Google bets on cloud breakup

Google’s gigantic data centers are temples of the information age. Built for consumer services that reach billions of people, they also serve as a platform for the search company’s push toward cloud computing — a market that could one day be even bigger than its advertising business.

This week, however, Google tried a different tack. In its latest effort to catch up with Amazon and Microsoft in cloud computing, it went a step beyond its own data centers. In doing so, it spotlighted two of the key trends shaping the future of cloud computing — and, by extension, much of the IT world.

One of them is called multi-cloud. As the name suggests, it involves harnessing the resources of a number of different public clouds to perform a computing task. For customers, it reduces the risk of lock-in by a single cloud vendor, while it could open the way for Google to become a more serious player in a market that was late to attack.

Right now, the search company is a distant third in cloud computing. The Google Cloud Platform has become one of the company’s most promising businesses, with Jefferies analysts estimating that revenue will grow 56 percent this year to $10.4 billion. But that still leaves it far behind the estimated $61 billion in Amazon Web Services and $37 billion in Microsoft’s Azure.

Google’s latest bid for relevance came this week at its annual cloud conference, with the general release of a data warehousing service that leverages data across a number of different clouds, not just its own. If customers already have a lot of their data in Amazon’s S3 storage service, then this is a way for Google to get in and use it for one of its own services.

By breaking cloud boundaries in this way, data storage can become a commodity – or, more precisely, prevent storage from becoming something that binds customers to a cloud provider’s other, higher-value services.

It also shows where Google’s best opportunity lies in the cloud wars. The search company likes to praise the efficiency and security of its own IT infrastructure. But the real edge may be in the higher-end services like data analytics and AI honed on its giant consumer services.

The other key trend that Google has highlighted this week is bringing the cloud closer to the customer. Rather than centralizing computing in large data centers, it means setting up smaller facilities to handle some of the work locally – creating something known as a distributed cloud.

The same software and single interface are used to control these remote computing resources, but customers have the comfort of storing their data locally and response times are faster. The forces pushing computing to the edge of the network are likely to increase as the demand to process ever-increasing amounts of data in real-time increases.

AWS and Microsoft were the first to come up with this idea, with services known as Outposts and Azure Stack respectively. However, cloud computing is still estimated to account for only 5-10 percent of the global IT market: it’s relatively early in this slow revolution, with enough time for all three to create giant companies around the idea.

Bringing data storage and processing closer to customers could open up a new market for smaller, local operators in what has come to be known as ‘edge’ computing.

Rather than giant, monolithic clouds dominating the future of computing, this could support a more diverse set of local players — though the software orchestrating these more disparate networks would still come from a handful of dominant operators.

For Google, which has always displayed a high level of technical confidence (some would call it arrogance), this is all an important starting point. The early cloud strategy—building the best technology and assuming customers would find their way out the door—didn’t work. Adapting to the reality of a more heterogeneous IT world, where customers already rely on multiple suppliers, has opened a new avenue.

“Google has always been an innovation engine — what we’re seeing now is a much more external focus,” said Ed Anderson, an analyst at Gartner.

At their own annual cloud events in the coming weeks, Microsoft and AWS will no doubt have a lot more to say on these topics as well. As they compete in cloud computing, this is at least one market where some of the giants of Big Tech are fighting it out in fierce competition with each other.

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