Private Companies Getting Us Through the Lockdown

May 02, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic has taught all Americans about the importance of critical infrastructure and essential workers to our survival, as individuals and as a nation. Clearly, our health care system, encompassing hospitals, medical supply providers, pharmaceutical companies, scientists, doctors, nurses, technicians, support staff, and emergency response personnel, is at the top of the list. So too are the companies and people involved in the food supply chain from farm to table. Related to these two sectors is the transportation network: roads, rails and air transport, certainly, but also the delivery companies and truckers that continue to bring orders to our front doors throughout the crisis. Likewise, our communications infrastructure, particularly internet companies, cloud providers and content producers, has been critical for millions of Americans to be able to telework and for providing media to entertain us, helping us avoid going stir crazy during isolation.

A company that bridges virtually all of these critical infrastructure sectors is Amazon. First, it is part of the health care system, providing access to critical medical supplies for both institutions and individuals. Second, its global network of food stores, distribution centers, and their personnel and drivers play a critical role in the nation's food delivery and transportation network. Finally, throughout the course of the pandemic and resulting lockdown, the company's IT arm, Amazon Web Services (AWS), has helped keep Americans connected by providing a range of capabilities, most notably robust cloud services for government, private companies and critical infrastructure.

Amazon and its workforce have responded to the pandemic with all the resources available to the company. Its decision to keep some 100 distribution centers open, combined with the willingness of tens of thousands of workers throughout the company to go to work, places Amazon and its workforce among the heroes of the pandemic response. The company is working hard to ensure that its workforce is protected. Amazon is also helping to ease the nation’s unemployment crisis by initially hiring some 100,000 full and part-time workers. It now intends to add another 75,000. For its customers, Amazon is working to meet the skyrocketing demand for medical supplies such as masks and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Through its AWS Diagnostics Initiative, the company is investing millions to support efforts to develop treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus. AWS has become an important player in this effort by creating a “data lake” of information from hospitals and clinics doctors and researchers around the world. This allows AWS clients and those granted access to these data sets to apply advanced computing tools and artificial intelligence to the search for a cure.

Amazon has also become a major transportation company. It is now one of the five major global transportation companies alongside UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the U.S. Postal Service. But in today's environment, all three of these companies have stepped up to ensure that critical supplies, as well as personal items, are moved expeditiously.

Amazon is an important part of the food supply chain. While the company does not produce food, it does own the Whole Foods grocery chain. It also is a major player in the transport and delivery of food items to corporate and individual customers. More broadly, Amazon’s ability to provide tens of millions of Americans with goods and services, combining online transactions with package delivery, is helping to make the lockdown more tolerable. Like other major food retailers such as Walmart and Target, Amazon has helped ensure that citizens have secure access to food and sundries.

AWS is a critical player in the United States’ and the world’s communications networks. AWS is primarily a provider of cloud services, offering a wide range of storage, data management, and cloud-based tools for both government and private clients. The company’s cloud products and services are accessed by some 6,500 government agencies and 11,000 academic institutions. Currently, AWS accounts for fully a third of the global cloud marketplace. Together with its closest competitors, Microsoft, Google, and IBM, AWS dominates the global marketplace for cloud services.

AWS has been successful in dominating the cloud services marketplace because it provides cutting edge technologies, a high degree of data security and a reasonable price. AWS routinely develops new products designed to provide cloud users with greater flexibility, bandwidth and oversight of their data on the sites where information is stored. Such innovations provide customers with enhanced flexibility while maintaining a high degree of data security.

AWS practically invented secure cloud services for the national security community. Amazon created GovCloud to provide isolated and secure cloud storage for U.S. and government agencies and certain other customers, primarily in highly regulated industries. It allows users to store and manipulate sensitive and confidential data to the cloud while meeting government regulations and compliance requirements. 

One of the reasons that government agencies at all levels, as well as private companies, have been able to allow millions of their employees to telework during the quarantine is a result of the capabilities provided by AWS. Many of the company’s services and tools are also being accessed by state and local educational systems, and parents seeking to provide children with a distance learning option.

Throughout the current crisis, AWS has continued to provide critical support to the Department of Defense and national security agencies. The company pioneered the creation and management of dedicated, standalone cloud storage and support for the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). The Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency manage the Commercial Cloud Services contract, which was first won by AWS in 2013 for all seventeen members of the IC. In essence, Amazon built a commercial cloud environment in government-owned spaces. This contract has reduced the time it takes to set up a server from 180 days to a matter of minutes. The quality of IC products has significantly improved because of the increased ability to share and manipulate data. Recently, the IC expanded its cloud computing resources by awarding a second contract to Microsoft. According to the CIA's CIO, “it’s the best decision we ever made.” The IC has now brought Microsoft in to build a second secure cloud.

While many companies and millions of workers are working diligently to keep this country functioning while also fighting the virus, none is doing as much in so many different areas as Amazon. Its place in multiple critical infrastructure sectors is unique. Without AWS, it is not clear how government agencies at all levels would continue operations. When the pandemic recedes, and America goes back to work, school and the outdoors, Amazon will have an important role to play, facilitating the country's reopening.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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