When it comes to what may be the most important business resource of the 21st century — cloud services — there can be no doubt that AWS is clearly dominating the market. Everyone else is years behind in functionality, ease-of-use and price, and for many, if not most, workloads, AWS is literally better, faster, and cheaper than its competitors. However, although it looks like “cloud means Amazon”, we should resist the temptation to conclude that the cloud war is over. We’ve only seen the initial skirmish, and the most valuable company in the world is about to step up.
Google is escalating its cloud offering with GCE, while Microsoft, IBM, and a few other players are simultaneously getting ready for what they no doubt view as the ‘Contest of the Century’. We all win if we stay neutral, allowing them to duke it out as cloud computing becomes increasingly commoditized.
Simultaneously, a battle is brewing between those who use these services (which, before too long, will be just about everybody). The losers will go with proprietary solutions from cloud providers and the winners will pick solutions that run everywhere AND leverage the best of each.
Google Gets Serious, it’s On!
Has AWS’s success awakened a sleeping giant? Google is getting serious, evidenced by its appointment of board member Diane Greene, co-founder of VMware — who had been for years been telling the company that it was missing a big opportunity — as head of Google Cloud Platform. Such keen interest from a company with possibly the world’s largest computing network illustrates the sheer scale of the war for a market that may grow to hundreds of billions of dollars in the next few years.
Here’s a quick and dirty recap of the contest: AWS is of course the undisputable top dog, with a million+ customers, 2015 revenues of $7 billion range, companies like Netflix running their entire infrastructure on their services, and a frighteningly huge portion of the world’s web activities run through their servers.
Microsoft, led by a CEO who once oversaw its cloud computing unit, is taking square aim at AWS and sits in second place with a pitch that emphasizes enterprise-readiness.
IBM takes the number three spot, playing up such angles as hybrid integration and cognitive computing, while Google takes number four and appears to be positioning itself as the cloud provider for Big Data. The growing list of heavyweight contenders also includes HP, AT&T, and Oracle (although Oracle comes with pretty unique baggage).
Of course, these companies have their disadvantages too, and no doubt we’ll see them playing to their competitor’s weaknesses, as well as their own strengths. Retailers view Amazon as a competitor, while Microsoft (and Oracle) have reputations for bullying. And all face very valid concerns about vendor lock-in.
Play the Cloud Field by Keeping Your Options Open
All of these companies are growing their cloud businesses ridiculously fast. But, that’s partially because there’s still plenty of business to go around–everyone hasn’t adopted cloud computing yet. Now that cloud computing has become ubiquitous, the only way for any of these companies to gain serious market share is to take it from a competitor.
And we’re already seeing some positive effects from the intense competition … like a kinder, gentler Microsoft? The Seattle-based titan, observes Alex Konrad of Forbes, is already shifting its strategy and culture away from pushing a Windows-only world on its customers. He points out that they may very well have read the writing on the wall when they lost Salesforce to AWS. The message was clear: “cool it, you’re not the biggest kid on the block anymore”. But Amazon, he asserts, needs to cool it too, acting “less like a Bezos-driven, ruthlessly effective operation.”
Beyond cultural changes, each provider has its sweet spot, and one of the advantages of using multiple vendors is that you’re free to play to their strengths–tapping Google’s speech recognition and maps, or Microsoft’s security, or Amazon’s price and availability. Coca-Cola, for one, is spreading its apps across all three, citing advantages of flexibility, says Konrad.
It also means that you’re avoiding a problem which is often cited as a pitfall of the on-premise world, but that is just as real in the cloud: vendor lock-in. “Most of the big companies I talk to about cloud deployments are leery of putting all their eggs in one cloud basket. They feel that by using more than one cloud provider, they can keep the other provider honest. Most of these companies have faced vendor lock-in before and feel abused by IT suppliers that made it difficult to move to a rival product or even integrate their technology with that of another company,” says Barb Darrow, Forbes.
Databases Feel the Gravity of Vendor Lock-In More Than Other Applications
While Matt Asay takes a contrarian view to vendor lock-in, asserting that standardizing on a few vendors “makes life easier”, he concedes the wisdom of maintaining some independence. “Buy all the cloudy infrastructure you want from your vendor of choice, but try to keep your data separate.”
The temptation to throw all your eggs in one basket, he points out, may be compounded by the fact that the major cloud vendors have been developing their own database services — AWS Aurora, Microsoft Azure SQL Database, and Google’s Cloud SQL, to name only a few. But such proprietary solutions may be worth avoiding, he says, because “gravitational pull” is stronger on the database than other platforms. Once your data is in, you’ll have to reach a pretty high “escape velocity” to get out (and that escape velocity will no doubt include time, resources, and no small amount of buy-in from departments and leadership).
This is a pitfall that we’ll likely see many companies encounter in coming years, as people struggle to determine best practices for optimizing their businesses in the cloud. Nevertheless, it’s one that can largely be avoided by choosing databases that are deployable in any environment–whether it be in the cloud, or on-premises. By doing so, you’ll lower your escape velocity significantly, and achieve the same kind of portability at the database layer, which you have with other cloud-based web applications. And thus you retain the freedom to experiment with the various goodies that AWS, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and others are bound to offer.