Google's biggest cloud challenge? Serving enterprises

Google's transformation into a cloud leader is as much about company culture as it is about tech -- and probably more

Google's biggest cloud challenge? Serving enterprises

Last week Google made it clear that it takes cloud computing seriously: “dead serious," as Diane Greene, Google’s top cloud exec, stressed. To make its case, the company brought out a range of enterprise customers (Disney, Domino's, Best Buy, and others) and a bevy of functional improvements.

What it didn’t showcase, however, was the culture necessary to win over the enterprise.

Eric Knorr suggests that “perhaps most important of all in Google’s enterprise push is the rapid evolution of Kubernetes,” the company’s container project. Though important, such innovations don’t address the biggest gap in Google’s cloud: DNA. Even as “entire data centers are being closed and replaced by AWS,” as former Netflix cloud chief Adrian Cockcroft highlights, Google needs to quickly learn to speak enterprise if it hopes to compete with corporate-savvy AWS.

It wasn’t always thus

In typing that last sentence, I was struck by the irony. A few short years ago, it was Amazon that couldn’t figure out the enterprise. Instead, AWS appealed to developers who needed an easy way to spin up servers for test-and-dev workloads. Back in 2012, David Linthicum advised AWS to “communicate better with IT management,” moving out of its comfort zone with programmers.

For this and other reasons, legacy tech titans scoffed at Amazon’s pretensions to the enterprise IT throne, deriding its ability to deliver the reliability, security, and safety craved by risk-averse CIOs.

They’re not scoffing now.

Well, mostly -- some, like HP’s cloud lead Bill Hilf, still believe AWS has a ways to go before it really understands the enterprise. In his words, “Google and Amazon really are going to struggle with understanding how enterprises buy. As much as they want that to change and for everyone to swipe credit cards, that’s not realistic.”

Billions upon billions in revenue later, it’s fair to say that AWS “gets” the enterprise and has no trouble convincing CIOs to spend with it. In fact, at the most recent AWS Re:Invent conference, GE’s CIO took to the stage to announce the company is shuttering 30 of its 34 data centers and moving 9,000 workloads to Amazon's cloud. Apparently AWS has figured out how to get paid for massive enterprise deals.

Along the way, Amazon has both learned to speak enterprise, following Linthicum’s advice, and helped the enterprise learn to speak cloud.

Is it Google’s turn?

Yesterday, Linthicum wrote that “it’s a three-horse race in the cloud: AWS is way out ahead, and Microsoft is next in line, but way behind. Google seems to be in last place, but is increasing its efforts.”

Those efforts include a host of improvements or additions to Google’s core strength in machine learning/big data, as well as olive branches to the enterprise through identity management (Cloud IAM), cloud management (Stackdriver), and more.  

Balanced against such progress, however, is Google’s scattered approach to projects, generally. As Knorr summarizes, “Outside of its search and advertising business, Google has often seemed all over the place, spinning up quirky projects and pulling the plug on others that people relied on.” That’s not the right way to win friends and influence people in the enterprise.

Nor is it a matter of technology -- it’s a DNA thing. That same quirky and frenetic innovation that could land us in a future of self-driving cars is exactly the wrong way to win over more conservative enterprises.

Even on technology, however, it’s worth noting that Google Cloud Platform has a ways to go. As Cockcroft spotlights, “For new server-less computing and machine learning applications Google have a compelling story, but they don’t appeal to the kind of mainstream enterprise applications that are currently migrating to AWS” -- you know, the far less sexy but much more pervasive applications that power the enterprise.

He continues:

I think GCP is making good progress, but it has a long way to go -- and if anything, the platform is falling further behind AWS and Azure rather than catching up. They are able to leverage the innovations and scale of the Google mothership for new applications in analytics and machine learning, but AWS is innovating faster in more areas and has huge scale itself, so that’s not enough.

All fair points (even if Google’s Miles Ward strenuously disagrees), but ultimately I don’t believe the cloud battle comes down to technology. Rather, the winner will be the company that makes it easiest for conservative enterprises to unshackle themselves from their servers and trust the public cloud.

Gartner analyst Lydia Leong hints at this in suggesting why Microsoft Azure has been so successful despite lacking the technology chops to compete head-to-head with AWS. (“Azure almost always loses tech evals to AWS hands-down, but guess what? They still win deals. Business isn't tech-only.”) For Microsoft, which already owns the affections of the CIO, the company has to show it can innovate in the cloud. Google has limited history with the same CIOs, so it needs to not only show it can build cool tech, but also execute according to enterprise requirements.

That means being a bit boring -- predictable, safe.

Amazon has managed this transition. Google, filled with some of the world’s smartest, most talented engineers, can, too. But let’s be clear: This transformation into a cloud leader is at least as much about company culture as it is about tech, and probably more.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.