Amazon Web Services Re:invent 2016 Review


I had the opportunity to travel to Las Vegas last week for the AWS re:invent conference. Overall, the experience was positive. I’m glad a couple of us went. We found pieces of infrastructure that we’ll use in the near future, and those will provide enough cost savings and productivity benefits to easily cover the $1200 admission fee.

Las Vegas

First, Las Vegas is a phenomenal location for a conference. The AWS gathering this year had 35,000 people in attendance, and taxi drivers were telling me that was only a medium sized conference for Las Vegas. Almost no other city in the world can handle conferences of this magnitude with ease. Traffic is not affected even with 30,000 developers running around.

That being said, I can only handle the city for short periods of time, and then I need to get out. I don’t know if it’s the bright lights, the loud music in all the elevators, or just the sheer excess and materialism that exists all around you, but after a few days, I start to feel exhausted.

I love Vegas in short bursts, but I don’t know how people live there. They must have routines that allow them to avoid the strip and the tourism most of the time.

Conference Sessions

The quality of the sessions I attended was high. Some of my favorites:

Aurora – Aurora is Amazon’s MySQL compatible database, which is scalable, fast, and deals with database migrations easily. Right now we run MySQL on a huge, custom EC2 instance, and we figure that switching to Aurora might save us money and make our system more robust.

Netflix Code Deployment – I’ve always admired Netflix because of the sheer amount of data they handle, the number of subscribers, and how many AWS resources they employ. Not to mention, I love their service. This was a session on Spinnaker, Netflix’s system for rolling out changes to their production fleet, dealing with rollbacks, etc. At SketchUp, we’re always looking for ways to improve our deployment process and our ability to rollback changes.

Analytics – I went to a bunch of sessions on Amazon Redshift, the new Athena S3 query service, and Amazon Kinesis. We’re in the middle of building an analytics pipeline, so these were essential. I just wish I had gone to the conference before we started.


I was amazed at the organization that went into the keynote. All 35,000 attendees had seats in a conference hall where an enormous stage was erected. Everyone could see the presenters because giant screens magnified everything.

I liked the announcements made at the Keynote, but in general, I thought they were too long. Over the course of the 4 day conference, there were 5 hours of keynotes on Wednesday and Thursday. The problem was they had case study after case study after case study. If they had stuck to the announcements, the keynotes would have lasted 1-2 hours max.

General Organization

The general organization of the conference was good. I was impressed by the hotels’ ability to deal with feeding that many people, not to mention directing everyone where to go.

Apparently crowd control hadn’t been as good last year (I didn’t go), and there were huge traffic jams around the escalators and in other areas, even with fewer attendees. This year I saw none of that. The most important parts were the breakfasts and the dinners. If you mismanage food, 35,000 hungry people is a recipe for disaster. The hotels had well defined methods for shuffling everyone around the giant food hall so that everyone didn’t stack up behind a single buffet line.

This is one of those things about doing the conference at a Las Vegas hotel. The staff knows what they’re doing. They know how to cater food to large numbers of guests.

Session Organization

Most of the sessions were booked full by the time of the conference. Apparently you have to book what you want right when you register, otherwise the good sessions fill up.

This was unbelievably annoying. If you wanted to go on the wait-list for a particular session, then you had to stand in line for 20-30 minutes (until the session started), to see if you’d get in. Usually all the wait-list people got in, but it was still annoying to have to waste your time waiting in line.

In addition, the conference app only let you schedule sessions you were registered for. So if you wanted to go and be on the waitlist for a full session, you had to look it up manually every time you needed to remember where it was. 

In the last couple of days, they started doing “overflow” rooms, which were essentially just lines of chairs with headphones pointing at a live video feed of the session. I would have loved to see more of these.

To be fair, all of the sessions will eventually be on YouTube, so missing out wasn’t that big of a deal. But what’s the point of going to the conference if you can’t attend most of the sessions?

2 Different Hotels

This was probably user error, but on the first day, I managed to schedule myself in alternating sessions between the Venetian and The Mirage. I wound up walking back and forth 6 times. It was good exercise, but maybe not the best use of my time.

Too Many People

Like I said, with the exception of the wait-list problem, I think the conference dealt with the large number of attendees very well. That being said, I can’t imagine the conference scaling anymore. 90-95% of the sessions I attended were jam packed.

Walking between sessions in the hotel reminded me of being permanently stuck on a NYC subway.

Maybe this is just what you have to deal with for conferences of this size, in any field, but I was wondering if they could do multiple, independent conferences in multiple hotels. Or maybe they could do multiple, smaller conferences throughout the year.

I don’t know how the larger conferences deal with all the sessions. Maybe they’re more geared towards booths in huge conference halls, instead of towards lots of independent sessions.


Overall, I think the week was a good use of time. I’d like to go back next year, if I can motivate myself to deal with the crowds.

Part of me thinks it’d be nice to lock myself in a room and watch all the sessions on YouTube in solitude. But odds are, I would never do that. So it was good to pay some money and go to a conference where I was forced to learn for a week.

Photo Credit: temporarySPASTIC