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Bezos: Don't build Web sites like rockets

They can send a man to the moon, how come they can't keep a Web service online?

HALF MOON BAY, Calif.--At the Fortune Brainstorm 2008 conference here on Monday, David Kirkpatrick asked Jeff Bezos about the origins of Amazon.com's Web Services. "We were building these services for ourselves," Bezos said, when Amazon came up with the idea to "harden the interfaces" between interdependent services. Bezos said the idea was to make interaction between services "coarse-grained instead of fine-grained." Loosening the links between services allowed individual groups to innovate and change without fear of breaking the rest of the Amazon infrastructure.

Jeff Bezos, rocket man. Rafe Needleman / CNET

This concept, Bezos said in response to a question from Kirkpatrick about his space exploration company Blue Origin, does not apply to rockets. "It's harder to get APIs" for rockets, Bezos joked, before getting more serious. You change one variable, and everything else changes. Change your propellant, then you have to change engines, which changes the center of gravity, which takes you back to the drawing board. Bezos said this kind of tight integration is necessary because so many components of a space vehicle are operating at the very edge of their performance. The corollary, of course, is that most Web services are not.

Still, obviously, the "hardened" design of Amazon Web Services is not a panacea. Many of the AWS products went offline Sunday. From the audience, Howard Morgan of First Round Capital opened the topic of regulation for this market, considering how important Web services are becoming to businesses. Morgan compared the Web services market with the regulated electricity market, a comparison Bezos made several times during his talk with Kirkpatrick. But Bezos said that power utilities were regulated since it didn't make sense to run multiple power lines in a city. Web services need to compete on reliability, he said. Perhaps he should put his rocket engineers on the case.

See the rest of our conference coverage here.