IBM vs. Amazon Web Services: Don't be fooled by their numbers game

The revenue data for both companies can be used to claim each the 'winner' in the cloud wars

Vendors like to show off data that says they're winning in terms of market adoption versus their competitors. They also like to show off data that is hard to verify, which makes it easier for them to claim whatever they want and even be technically, if obscurely, right.

One set of recent numbers suggests that Amazon Web Services (AWS) is continuing its progression toward cloud domination. For the fourth quarter of 2013, Amazon.com's North America sales Other category in its financial reports -- which includes AWS -- hit $1.17 billion, up 52 percent from $769 million in the fourth quarter of 2012. For all of 2013, that Other category hit $3.72 billion, up 58 percent from $2.35 billion in 2012. But Amazon has never specifically broken out AWS's revenues, and the Other category includes revenue from advertising, branded credit cards, and other "nonretail activities," so we can't know how much AWS itself grew versus last year.

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Not to be outdone in the game of big numbers, IBM reported full-fiscal-year cloud revenue of $4.4 billion in 2013, up 69 percent from the previous fiscal year. I'm not sure what to make of IBM's claims, considering the company already had its hand slapped last year for reporting revenue that federal regulators considered "cloud-washed." I assume that IBM would not pull that sort of trick again, but who knows how IBM actually defines "cloud" across its portfolio of technology and consulting offerings?

IBM CFO Martin Schroeter made clear in an investors call that IBM's definition of cloud revenues includes several categories AWS doesn't have, including its SaaS offerings, marketing software, collaboration, supply chain management, and price optimization applications, as well as scores of other specialized business applications and, of course, its more AWS-like public cloud services, mostly from its Soft Layers acquisition. AWS provides public IaaS and PaaS services, whereas IBM provides everything. IBM is public, private, and hybrid. AWS is only public cloud.

You really can't compare the financial results of IBM's cloud business to Amazon.com's AWS business. They're not the same. However, if you compare the two companies' public cloud revenues, IBM's revenue would be less than half that of AWS -- the ambiguity of AWS's actual revenues notwithstanding. Nonetheless, PR people at IBM have used their numbers to "prove" their company is "winning" the cloud market.

This is another argument that comes down to what we mean by "cloud computing." It's been so widely defined that I could tell you my coffee maker is a cloud service, and you would be hard-pressed to prove me wrong.

Don't pay serious attention to the "we're winning" claims or the numbers used to back them. Look instead at what companies are calling "cloud computing" to get the real story -- and always focus on what you actually need before you worry about marketing claims.

This article, "IBM vs. Amazon Web Services: Don't be fooled by their numbers game," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of David Linthicum's Cloud Computing blog and track the latest developments in cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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