How silicon innovation became the ‘secret sauce’ behind AWS’s success


Nafea Bshara, Amazon Web Services vice president and distinguished engineer, and the co-founder of Annapurna Labs, an Israeli-based chipmaker that Amazon acquired in 2015, maintains a low profile, as does his friend and Annapurna co-founder, Hrvoye (Billy) Bilic.

Nafea Bshara, AWS vice president and distinguished engineer.

Each executive’s LinkedIn profile is sparse, in fact, Bilic’s is out of date.

“We hardly do any interviews; our philosophy is to let our products do the talking,” explains Bshara.

Those products, and silicon innovations, have done a lot of talking since 2015, as the acquisition has led to, among other advancements, the development of five generations of the AWS Nitro System, three generations (1, 2, 3) of custom-designed, Arm-based Graviton processors that support data-intensive workloads, as well as AWS Trainium, and AWS Inferentia chips optimized for machine learning training and inference.

Some observers have described the silicon that emerges from Annapurna Labs in the U.S. and Israel as AWS’s “secret sauce”.

Nafea’s silicon journey began at Technion University in Israel, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer engineering, and where he first met Hrvoye. The two then went on to work for Israel-based Galileo, a company that made chips for networking switches, and controllers for networking routers. Galileo was acquired by U.S. semiconductor manufacturer Marvell in 2000, where Bshara and Bilic would work for a decade before deciding to venture out on their own.

“We had developed at least 50 different chips together,” Bshara explained, “so we had a track record and a first-hand understanding of customer needs, and the market dynamics. We could see that some market segments were being underserved, and with the support from our spouses, Lana and Liat, and our funding friends Avigdor [Willenz] and Manuel [Alba], we started Annapurna Labs.”

That was mid-2011, and three and half years later Amazon acquired the company. The two friends have continued their journey at Amazon, where their team’s work has spoken for itself.

Last year, industry analyst David Vellante praised AWS’s “revolution in system architecture.”

“Much in the same way that AWS defined the cloud operating model last decade, we believe it is once again leading in future systems. The secret sauce underpinning these innovations is specialized designs… We believe these moves position AWS to accommodate a diversity of workloads that span cloud, data center as well as the near and far edge.”

Annapurna’s work was highlighted during the AWS Silicon Innovation Day virtual event on August 3. In fact, Nafea was a featured speaker in the event. The Silicon Innovation Day broadcast, which highlighted AWS silicon innovations, included a keynote from David Brown, vice president, Amazon EC2; a talk about the history of AWS silicon innovation from James Hamilton, Amazon senior vice president and distinguished engineer who holds more than 200 patents in 22 countries in server and datacenter infrastructure, database, and cloud computing; and a fireside chat on the Nitro System with Anthony Liguori, AWS vice president and distinguished engineer, and Jeff Barr, AWS vice president and chief evangelist.

In advance of the silicon-innovation event, Amazon Science connected with Bshara to discuss the history of Annapurna, how the company and the industry have evolved in the past decade, and what the future portends.

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