Google borrows Microsoft tactics as it ramps up Amazon cloud battle

Google and Microsoft's cloud revamps look set to dramatically change the competitive marketplace for infrastructure-as-a-service, but people are sceptical of their ability to dethrone Amazon

Google was once a revolutionary company, but its revamped cloud offering, Google Compute Engine , shows it has fallen prey to the same type of proprietary thinking that has afflicted Microsoft in its fight to take on Amazon.

Both Google and Microsoft began their clouds with platform-as-a-service systems - closed technologies that forced developers to write their applications in a small set of languages, with little ability to control the underlying infrastructure.

This was a blunder for both companies as, contrary to the wisdom of the time, it was the low-end infrastructure-as-a-service model that came to take the lion's share of cloud spending.

Now, Google and Microsoft have re-jigged their clouds to better fit that model, but having spent four years working on technologies in the wrong area of the market, cloud integrators and competitors are sceptical of Google and Microsoft's ability to convince customers that their clouds are better than Amazon's.

"For them to focus on [IaaS] says to me that those behemoths, those organisations are going where the money is in the initial adoption which is in the IaaS layer," Robin Meehan, chief technology officer of cloud consultancy of Smart421, says. But "Amazon win both ways... they have a market-leading infrastructure-as-a-service offering".

Of the two, Azure is a more capable competitor, but only since it was re-engineered to include an infrastructure-as-a-service capability, according to Kevin Reid, chief technology officer of Virtustream, an enterprise-focused cloud company. 

"It's very difficult to think of [Azure] as a pure deployment engine when you don't have an IaaS that goes side-by-side with it," he says. "A lot of legacy applications have a lot of interdependencies... where Microsoft had to change their tune was in realising those dependencies they had to... take care of."

And, given both Google and Microsoft have PaaS services that they have poured significant R&D into, they have an interest in making sure their technology encourages users to climb up the stack, when they are ready. This contrasts with Amazon's approach, which has been, as chief technology officer Werner Vogels puts it, to encourage services like Heroku and EngineYard to live on top of its cloud to " let a thousand platforms bloom ".

Proprietary attitudes

Google's attempt to take on Amazon in IaaS could also be hobbled by its commitment to proprietary technology, and its secrecy around it: as the company's cloud sits on the same technology used to power the rest of its services, the company has been loath to disclose the precise technical details of its architecture.

"Google have wrapped it all up in a completely managed thing," James Monico, technical director of consultancy Cloudreach, says. "Amazon have gone infrastructure plus open source."

It's a similar story for Microsoft, meaning both companies may not be able to share as much information with developers about their clouds as Amazon can, given Google has an interest in protecting the technologies that power its mainstay web advertising business.

On a side note, the most noticeable effect of Microsoft and Google's entrance will probably be further price reductions by Amazon, according to Meehan, who expects the three companies to "slug it out for quite a while at very low [profit] margins to do a landgrab", and, after this has played out, they will ultimately differentiate themselves through SLAs pegged to availability. 

All in all, the picture that emerges from Google and Microsoft's moves is of two rich businesses that have been caught on the backfoot by a scrappy young start-up. In this cloudy world, Microsoft has become IBM, Google has become Microsoft and Amazon has become the new Google. The way this triumvirate competes will have a huge impact on the industry.