Five Companies Shaping Cloud Computing: Who Wins?

Monday Jan 26th 2009 by James Maguire
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An in-depth look at the tech companies jockeying for position as the software industry’s leading megatrend takes shape.

Look at the figures for IT spending on cloud computing and you’ll have to squint to see the skinny percentage. Worldwide dollars directed toward the cloud accounted for a scant four percent of global IT spending in 2008, according to research firm IDC.

But if you gauge levels of vendor excitement about this new model – in which software is rented over the Web instead of installed in-house – you’ll realize they sense a once-in-a-lifetime gold rush.

Excitement runs hot. Seemingly every vendor now uses the magic term “cloud” in their software/hardware product. One of the new netbooks is called a Cloudbook, IBM touts its Blue Cloud, and Dell even attempted to copyright ‘cloud computing’ (so far unsuccessfully).

Given the tiny four percent spend, are these hyperventilating vendors chasing after pennies? What’s all the deep breathing about?

Top tech giants are looking to the future when IT forecasters do indeed see gold in them hills for cloud vendors. By the year 2012, if you accept IDC’s prediction, the cloud will account for a whopping 25 percent of new tech spending. That’s serious money by anyone’s measure.

The winner in this emerging world will likely claim dominance in the overall tech landscape. That's because cloud computing encompasses most of what’s coming: the hyper-growth in connected devices, the surge in real-time data streams, online and mobile commerce, and business use of service-oriented architectures, virtualization and Web 2.0 applications.

The cloud won’t just be the dominant software delivery model, it will be an essential part of all consumer and business computing. (Unless, of course, it turns out to be the fad of the early 21st century – we never did got those jetpacks they promised us in 1967.)

The $30 billion dollar question is: who’s leading the pack into this new era? Who’s the big dog that everyone has to keep up with if they expect to survive into the profitable era?

“There isn’t one,” says David Smith, a Gartner analyst. Despite the beckoning treasure the cloud market is still too inchoate to call a leader.

Yet there are top contenders. “If you look at the various sub segments, Amazon is clearly an early leader. Salesforce and Google are early leaders,” he says.

“I do consider Microsoft as, I wouldn’t say ‘early’, but a current visionary in terms of what they’re looking to offer,” he adds. The breadth of Redmond’s Azure initiative looks promising, even if parts are still vaporware. And IBM’s Blue Cloud benefits from the company’s large enterprise muscle.

The shift won’t happen overnight. Most of the top players have unveiled their plans in just the last year or so. And businesses customers, dispirited by the recession, don’t want to hear about anything newfangled. Worse, the term ‘cloud’ has a confusing jumble of meanings and is still seen as marketing voodoo by harried middle managers.

“There’s an incredible amount of inertia,” Smith notes. Changing something as complex as IT operations is necessarily cumbersome and slow.

Among the potentials of the cloud is that companies will purchase their raw computing power, along with software, from remote datacenters. (This is Nick Carr’s Big Switch theory.) The in-house IT department will fade.

Yet companies have invested massively in their IT infrastructures. In-house IT is inextricably linked with business process – even as cash-strapped companies look at IT departments as financial albatrosses. In short, classic on-premise IT isn’t about to die just yet.

“Now, IT’s out of the bottle,” Smith says. “Everybody has it. For better of worse, they know what it is. And you’re not going to get it away from them unless they have a really good reason for giving it up.”

Two key factors might prompt businesses to trend away from on-premise IT, he says. “One is if they can save an enormous amount of money – not ten percent, but an enormous amount. Or, if they can do things they couldn’t do otherwise. And to some extent that’s not really giving it up, but using it for new things.”

The five leading cloud contenders – Microsoft, Salesforce, Amazon, Google and IBM – hope to offer customers those two reasons. As the competition gets serious, here’s a look at their strategies:

Next Page: Microsoft: Transformational Changes to Play Catch-Up

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Microsoft

Salesforce

Amazon

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IBM

Microsoft: Transformational Changes to Play Catch-Up

Conventional wisdom says that Microsoft needs to worry as customers migrate to the cloud. The software giant makes the bulk of its cash the good old-fashioned way, from pre-installed PCs and shrink-wrapped applications. Can the 500-pound gorilla maintain its status as the world shifts underneath its feet?

But the company is ready, or at least is in the process of getting ready. In the last few years Redmond has touted its ‘software plus services’ mantra, which was kind of an either/or strategy. (I interviewed a Microsoft exec about it.) You could certainly buy software in the classic on-premise model, and you could also add in some of their online products. Some of the pieces are substantial – like Office Live Small Business and SharePoint Online – yet ultimately ‘software plus services’ looked like a holding pattern until Redmond assembled a full-fledged cloud approach.

In late 2008 Microsoft formally unveiled Azure. In summary, Azure lays the foundation for an integrated online-offline heterogeneous environment, integrated with the Windows OS and the Microsoft development platform.

To say that Azure is ambitious is like saying Los Angeles is little crowded in rush hour. Azure is a sprawling, complex effort that has a cloud-based answer for every question – and takes a jab at every competitor. If Azure is successful it will make Microsoft more dominant than ever before, in both the business and consumer markets.

The Azure vision, which ideally will become reality over the next two years, includes:

• System infrastructure: Dubbed “Windows Azure,” this is a cloud-based operating system that offers remote computing power, storage and management services. It’s based on a version of Windows Server 2008 and includes the company’s free virtualization product Hyper-V (making it a blow against pricey virtualization competitor VMware). Because Windows Azure offers actual computer-processing power from Microsoft datacenters (not just software) it competes with Amazon Web Services and other vendors with physical datacenters.

• Application infrastructure services: Known as “The Azure Services Platform” this is Microsoft’s software-as-a-service offering for enterprise customers. It includes Microsoft development platform .NET along with business-oriented software tools like SharePoint and Dynamics CRM. This arm of Azure competes with cloud-based application development environments like Salesforce’s Force.com and Google App Engine.

In a measure of how seriously Microsoft is taking the cloud, Azure even does what is unthinkable for Microsoft: it will be (essentially) platform and OS interoperable, so a non-Windows machine will, in theory, interface seamlessly. It’s conceivable that some day an open source business will tap into Azure. Translated: Redmond understands there’s dollars in open source and doesn’t want to lose a single one, even if it means admitting they won’t win every battle.

Perhaps the most eyebrow raising aspect of Microsoft’s cloud strategy is the massive datacenters the company is building. This is a huge investment. Its facility in San Antonio, for instance, covers an impressive 11 acres. (The one in Chicago is reportedly twice the size.) Preliminary reports indicate the company will build two dozen of these $500 million, 500,000-square-feet facilities.

These mega-centers will ostensibly enable Microsoft to dominate in the brave new world of the cloud, when businesses will buy computing power remotely instead of maintaining in-house data centers. In other words, Microsoft is so committed to the cloud that it’s spending a royal sum on hardware – an unusual course for a software company that has always left hardware to someone else. This shift from selling software alone to selling software and utility computing power is a transformational change in Redmond’s approach.

“I think they’re taking a big bet on the fact that a lot of enterprise apps are going to move into the cloud – they just want to make sure it’s their cloud,” says Jeffery Lindsay, an analyst with Bernstein Research. “I think [Microsoft Chief Software Architect] Ray Ozzie’s got them betting big on it. If he’s right they’ll do great, and if he’s not right then you know…”

“I think Ray Ozzie’s vision is that they can make a developer environment and then tie that right into the operating system on the computer,” he says. This online-offline hybrid will link into Microsoft enterprise libraries through .NET and SQL, with the whole environment powered remotely by Microsoft’s mega-datacenters. This interlinking of development platform and utility computing will maintain and even strengthen Windows as a top brand, the company hopes.

One skill set of Microsoft’s that will likely help them lead the cloud – and this is critical: “Microsoft understands management,” says Andi Mann, an analyst with Enterprise Research Associates.

“Google doesn’t, Amazon doesn’t, Salesforce sort of does.” In contrast, Microsoft has a full management platform. “They’ve got systems set-up, they’ve got security management, application management, uptime, availability, recoverability – they have management capabilities.”

Next Page: Salesforce: An Early Leader Holds its Position

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Salesforce: An Early Leader Holds its Position

The plucky and unabashedly self-promoting Salesforce can claim first-mover status in the software-as-a-service world. Founded in 1999, it gave legitimacy to the once radical idea that enterprise applications would be delivered from a Web site.

One of its rallying cries is “The End of Software,” that is, applications are now valued only for the services they provide – all of which are available online – and we should dispense with our troublesome installed apps.

Salesforce’s sales tracking and account management software (CRM software) has been a clear success. As of 2008 the company claimed north of 50,000 customers. Extending on this, the company’s AppExchange, launched in 2005, offers a library of third party software (office productivity, finance, marketing, etc.) that customers can incorporate into their Salesforce mix.

Now it’s aiming for a much larger goal: Salesforce wants its programming platform to become the default choice for businesses and developers that create applications.

