Google already runs much of the digital lives of consumers through email, Internet searches and YouTube videos. Now it wants the corporations says Quentin Hardy of the New York Times.
The search giant has for years been evasive about its plans for a so-called public cloud of computers and data storage that is rented to individuals and businesses. On Tuesday, however, it will announce pricing, features and performance guarantees aimed at companies ranging from start-ups to multinationals.
It is the latest salvo in an escalating battle among some of the most influential companies in technology to control corporate and government computing through public clouds. That battle, which is expected to last years and cost the competitors billions of dollars annually in material and talent, already includes Microsoft, IBM and Amazon.
As businesses move from owning their own computers to renting data-crunching power and software over the Internet, this resource-rich foursome is making big promises about computing clouds. Supercomputing-based research, for example, won’t be limited to organizations that can afford supercomputers. And tech companies with a hot idea will be able to get big fast because they won’t have to build their own computer networks.
Take Snapchat, the photo-swapping service that recently turned down a multibillion-dollar takeover offer from Facebook. It processes 4,000 pictures a second on Google’s servers but is just two years old and has fewer than 30 employees. The company started out working with a Google service that helps young companies create applications and was chosen by Google to be an early customer of its cloud.
Working with Google has allowed Snapchat to avoid spending a lot to support its users. “I’ve never owned a computer server,” said Bobby Murphy, a co-founder and the chief technical officer of Snapchat.
That is a big shift from the days when, for young companies, knowing how to build a complex data center was just as important as creating a popular service.
“These things are incredibly fast — setting up new servers in a minute, when it used to take several weeks to order, install and test,” said Chris Gaun, an analyst with Gartner. “Finance, product research, crunching supercomputing data like genomic information can all happen faster.”
Amazon’s cloud, called Amazon Web Services, was arguably the pioneer of the public cloud and for now is the largest player. Amazon says its cloud has “hundreds of thousands” of customers. Though most of these are individuals and small businesses, it also counts big names like Netflix, which stopped building its own data centers in 2008 and was completely on Amazon’s cloud by 2012. All of Amazon’s services are run inside that cloud, too.
A more traditional consumer goods company, 3M, uses Microsoft’s public cloud, called Azure, to process images for 20,000 individuals and companies in 50 countries to analyze various product designs. Microsoft says Azure handles 100 petabytes of data a day, roughly 700 years of HD movies.
“People started out building things on Amazon’s service, but now there are a few big players,” said Mr. Murphy. “Hopefully the time between an idea and its implementation can get even quicker.”
Google is cutting prices for most of its services like online data storage and computer processing by 10 percent and its high-end data storage prices by 60 percent, while offering access to larger and more complex computing systems. Google is also guaranteeing that critical projects will remain working 99.95 percent of the time, far better performance than in most corporate data centers.
“People make a mistake thinking this is just a version of the computers on their desks, at a lower cost,” said Greg DeMichillie, director of Google’s public cloud platform. “This is lots of distributed computing intelligence, not just in computers and phones, but in cars, in thermometers, everywhere. The demand will only increase.”
Mr. DeMichillie, who came to Google from Amazon Web Services, allowed that Google was far slower than Amazon to get into the business. “I give them a lot of credit,” he said of Amazon, adding that in the long run he believes Google’s deep experience in data centers will help the company provide a stronger and more reliable service.
Google has a mixed record in similar efforts. The business version of Drive, its word processing, spreadsheet and storage service, was first introduced under a different name in 2007. It now has revenue of over $1 billion a year, but current and former executives have complained that it is a low priority inside the company because Google makes so much more money from consumer advertising.
But Google is one of the few companies that has the heft to compete with the others.
Over the last several years, each of the big cloud providers has built a global network of over a million computer servers. In the process, the companies are rethinking almost every step to maximize efficiency and power. Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor maker, now has six salespeople assigned full time to Amazon, feeding a continuous appetite for new computers.
Only a few other companies, mostly in China, are likely to manage either the capital or the expertise to build such systems, analysts say. Facebook, which does have a giant global computing network, so far has not shown interest in corporate computing.
IBM, which in July paid $2 billion to buy another cloud provider, will add 12 new facilities in 2014, eventually with 240,000 more servers around the globe, according to a senior IBM executive. It already has 25 such facilities. Hundreds of cloud-based services will be introduced, including cheap new communications systems and software for big, complex companies.
David Campbell, the chief technical officer of Microsoft’s cloud group, said he was often surprised by the growth of the clouds.
“It’s vastly different from anything anyone has done, a completely different beast,” he said.
And this shift is just beginning, maybe three years into a 10-year process that is democratizing heavy-duty processing power, Mr. Campbell said.
“Walmart did amazing things by running computers on its supply chain and analyzing customer demand,” said Mr. Campbell. “Now you can imagine some guy in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains producing that kind of thing for 500 or 1,000 retailers.”
The biggest promise of these clouds is their ability to make it easy to do things that would have cost millions of dollars in hardware just a few years ago.
That is, unless you want to build your own public cloud. Executives at all four public cloud competitors say there is no college course or professional training for running computers at this scale: The only real way to learn how to do it is by working at the handful of companies with the resources to pull it off.
“We’re giving people the same services we rely on to run Google,” said Mr. DeMichillie. “I wouldn’t say spending billions of dollars doesn’t matter, but there is a learning by doing in this, too; hard information problems we’ve tackled.”