S3: Using Amazon S3 for large file transfers

A few days ago, a friend of mine reached out asking for a good solution for securely transferring a relatively large (~1GB) file to several of her prospective clients. Strangely, even in 2013 the options for transferring such a large file in a reliable manner is pretty limited. I looked into services like YouSendIt, WeTransfer, and SendThisFile but they all suffer from similar limitations. Most of them have a <1GB file size limit, their payment plans are monthly subscription based instead of pay as you go, and they don’t offer custom domains or access control. Apart from these services, there is also the trusty old school option of using an FTP server but that raises the issue of having to maintain your own FTP server, using a non-intuitive FTP client, and still being locked into paying a monthly fee instead of “pay as you go". Stepping back and looking at the issue from a different angle, it then became clear that the S3 component of Amazon’s Web Service offering is actually an ideal solution for this problem. The S3 piece of AWS is basically a flexible “cloud based” storage solution that lets you programmatically upload files, store them indefinitely, and then serve them as you please. Looking at the issues we’re trying to overcome, S3 satisfies all of them out of the box. S3 has a single file size limit of 5 Terabytes, files can be served off a custom domain like archives.setfive.com, billing is pay as you go depending on the resources you use, and S3 supports access control so you have fine grained access over who can download files and for how long. So how do you actually use S3?

Setting up and using S3

  • The first thing you’ll need is an Amazon account that has S3 enabled. If you already have an Amazon account, just head over to http://aws.amazon.com/s3/ to activate S3 for your account.
  • Next, there are several ways to actually use S3 but the easy way is probably using Amazon’s own Web Console. Just head over to https://console.aws.amazon.com/s3/home?region=us-east-1 to load the console.
  • In AWS parlance, you’ll need to create a “bucket” which is the root organizational structure on S3. You can map a “bucket” to a custom domain name so think of it like the “drive” that you’re upload files to. Go ahead and create a bucket!
  • Next, click the name of your bucket and you’ll get “into” the bucket where you should see a notice telling you the bucket is empty. This is where you can upload and delete files or create additional organizational folders. To upload a file, click the “Actions” menu in the header and select “Upload”. Click upload, and then in the popup select “Add Files” to add some files and “Stat Upload” to kick off the upload.
  • When the upload finishes, in the left panel you’ll see the file you just upload. Congratulations you’re using the cloud! If you want to make the file PUBLIC, just right click on it and click “Make Public”, this will let you access the file without any special URL arguments like https://s3.amazonaws.com/big-bertha/logo_horizontal.png
  • To get the link for your file, click it to see the properties and then on the right panel you’ll see the link.
  • To delete a file, just right click on it and select “Delete”

Anyway, thats a quick rundown of how to use Amazon’s S3 service for file transfers. The pricing is also *very* cheap compared to traditional “large file transfer” services.

Check out some other useful links about S3: