On a rainy Monday in August 2011, a 10-million-watt transformer exploded in northern Virginia, sending an enormous voltage spike across the power grid. The surge hit an Amazon data centre in Ashburn, Virginia, knocking out the facility’s main source of power, and about 15 minutes later, James Hamilton just happened to pull into the parking lot.
It was a serendipitous moment. Hamilton is the Distinguished Engineer who oversees the increasingly complex design of the data-centre empire that drives Amazon Web Services, or AWS — the nothing-less-than-revolutionary collection of online services that provide computing power to companies across the globe, including names such as Netflix, Pinterest, and Dropbox. The Ashburn facility is part of that AWS empire. When it goes down, services like NetFlix are in danger of going down, and Hamilton is the man who works to ensure this doesn’t happen.