operations in 24 geographical regions and boasts over 1 million active users in 190 countries.

With $45.3 billion in revenue and $13.5 billion in annual operating profits, it was the biggest contributor to Amazon’s total profit last year.

What many South Africans do not know is that a group of Cape Town engineers played a core part in the success of Amazon Web Services.

The story of AWS starts in 2000 when Amazon wanted to launch an ecommerce-as-a-service platform called Merchant.com to support third-party retailers to build their own online stores.

At the time Amazon was also working on a shared IT platform to help technical teams to rapidly develop new products and services.

Amazon realised that for every new product individual teams always built new resources like databases, compute, and storage. There was no plan to reuse previously developed resources.

Andy Jassy
Andy Jassy

AWS CEO Andy Jassy, who was Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ chief of staff at the time, said they realised it would help to create common infrastructure services to remove duplication when building new applications.

Amazon started to build this shared infrastructure platform and in July 2002 it launched its first web services. It also opened up the Amazon.com platform to all developers.

These new web services were a hit and by 2004 over 100 applications were built on top of the platform. This took Amazon by surprise and encouraged them to invest more into the project.

It is at this time when South African Chris Pinkham entered the fray.

Pinkham was well-known in South Africa’s tech circles for having founded the country’s the first commercial ISP in 1993 – The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa (Ticsa).

After selling the ISP to UUNET in 1996, he took a break which included sailing around the world. He joined Amazon in 2000 to run their network engineering department.

In late 2003, Pinkham and his colleague Benjamin Black presented a paper internally which shared a vision for Amazon’s retail computing infrastructure.

The vision was to create a standardised and automated platform which would partly rely on Amazon’s web services, which were already in the works.

The paper added that access to these virtual servers could be sold as a service to generate revenue from the infrastructure investment.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

The catalyst for this paper was Pinkham’s decision to move back to Cape Town from Seattle. Bezos wanted to keep Pinkham, which led to the discussion about the compute service.

“He asked if I would look into this compute service that was a goal of Amazon at some point in the future,” he said.

“The project was un-staffed and undefined, so with some of the folks that I worked with in Seattle, we put together a proposal which described in very rudimentary terms the first compute service – the elastic compute cloud.”

He received approval to return to South Africa and hire engineers from the Cape Town community to work on the project.

“We did that in late 2004 or early 2005. We had our first engineers on board in the Constantia area in Cape Town,” he said.

This was the genesis of the Amazon presence in South Africa and the team which worked on developing EC2.

Pinkham, with the help of lead developer Christopher Brown and the Cape Town team, successfully developed the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service which now forms a core part of AWS.

EC2 allows users to rent secure and resizable compute capacity in the cloud. It is designed to make web-scale cloud computing easier for developers.

Amazon EC2 was officially launched in August 2006.

Pi Corporation, a startup co-founded by South African Paul Maritz, was the first beta-user of EC2 outside of Amazon. Microsoft was also among EC2’s first enterprise customers.

Pi Corporation founder Paul Maritz
Pi Corporation founder Paul Maritz

Today EC2 offers nearly 400 instances across Amazon Web Services’ 24 regions and 77 availability zones globally.

There is a choice between Intel, AMD, and Arm-based processors and it is the only cloud provider that supports macOS.

Pinkham said EC2 was a pioneering offering as there wasn’t anything quite like it at the time.

“There are now several competitors to Amazon, but that first mover advantage has certainly put it in a leading position,” he said.

The success of EC2 and AWS is clearly seen in its client list, which includes the who’s who in the tech world, including Netflix, Airbnb, Twitch, LinkedIn, Facebook, Adobe, and Twitter.

Pinkham left Amazon in 2006 and after another break – and another sailing trip – he founded infrastructure software startup Nimbula in 2008.

Nimbula was acquired by Oracle in 2013 and its technology now forms the backbone of Oracle’s public and private cloud systems.

In 2015 Pinkham joined Twitter as VP for engineering, a position which he held until 2017.

Chris Pinkham with his yacht Umoya
Chris Pinkham with his yacht Umoya.

Today Pinkham serves as an independent director on the board of Cape Town based financial services company Jumo.

He is also sailing again – this time in his new yacht Umoya.

Now read: 2 South African-born billionaires outperform Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft

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The South African who helped build Amazon Web Services with a team of Cape Town engineers