In the same way that programmers who code apps for a mass audience often choose Microsoft’s .NET, programmers who create cloud-based apps will choose the Salesforce development platform – or so Salesforce hopes. The company’s application platform, Force.com, was unveiled in September 2007. (The cloud keeps generating new acronyms; Force is referred to as Platform as a Service, or PaaS.)

If the company’s development platform were to become the leading choice it would give Salesforce a huge long-term advantage, but actually achieving this will be an astounding feat. As cloud computing moves from emerging idea to a mainstream choice, history suggests products of smaller players don’t become the default choice. (Salesforce’s market cap is $3.3 billion, as opposed to Amazon’s $22 billion or Google’s $102 billion.)

Then again, Salesforce’s development environment is ideally suited for the cloud’s future, says Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst with Nucleus Research. Indeed, she points to the company as the ultimate winner in the cloud battle.

“Rather than just thinking about the technology, they’ve really put in place the whole ecosystem to deliver: developer kits, testing, sand box, developer ecosystem, a way to monetize applications,” she says. “There are a bunch of things that make a new software developer or even an existing developer very attracted to the Salesforce platform.”

And though it’s a smaller company, Salesforce has what any serious cloud player needs: a network of datacenters. It has datacenters in the U.S. and in May 2008 announced that it would build its first international center, in Singapore.

The company’s strategy makes great use of partnerships. Its newest initiative, Service Cloud, leverages its partnership with Google, Facebook and Amazon to enable businesses to create – here’s the magic phrase, circa 2009 – a social networking community to aggregate/explore/influence customer response to their products.

Despite all its success (or maybe because of it) the continual buzz about Salesforce is about which large company will acquire it. The chatter is all speculation, as CEO Marc Benioff maintains the company is not for sale. But even as you read this there are stock traders eyeing Salesforce’s share price and guessing when it’ll get snapped up.

Below you’ll see the traffic for the Salesforce.com Web site, which has remained consistent over the last year (but realize that traffic to the site isn’t exactly reflective of app usage):

salesforce, amazon web services trattic

Next Page: Amazon: B2C Player with Hopes for B2B

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Microsoft

Salesforce

Amazon

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IBM

Amazon: B2C Player with Hopes for B2B

Most Web users think of Amazon as the mothership of online retailing, hawking everything from books to perfume to organic peanut butter. (You can even buy a robot duck kit for $19.99.) Yet the e-commerce king is also a cloud pioneer that offered a robust service menu well before most competitors.

The company’s cloud strategy grew from its e-commerce roots. As Amazon grew, the number of online retailers connecting to it to sell goods grew as well. Its army of third party retailers is now vast. As it gave small vendors ever more access to its API’s (application program interfaces), it realized that providing Web-based services could be an extra revenue source.

In 2003 CEO Jeff Bezos began developing a business plan around this new idea. Helping him was a big thinker in distributed computing, Werner Vogels (he pens the well-read blog All Things Distributed), who became Amazon’s CTO in 2004.

Fast forward to 2009 and Amazon Web Services (AWS) boasts a plethora of cloud offerings. The leading components are:

• Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, EC2: virtual servers that customers access over the Web, scaleable as needed.

• Amazon Simple Storage Service, S3: a data vault that integrates closely with Amazon’s SimpleDB, an online database tool.

AWS enables businesses to do upper level tasks such as accessing major applications from Microsoft, Red Hat, Oracle and Sun – all over the Internet, on demand. Beyond its core products are myriad peripheral services like Mechanical Turk, which helps manage work among distributed staffers, and Alexa, which tracks Web traffic.

AWS claims 440,000 registered customers, many of which are small businesses and developers. It also touts some big fish clients like Phillips, Nasdaq and the New York Times.

Amazon’s low-priced cloud tools have earned it a reputation as a kind of “entrepreneur’s helper.” It allows start-ups with only few bucks to leverage a robust technical infrastructure without needing to invest in an IT department. Plenty of SMBs appear far larger than they really are with the help of an AWS back-end.

Clearly, Amazon has dreams of taking over ever more of the IT workload from businesses. It positions itself as a seamless extension of the corporate data center. It can handle an IT department’s need for overflow capacity, so-called ‘cloud bursting,’ or in theory allow an established firm to cut its in-house IT department altogether.

Despite having gained an early lead in the cloud, however, a central question hangs over AWS.

“A potential concern is that they’re not really differentiating,” Mann says. “Microsoft is obviously a major management play, Salesforce is dedicated to a specific application, Google is a very strong infrastructure play with great understanding of a very broad application. Amazon? I don’t know. How do they differentiate?”

“They’re fundamentally just an infrastructure player or an MSP [managed service provider]. Base infrastructure providers are a dime a dozen and it’s a very low margin business.”

