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The Ultimate, Non-Technical Guide to AWS

Posted on November 7, 2019 by PhilZonaPhilZona

One of the most common questions people ask us is, “Do I need to have an IT background to start using AWS?” The answer is absolutely not. Don’t get me wrong, having a technical background will give you an advantage. Knowing how networking works, and being familiar with the client-server model will help you understand the ins and outs of AWS, but what if you need something even more basic than that? Part of what makes AWS so useful is its technical complexity. But that’s also what can make it so intimidating to learn. We’ve put together this non-technical guide to AWS for those who want to learn the platform, but feel overwhelmed by all the acronyms like EC2 and S3.

AWS in non-technical terms

Amazon Web Services is a managed cloud computing platform. Every service they offer is hosted in one of its data centers, which are organized into regions and availability zones. The cloud is a term that often gets thrown around without much explanation—what happens when you access a cloud service is pretty simple. Your computer connects to one of their computers, which does something, and returns the result to you. In many ways, it’s similar to accessing a website.

The non-technical guide to AWS services

You’ve probably heard about EC2, S3, VPC, and any number of other acronyms. This is one of the reasons many people are hesitant to get into AWS. It just sounds complicated, and if you don’t have an IT background, the obscure service names can be overwhelming. So let’s break down a few of the more common Amazon Web Services and see what they actually do.

IAM

IAM stands for Identity and Access Management, and it allows you to control who has access to what services on your account. This service is incredibly useful for organizations where different members need to access an AWS account, but they don’t all need the same privileges to do their jobs effectively.
Suppose you were the owner of a restaurant with several chefs, waiters, and managers. Each employee gets a badge, which helps you manage their identities. The managers are responsible for making sure the kitchen and dining room both run smoothly, and they also might perform administrative tasks after hours and set things up before the chefs and waiters arrive.

Because of this, the employees need keys to the building. Note that not every chef and waiter needs a key because this increases the chance that one may get lost (not to mention other potential security concerns). By providing keys to the group of managers only, you are managing access.
This is a simplified analogy, but IAM works similarly. By giving your employees ID badges and restricting after-hours building access with keys, you can easily keep track of who does what, and help run your restaurant (or infrastructure) more effectively.

VPC

A VPC, or Virtual Private Cloud, is another critical piece of Amazon Web Services architecture. It acts as a network between your AWS services and instances so you can control what is available both publicly and privately. Networking is a complicated topic, so to simplify it, I’ll borrow an analogy from Tom Haslett, the instructor of Linux Academy’s AWS Essentials course.

Even if you don’t have a technical background, you’ve probably used Facebook. But you don’t need to understand how it works to understand what it does. Think about how Facebook is organized: you have your profile page, and your friends have pages of their own. On each person’s page, they can post statuses, photos, and videos, and they can modify their privacy settings to change whether posts are visible to friends, the public, or certain groups. Each post is stored on Facebook, but the user has control over who can access it.

Your Facebook profile is like your VPC. Your posts and photos are the resources you have, and the privacy settings are different network rules that control who can see them. To provide a “real-world” example, imagine you work for a company with both internal and external websites. The internal site is for employees only, while the external site is for customers. By using different parts of the VPC – such as subnets, gateways, and route tables – you can make sure that only employees on the office network can view the internal site.

S3

S3 is Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, and true to its name, it is pretty simple once you understand it. It uses storage units called “buckets” to organize assets like photos and files. You can even host websites on them, provided the content is relatively simple.
The simplest real-world equivalent to S3 is, well, a storage service. Suppose you start a furniture-making business, and you need to rent a storage unit to retain your remaining inventory. You pay a certain fee per month in exchange for access to that unit, and you can add as much as you like as long as it fits inside. If you want to give someone else access, you can give them a key, and either of you can access the unit whenever you like to move furniture in or out.

One of the main features of S3 is its integration with other Amazon Web Services. For example, if you have a program that generates reports, you can store those reports in an S3 bucket. From there, you can either log in and view them, use another program to do something with them, or set “policies” to move them to long term storage after a certain period of time for record-keeping and compliance.

EC2

EC2 stands for Elastic Compute Cloud. You can think of the EC2 service as a resource that runs applications in an Amazon data center. In other words, it’s a web server, which is a computer that can respond to requests and send back responses.
Believe it or not, I’m old enough to remember ordering things from magazines. This might seem like ancient history, but it’s a pretty good analogy for the way EC2 works. Let’s imagine I’m looking in a magazine and find a shirt for sale. To buy it, I would fill out an order form, mail it to the magazine’s processing department with payment, and a few weeks later, they would mail me a shirt.

EC2, in this example, is the processing department. When they receive an order, someone retrieves the item from the warehouse, places it in a box, and ships it to the buyer. With EC2, the “order” is a request, and the package may be a piece of data or a web page. EC2 is great for running web applications or websites, but it can also be used for hosting code that returns data or performs an action (an API). Nearly every  AWS service can integrate with EC2, and it’s one of the fundamental services Solutions Architects must know.

What about the other services?

AWS has around 100 different services, so this is, by no means, a complete list. But it is a good representation of the common services Solutions Architects use daily. Do they use other ones we didn’t cover? Absolutely. However, this doesn’t mean you need to know every single service inside and out. The point is, even if you’re not sure what a given service does, there is often an analogy to help you understand it. From there, you can figure out how it fits into your architecture. Even certified AWS professionals don’t know everything. And breaking ideas down into more familiar concepts is one of the best ways to learn new technology.

Can non-technical people learn AWS?

The answer is yes, but this is somewhat of a trick question. People often label themselves as “technical people” or “non-technical people.” In reality, this distinction doesn’t exist—at least, not the way most people think it does.
The difference between technical people and non-technical people is in their skills, which are learned over time. If Jimi Hendrix never picked up a guitar, he would not be a guitarist. If Bobby Flay never learned to cook, he would not be a chef. And if the IT person you work with never learned how computers work, there’s a good chance he or she wouldn’t be helping you fix yours.

If you consider yourself a “non-technical” person, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn AWS or start a new career in the tech industry. It just means you have to learn the skills you need first. Starting with an AWS Certification is a great way to get started. Not because of the certification you receive when you pass the exam, but because of the skills, you learn along the way.

Cloud computing and platforms like AWS can seem complex and intimidating. The cryptic service names may not make sense if you don’t know what they stand for (and sometimes even if you do). And this is all the more confusing if you don’t have a technical background. But remember, your background is just your past. With hard work and the right training, you can have a technical presentation. And if you’re determined, put in the effort, and prepare yourself, you can even have a technical future as well.

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1 Comments

Image of Jennifer
Jennifer
2 years ago

This is an excellent article but for credibility you might need one small edit…Axl Rose isn’t a guitarist. He can play, but he’s not good. 🙂 I am fairly skilled with S3 and familiar with the Regions and AZs but this broke it down for me in a way that I think I will retain and be able to access more easily. I loved the analogies. VPC and EC2 explanations were particularly helpful.

Image of PhilZona
PhilZona
2 years ago

Thanks for the kind words, Jennifer. You’re right about Axl Rose…I got so caught up in the metaphor that I used a bad example! I went back and changed it up so my lack of music history knowledge isn’t so obvious 🙂

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