Amazon is hiring semiconductor engineers to make its cloud better at streaming video

Key Points
  • The video-focused division of Amazon Web Services has hired two FPGA specialists and has job openings for more.
  • AWS already offers raw FPGAs for rent by the hour.
Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy.

Amazon Web Services is loading up on engineers at a semiconductor unit in Portland, Oregon, where the cloud business is focused on improving video processing speeds.

Chips are becoming more important to AWS as the company aims to control more of the hardware in its giant data centers and strengthen itself against growing competition from Microsoft and Google.

Elemental, which AWS acquired for almost $300 million in 2015, is hiring employees at its Portland headquarters to work on field-programmable gate arrays, or FPGAs, which can be tuned for different applications after they've been plugged into servers.

In recent months, Amazon has issued three job openings for FPGA engineers, noting that experience with FPGAs from the industry's two big providers — Xilinx and Altera (now part of Intel) — is desirable. That follows the hiring late last year of Trevor Hendricks, a design engineer from HP, and John Hubbard, a longtime FPGA designer who previously worked at Portland-based Tektronix.

In an interview last week with CNBC's Jon Fortt, AWS CEO Andy Jassy referenced the significance of the company's 2015 acquisition of Israeli chipmaker Annapurna Labs in discussing Amazon's expansion into semiconductors.

We "bought a chip company in Israel a few years ago, so we've been designing our own chips for a while," Jassy said. "You can expect us to continue to do so."

AWS CEO: We're customer-focused, not competitor-focused
AWS CEO: We're customer-focused, not competitor-focused

Video processing is a common use of FPGAs and is listed as an application on AWS's web page advertising the technology. AWS Elemental services using FPGAs could speed up processing and cut down on complexity, but potentially at a higher cost than existing media services.

Disney, Turner and Comcast (owner of NBC, the parent of CNBC) are among the media companies that have recently chosen AWS as their "preferred" public cloud provider.

Amazon has been expanding its Elemental footprint in Portland, but the company hasn't publicized Elemental's chip-level work. An AWS spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

In 2016, the year after the acquisitions of Elemental and Annapurna, AWS announced that it would provide FPGAs for developers to use however they wanted. CME Group and National Instruments are among the companies that have shown interest in trying AWS FPGAs made by Xilinx. AWS is "a main customer" of Xilinx's data center business, analysts at Nomura Instinet wrote in an October note.

Microsoft recently started offering customers a cloud service for machine learning that uses FPGAs. Separately, Microsoft's Azure cloud offers live streaming and encoding services. Google hasn't announced any FPGA services, or live video processing tools.

— CNBC's Anita Balakrishnan contributed to this story.