Forbes | May 13, 2014

For AWS, Objects in the Rear View Mirror are Closer Than They Appear

It is a well-known fact that Amazon Web Services (AWS) is dominating the cloud computing industry. In fact, the lead is so large that Gartner had to rescale the magic quadrant just to fit the other vendors on the grid along with AWS when they published their analysis late in 2013. At that time, Microsoft and Google were just getting started with their IaaS offerings, OpenStack was struggling with ease of use and a lack of consensus and direction with their roadmap, and PaaS was still slow to catch on. In addition, most cloud service providers had a failed strategy which was to simply copy Amazon’s core APIs which gave buyers no compelling reason to move away from AWS. When I summed up the AWS re:Invent conference last winter, I saw the gap widening to the point where I wondered if anyone would ever catch up. Now six months later, I see a lot of real competition heating up finally giving customers compelling reasons to consider alternatives to AWS. The competition is coming from all angles: public clouds, hybrid clouds, private clouds, and PaaS offerings.


Public Clouds

Forget about price as a differentiator when comparing public clouds. The price of core cloud services (network, storage, compute) have become a commodity to the point where we should just accept the fact that the cloud service providers will continue to compete at relatively the same price point. Vendors that can’t keep up with the falling prices of AWS, Google, Microsoft, and IBM will be doomed. To compete with AWS, vendors must offer better or different features and better performance. This is exactly what Google brings to the table.

Google launched their public IaaS offering in December of 2013. Sure they have a long way to go to catch up to AWS with their feature set but they are much more than an AWS copycat. Google is a pioneer in large scale systems and their cloud offering is based on the same architecture that powers the world’s number one search engine. Google has an advantage in that their datacenters’ network throughput is inherently faster due to a large investment in dark fiber. Although speed tests can be subjective, many published tests like this one point to Google as being the best in performance. Google also boasts that their load balancer is capable of serving one million requests per second. In addition Google’s load balancers do not need to be prewarmed like AWS’s Elastic Load Balancer (ELB). Some customers have issues with AWS’s ELB performance. In my experience, the ELB performs quite well but the real issue is that AWS only supports the round robin routing algorithm. For some applications, round robin is not a good solution and can overwhelm virtual machines. AWS may need to consider supporting other routing algorithms if users perceive the ELB as being too slow.

Google offers a few other great features. First is that all disk is encrypted by default. The number one concern for enterprises with the cloud is security. Encrypting data is a key strategy for mitigating security concerns. By encrypting disk by default, even the NSA will be challenged to make use of any customer data in the public cloud.

In addition to Google’s high rating in performance, Google also has some impressive services in the area of big data. Google is a pioneer in non-relational database technologies and brought us Big Table back in the mid-2000s. Now Google offers BigQuery Streaming for real time big data analytics. BigQuery promises to deliver real-time analysis of up to 100,000 rows per second which gives them a competitive offering to AWS’s new real time streaming service called Kinesis.

One area where Google is far behind is in developer tools. The recent acquisition of Stack Driver, a cloud monitoring solution, shows that Google is willing to buy companies to close the feature gap. Amazon, on the other hand, prefers to build and not buy and have the capital and resources to crank out many new features as we have seen them do over the years. Google also has the capital to build but is also willing to buy to accelerate their feature set. It will be interesting to see what other companies they acquire over the next few years and how well they integrate these companies into the offering.

Hybrid Clouds

Two to three years ago, most enterprises were weary of the public cloud due to concerns in the areas of security, privacy, and compliance. Private clouds were the preferred solution for enterprises. What many of these enterprises discovered was that building private clouds was hard and expensive and achieving all of the benefits that the public cloud offers was not attainable. These companies then started using a combination of public and private clouds where the strategy is to keep the crown jewels (the data) in the private cloud, but move certain workloads to the public cloud where security is not as much as a concern. Hybrid clouds have become almost a standard way of operating for large enterprises these days.