Bernstein’s Lindsay echoes Mann’s sentiment. “Amazon probably isn’t going all that far in it [cloud]. It’s got great utilities; you can get very low-cost computing from its virtual machines. And it’s got some other services that are kind of ‘cute’ but good, like Mechanical Turk. But it’s partly a gee-whiz factor, and partly a way for them to service an online developer bank for people who need to build online stores.”

In sum, “Amazon is largely offering utilities,” Lindsay says. In contrast, the players that will eventually dominate the cloud will offer their own business services and online business processes. Lindsay leans toward Salesforce in that regard.

Indeed, Lindsday doesn’t see the cloud as a big revenue source for Amazon. “Amazon is a retailer with a $19 billion revenue stream, but if you just look at the very best players [in the cloud space] you’ll find that their revenues are numbered in the hundreds of millions,” he says. The company doesn’t break out its cloud revenue separately, but “If you look at their revenues from the [cloud] business it’s probably under $10 million dollars at the moment.”

Yet these analysts may be underestimating the cloud’s division into both a consumer and an enterprise market – and Amazon has a profound skill set in the online consumer market.

“They’ve taken the world’s second oldest profession, commerce, and put it into the cloud and made it pretty much the way we’ve always liked to do commerce,” says Joshua Greenbaum, analyst with Enterprise Applications Consulting.

“The way that Amazon manages the consumer relationship is absolutely unparalleled in its excellence,” he says. “I expect them to do a really fabulous job in B2C cloud computing.”

And for its enterprise play? “Amazon wants to be more B2B but I think fundamentally they will devolve toward more of a B2C play.”

Next Page: Google: A Giant Work in Progress

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Google: A Giant Work in Progress

Since cloud computing takes place over the Web, a vendor with its own browser holds a natural advantage. Microsoft gains from the ubiquitous Internet Explorer, and the only other competitor so equipped is Google, which launched Chrome in the summer of 2008.

Conversely, one cloud tool that Google has that Microsoft is now just building is sprawling mega-datacenters. Google has many of these facilities, placed strategically around the globe and harnessing the power of countless servers. The company is the king of Internet infrastructure. It’s also, of course, the king of Internet service as its search portal aids zillions of users each day. Its technical strength combined with its Web brand name gives it awesome potential in cloud computing.

“One thing that Google has going for it is economy of scale,” Mann says. “I think they have the ability and the understanding of exceedingly large scale environments that they’re going to able to leverage.”

“They have a very good understanding of how to do load balancing and scalability, geographical balancing, for widely distributed applications. I think that lends strong advantages to a large international Web application presence.”

The two-pronged core of its cloud effort is Google Apps, a suite of office tools (calendar, word processing, spreadsheet, etc.), and App Engine, a scaleable development and hosting platform. App Engine, launched in the spring of 2008, is similar to Amazon’s AWS in that it offers storage, virtual servers and a database. For developers it’s a pre-built support structure from which to sell their software.

Users can tap into software hosted on App Engine, perhaps accessing software that’s custom designed for them by independent developers. And since it’s hosted by the giant Google the network infrastructure is muscular enough to withstand the heaviest tsunami of user traffic.

That all sounds promising but in reality Google’s cloud success has been modest, given the company’s vast resources. Although App Engine was launched to considerable fanfare, it has so far largely been underwhelming. Developers grumble that it’s limited to the Python programming language – an odd limitation given Google’s fondness for open platforms. (The company says an additional language will be added soon.) It’s unclear how many truly high profile applications are being coded on App Engine. Look at Google’s own gallery of App Engine success stories and you’ll see they tout BuddyPoke, Pixverse and CloudStatus – while they may be promising applications, they’re not yet Fortune 500 favorites.

Google Apps, too, has a lackluster record. On the plus side, it’s popular in schools, and in October the District of Columbia became one of its biggest accounts with 38,000 seats. On the other hand, Zoho, a small player whose office apps resemble Google’s, recently won the GE account, with its 40,000 seats. The Zoho win “was a real poke in the eye for Google,” says Lindsay.

Google Apps’ greatest weakness is its difficulty in attracting lucrative enterprise customers. “Google will succeed in the cloud in so far as there’s consumer-driven demand for cloud services,” Greenbaum says. “I don’t believe they have an enterprise bone in their body.”

Adds Lindsay: “Google Apps is losing accounts because what they’re not understanding is that when you have enterprise clients they want very, very specific functionality. And you have to be very responsive otherwise they’ll take their business somewhere else.”

“I think the problem for the Internet-based players, particularly Google, is that they don’t have the full enterprise responsiveness and the sales force to service these customers. Microsoft does, IBM does, and new players like Zoho do, and so does Salesforce.com.”

