AWS Snow Family: An Old Solution to a New Problemby@MadMax
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AWS Snow Family: An Old Solution to a New Problem

by MaxMarch 28th, 2021
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The AWS Snow Family is a group of three products that solved the problem of slow data transfers and edge computing associated with cloud storage.

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When I first heard about AWS Snow Family I thought, “This sounds like a solution my dad would come up with for his computer problems.” It strikes you as an overly simple solution to what seems like a complex problem—companies want to put their data in the cloud for reasons such as costs, scalability, security, troubleshooting, analysis, and automation, but there’s a big bottleneck in the process:

Network technology has not caught up to data collection and storage technology.

The story begins about 10 years ago when many major American corporations began jumping on the data collection bandwagon. They saw companies like Google and Facebook gain huge advantages from the data they were able to collect and they wanted a piece. Therefore, hundreds of companies began collecting large amounts of data and building out their database infrastructure before they even knew what to do with the data.

As more and more data was created and collected, each day it became more expensive to store. Companies had to keep scaling out their own data storage infrastructure just to keep up. But then came the cloud. Cloud computing offered any company the ability to collect and store as much data as they want at a fraction of the cost. Instead of having to make large upfront expenditures to build servers, companies could scale up almost immediately. This resulted in a rush to move all of the localized data to the more agile and accessible realms of the cloud.

However, many companies soon ran into a problem of a different sort.

Moving data over an online network to data warehouses like AWS can be very expensive and time-consuming, and sometimes the data migrations can even take years.

This presented a serious problem for some of Amazon’s largest clients. They had massive amounts of data stored on local servers that they wanted to transfer to the cloud, but any data migration project would cost way too much and take way too long.

Amazon’s solution was AWS Snow Family. If your data transfer will take too long or cost too much over the internet, Amazon can just send you a hard drive, which you can then upload with your data and mail back to Amazon. Amazon can then upload the data onsite at one of their server farms. It is such a simple solution, but it is one that can save businesses thousands of hours and dollars.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched its Snow Family of products in 2015. These products are encrypted physical hard drives that can hold massive amounts of data. They are portable, which allows them to be loaded with a company’s data and transferred to an AWS server location, and uploaded locally.

The most common problem that AWS’s Snow Family addresses is for a company that lacks the bandwidth to migrate their data in a timely manner. This could be due to the poor area connection or the fact that the company simply has a massive amount of data—when a company is dealing with terabytes, petabytes, or even exabytes of data it could literally take months or years to transfer all of it over the wire (industry term for internet). When this is the situation the fastest and safest way to migrate the data is through a physical transfer. AWS’s manual process could be 10 to 100 times faster than the virtual transfer of data.



AWS currently has three products in the Snow Family. The first of these to be developed was the Snowball. The AWS Snowball is a data transportation solution shaped like a small suitcase. The original Snowball was launched in 2015. It weighed around 50 pounds and came in a 50TB and 80TB storage model. In 2016, Amazon launched the Snowball Edge, which came with the ability to run compute locally on the Snowball. So instead of only being used for data storage and transportation, it can now be used to run analysis on the data directly on the snowball at any location.

The Snowball Edge has 80TB of storage and is the only option now available. It is ideal for rural or extreme locations, such as military bases and research facilities. The Snowball can withstand temperatures up to 140 degrees and as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. It is waterproof and it has been certified by the military’s airdrop test. The Snowball has even been blast tested and could survive blasts that would kill humans.

If you need the Snowball for a job it usually delivered with two-day shipping by UPS (can be expedited to overnight) and it takes about a week to upload 80TB of data onto the device. The data is encrypted with 256-bit encryption and the device can be tracked during its entire delivery back to its AWS location.

The price of a Snowball can range from $300 to $2000 for 10 days of use depending on whether you request one optimized for compute or data transfer.

Some actual use cases of the AWS Snowball Edge include use them on oil rigs and use with the U.S. military and Department of Defense. The Snowball was put to the test in 2018 when a volcano in Hawaii threatened to destroy a data center for the U.S. Geological Survey. Snowballs were shipped to the local data center and uploaded with the USGS’s data to prevent them from being destroyed by the rapidly approaching lava.


The next product Amazon developed was the Snowmobile, a massive 45-foot long data storage device that is pulled on an 18-wheeler trailer. It was launched in 2016 to meet the most challenging data preservation and transfer demands. The Snowmobile has a storage capacity of 100 petabytes of data or the equivalent of 1250 Snowballs.

Digital Globe was AWS’s first Snowmobile customer. They had hundreds of petabytes of satellite imagery data that would have taken them years to upload to AWS. Initially, they requested hundreds of Snowballs, but Amazon Web Services came up with the unique solution to create a massive storage container that could be towed by an 18-wheeler truck.

Without the truck, it would take 26 years to move 1 exabyte (1000 petabytes) of data over a 10Gbps line (which is pretty standard for AWS direct connections).


The newest product AWS released is the Snowcone. It is a small storage device that was launched in 2020. It is just like the snowball except on a much smaller scale that can even be shipped in the mail. This video gives a great overview of the product.

The Snowcone weighs 4.5 pounds and can store 8 terabytes of data. It costs $60 to rent the Snowcone for 5 days of use (not counting shipping days), and then the fee goes to $6 a day for each additional day after the first 5 days. Additional costs for different use cases can be found on this Amazon web page.


The amazing thing about the AWS Snow Family of products is that Amazon made it. A company that lives on the cutting edge of technology and data storage solutions, solved the problem of slow download speeds by mailing hard drives. It is a simple and elegant solution, which demonstrates that genius does not equal complicated.