Microsoft started its cloud journey with Azure, a public PaaS solution. PaaS has been slow to be broadly adopted in the large enterprises. Under Steve Ballmer, Microsoft chose to enter the IaaS market and go head to head with AWS in the public cloud with mixed success. Sure they won over a lot of loyal Microsoft shops, but AWS slaughtered them everywhere else. New CEO, Satya Nadella, who spent the last three years running Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise group, has brought a new hybrid cloud strategy to the market. Microsoft just announced a new partnership with Apprenda, a private PaaS solution with large enterprise customers such as JP Morgan Chase. This partnership allows Microsoft customers to leverage Apprenda’s PaaS for private cloud workloads and Microsoft’s IaaS solution for public cloud workloads. The two companies will share leads and collaborate on sales efforts. Apprenda now offers Azure compute resources for paying customers at no additional cost meaning that if a customer paid for a certain amount of Apprenda resources, they get the same amount of Azure resources for no additional cost. In addition, Microsoft is leveraging their existing services around Visual Studio, Active Directory, System Center and more to allow Apprenda users to use the tools that they are already familiar with.

At the Tech Ed event in Houston this week, Microsoft made a number of announcements around their hybrid cloud offerings. Included in the list of announcements was the release of Express Route, Microsoft’s answer to AWS’s Direct Connect. Express Route provides a secure and fast connection between on-premises and Azure public IaaS resources. In addition, Microsoft announced services to assist in disaster recovery, improved networking and computing functionality, and previewed Azure Files which promises to improve file sharing between clouds.

Microsoft’s hybrid strategy finally gives them a clear differentiator and one that may persuade many IT shops to shift away from AWS. Only time can tell how well this strategy will work but this is the some of the best thinking I have seen come out of Microsoft in a while from their cloud group.

Private Clouds

As I mentioned earlier, many companies still prefer to roll their own clouds and this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. The problem with private clouds, specifically with OpenStack, an open source cloud project, is that it just does not work well out of the box. It takes an army of real intelligent people and usually a boat load of time and money to get an OpenStack cloud up and running and usable. In fact, many of my clients are moving away from private clouds towards AWS because of their bad experiences deploying private clouds. Yesterday the Open Stack Summit in Atlanta kicked off and Jonathan Bryce, OpenStack’s Executive Director, talked about the future of OpenStack. Jonathan discussed the importance of the open stack community and left me with the impression that they are finally getting the right leadership and focus in place to work on features that will make OpenStack more user friendly and easier to run out of the box. They also announced a new super user forum and a market place.

If OpenStack can simplify the installation process and companies can get up and running quicker and with less costs, it could mean that a lot more workloads may stay in the private cloud.

PaaS Offerings

Platform as a Service (PaaS) will one day become the preferred cloud service model for most workloads. Enterprises have been slow to adopt PaaS but I see that changing in the near future. Most enterprises are not yet comfortable with public PaaS solutions like Heroku, Azure, Engine Yard and the like but are taking a hard look at private and hybrid PaaS solutions like Apprenda, Red Hat’s Open Shift, and Pivotal’s Cloud Foundry. A few recent events have made these PaaS solutions more favorable in the eyes of the enterprise.

I already mentioned the Apprenda/Azure relationship that presents an attractive hybrid solution. Cloud Foundry just recently added 8 new members to its foundation bringing its total to 17. The list includes heavy hitters like IBM, HP, VMWare, SAP, Rackspace and others. This is great news for enterprises because that kind of commitment to an open source project gives customers confidence that Cloud Foundry is in it for the long haul. In fact, this same type of commitment is what made OpenStack the de facto standard and helped it leap frog the popular Apache CloudStack project a couple of years ago. I have seen some clients already start evaluating Cloud Foundry after hearing the announcement.

Red Hat just had its annual summit a few weeks back and had a long list of its own announcements as well. Included in its announcements was a strong partnership with Dell to enhance Red Hat’s hybrid cloud offering on OpenStack and a deep integration with Docker to simplify deployments by leveraging Docker’s container technology. Red Hat has been a major contributor to both OpenStack and Docker projects.

Suddenly, PaaS solutions are looking more polished and enterprise ready. A surge in PaaS adoption can take even more workloads away from Amazon.


Let’s not kid ourselves though. Amazon is way out in front and is innovating at a rate that only Google seems to be capable of competing with. However, last year at this time when Amazon looked in the rear view mirror there was nothing but blue skies. Now when they look in the rear view mirror there is convoy approaching and it is coming from many different angles. For cloud service consumers, there is nothing better than fierce competition. This will only make the cloud service providers better. It will be interesting to see how these strategies play out and to see what other acquisitions take place over the next couple of years. Fasten your seat belts. This should be quite a ride.

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