Google and Microsoft clouds enter the ring

It's fight day, and two companies are duking it out to decide who will be pronounced the second-in-line to the public cloud throne.

cloud puzzle

The public cloud is, frankly, a fascinating place. Sitting on the throne we have the undisputed leader of the public cloud Amazon Web Services, more commonly known by its three-letter acronym, AWS (well, to be fair, IBM disputes the contention that AWS is No. 1 but no one really agrees). We then have an interesting power struggle as two very different vendors battle it out to be next in line.

In one corner we have Google, the company with immense operational experience but some critical flaws. In the other corner stands Microsoft, a late starter in the public cloud and once something of a cloud denier but now reinvigorated and ready to do battle. Let's take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of these two players.

Go the 'plex, Google, and its pan-galactic scale

Google is a pretty incredible organization: In only a few short years Google has grown from a fairly random experiment by two somewhat strange Stanford students to one of the world's largest technology companies. From its origins of search, Google has built up some massive peripheral businesses -- obviously advertising is its key business, but Google also delivers office productivity tools, is the planet around which the Android mobile operating system orbits and has some big moonshots waiting in the wings, from life-extending technology to driverless cars.

Google has incredible operational excellence. While we could argue over who runs a bigger Web-scale operation, Google or Facebook, at the sort of scale these companies work it is something of a semantic discussion. Suffice it to say that Google is as good as any company in the world at running distributed Web properties of almost unimaginable scale and complexity. It has designed huge swathes of hardware and software to perform this task, and as it moves to being a public cloud provider, it has the opportunity to commercialize these formerly internal tools for others to use.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly given Google's origins, this is one incredibly engineering-centric organization. Google believes (with, it must be said, a degree of validity) that it knows the best way to do things. This confidence, that many would suggest is arrogance, has stood it in good stead. Google has never seen fit to rely on the operating models of others, either technologically or from a business perspective. In the past this was the right approach -- after all, no organization in history had the particular dynamics of a Google so there was little point in the company following others' examples.

This confidence, and desire to do things its way alone, is, however, something of an impediment to Google's public cloud ambitions. The reality is that despite assertions from many cloud companies that the traditional rules around enterprise vendors don't apply when doing business in the cloud, history has shown that this is not the case. Traditional sales approaches, a strong partner channel and engaging widely with the pesky press and analyst community are all non-technology pieces of the puzzle which need to be in place.

Until six months or so ago, it was a fairly safe assumption that Google was pretty much incapable of executing on its public cloud opportunity. But then, perhaps realizing that something was missing, Google paid a ridiculous sum of money for a startup with essentially no product, all in order to secure the services of its founder, Diane Greene. Greene, who has a storied past as the co-founder and CEO of VMware (before being unceremoniously dumped), certainly knows enterprise. And she also knows Google after having served on its board. To her falls the role of having to execute the business side of the organization.

Ahoy Redmond, the Microsofties and their enterprise pedigree

In the other corner stands Microsoft, a company that needs no introduction. Microsoft is, after all, the company that pretty much invented personal computing (OK, the company that took personal computing to scale). It is also the company that took software development from an expensive and unobtainable secret art, to something that most people can do. Microsoft has been at the forefront of several revolutions in technology.

The company delivers the operating system with the biggest global user base, the office productivity suite used (whether legally or not) by well over a billion people worldwide, and a whole host of enterprise IT tools. Microsoft undeniably understands the enterprise.

But, it must be said, Microsoft is a little late to the game. Under its previous CEO, Steve Balmer, Microsoft spent more time mocking the iPhone in Trump-like buffoonery and denying that cloud computing was ever a thing. it is only since its new CEO, Satya Nadella, took the reins that Microsoft has really understood its future in the cloud and in a cross-platform paradigm.

But Microsoft, too, has its failings -- it has tried and failed several times to deliver devices to compete with Apple's iPhone and Google and its partners' Android devices. And while Microsoft certainly has huge numbers of users for its various products, it doesn't have a treasure trove of data in the way that Google (and IBM, for that matter) does.

But Microsoft is moving fast. Witness its recent acquisition of mobile development platform Xamarin, followed closely by the announcement that Xamarin would be open sourced and given to users for free. From a company that once declared Linux "a cancer," this is indeed a revelation.

Where things stand

Which brings us to today. in the past month both Microsoft and Google have held large conferences -- Google with its GCP Next cloud-specific event and Microsoft with its Build developers conference. All eyes were looking to the companies, in particular to Google and the first big showing of Greene as head of all things cloud at Google.

The jury is fairly consistent in terms of an assessment of the winners and losers from these two events. While Google's holding company CEO, Sundar Pichai, and its past CEO, Eric Schmidt, provided compelling sound-bites at the event, Greene (who is, after all, the key executive when it comes to the public cloud) failed to impress. Her presentation was stilted and uninspiring. Whether this is simply a situational issue, or if it masks some serious problems within Google, remains to be seen.

And from a product perspective, while Google rolled out some interesting tidbits, it is fair to say that there weren't the huge moves that people might have expected. In some ways watching Google is like watching AWS two or three years ago. AWS was also criticized for having  a sub-optimal enterprise approach (to its credit, in only a few short years it has turned a corner and now AWS' re:Invent conference feels like a true enterprise event). But Greene has only been in the job for a few months so we must, I guess, cut her some slack.

As for Microsoft, its Build event, while not cloud-specific, was a good indication of the company's thinking. Gone were silly -- and ultimately futile -- attempts to fight the battle of the mobile handset and, in its place, Microsoft continued to tell a consistent story of enabling enterprises to build software, regardless of what devices it is intended to run on. That story extended to opening up Microsoft Office as a platform, enabling developers to build so-called bots to automate repetitive processes and empower its Cortana personal assistant to make its users life easier and more efficient.

Of course, Microsoft isn't perfect and it runs the risk of losing focus as it fights battles on many fronts. Its HoloLens virtual reality headset is a very different play than its more infrastructural offerings, but Microsoft has thought hard about this and is doing a lot of work to avoid the mistakes that Google made with its Glass wearable computing device.

What round of the fight are we at?

It's early days still and we're only at round two or three of this fight. Currently, I'd have to say that Microsoft has a lead on Google in points, but that neither company has looked able to score a knockout punch to the other. Importantly, while both companies show positive growth, neither are getting any closer to the AWS incumbent. While Microsoft and Google duke it out, AWS continues to quietly (and not so quietly sometimes) dominate.

One thing is for sure, and that is that much more blood will be spilled before the final bell in this bout is rung.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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