“I think the way Google’s going to go is that they’re going to try and glom into Salesforce and try and learn from them,” Lindsay says. (Again, the desirability of Salesforce helps fuel talk of its acquisition.)

Despite the naysaying about Google’s cloud prospects, it’s probable the company’s position will grow stronger than it now appears. Cloud computing is a Web-based activity and Google’s culture lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the Internet. While the search giant is clearly experiencing growing pains in the cloud, this young and very wealthy company can’t be counted out.

Next Page: IBM: Returning to Historic Roots

Or, go the page that describes a cloud vendor's strategy:

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IBM

IBM: Returning to Historic Roots

The irony about IBM and cloud computing is that, as forward looking as the cloud trend is, it actually plays to IBM’s historic strength.

In the 1960s, when IBM was the stand-alone monolith of technology, legions of users tapped into its hulking mainframes. This was the glory of centralized computing – much like today’s cloud vendors hope users will tap into central datacenters.

The moral of the story seems to be: stay in business long enough and your earliest trends eventually come back in style.

IBM’s current entry in the cloud is Blue Cloud, unveiled in late 2007. Blue Cloud enables enterprises to run heavy-duty applications with deep databases over the Internet. The components include grid computing applications, virtualization tools Xen and IBM’s own virtualization software PowerVM, open source distributed computing app Hadoop, and Tivoli, IBM’s server management software. It’s bulked up with plenty of IBM blade servers running Linux and/or IBM’s system z mainframes.

Perhaps most potent, given the confusion around this emerging technology, in late 2008 IBM launched a consulting and implementation service for cloud computing, leveraging its longtime strength in IT consulting. The company is also expanding its cloud hardware backbone. In June 2008 the company announced cloud centers in South Africa and China, complementing its existing centers in Ireland and the Netherlands (an early client is the Vietnamese government). In other words, its ambition appears to be to employ a global network of cloud centers.

IBM’s Blue Cloud generates less buzz than other vendors’ initiatives. That may be because, unlike the other competitors, it has no consumer-oriented offering. Or, more likely, IBM’s big bucks enterprise customers are still getting used to the idea of the cloud. So far, many of the first brave cloud users have been small businesses and start-ups. For large enterprises, the cloud presents a trove of headaches. The potential pitfalls start with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, continue on through security for sensitive data, and end up with the dark terror of system downtime – a terrible thought for anyone managing a national supply chain. (And cloud vendors were plagued with significant service outages in 2008.)

“I think IBM will have a potential play in the very large corporate world because I think that’s where they’re going to be strongest,” Greenbaum says. “There are going to be companies like SAP and Oracle who are going to pick a cloud provider or two on which to host their own cloud services – I don’t believe that either of them is going to build the infrastructure to provide it.”

Adds Bernstein: “IBM is the natural for this kind of thing, that’s their legacy, their heritage is time-shared computing. If anyone has the pedigree for this it would be them. Now whether they will is another question.”

One strategic choice that may help: IBM’s cloud plans are built on open source and open standards. Given that the cloud ethos is about interoperability between a vast labyrinth of networks and applications, it’s likely that open source will age better than a proprietary solution, particularly for a vendor with international partners.

With these open standards in mind, IBM has partnered with Google to provide university computer science students the open source development tools, hardware and services to turn out tomorrow’s cloud programmers. Reports indicate the two companies have pledged $30 million over two years to the program.

Indeed, IBM and Google appear to be having a bit of a love-fest when it comes to the cloud. (And perhaps in other areas; IBM processes accounts payable for Google.) IBM CEO Sam Palmisano told the New York Times the partnership works well because Google focuses on the consumer market while IBM is so corporate focused. “We’re more complementary than anything else,” Palmisano told the newspaper. “We don’t really collide in the marketplace.”

In May 2008 Palmisano and Google CEO Eric Schmidt appeared onstage at a conference in Los Angeles and announced that they would jointly develop a worldwide cloud network. Presumably the pieces each company has built singly will be included in this effort, but the exact nature of their collaboration hasn’t been revealed. One possibility: Google’s global network paired with IBM’s traditional IT management skills.

Whatever the details, with two giants like this combining forces it’s probable they’ll create an alliance that will profoundly shape the cloud, and they’ll have as good a chance as any player to actually lead in the long term.

Here’s a chart that provides an overall comparative look at the current vendors in cloud computing:

 Cloud Computing: Amazon, IBM, Google, Salesforce, Microsoft

Go the page that describes a cloud vendor's strategy:

Microsoft

Salesforce

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