A Dispatch from Cloud City – State of the Union 2016

With a venerable tradition dating back over a year, the annual Platformonomics state of the cloud union strives to combine the exhilaration of the running of the bulls at Pamplona with the hyperbole of Oracle’s annual proclamation that this year they really are serious about cloud. Or at least to land a few jokes along the way.

In summary, we’ve reached the end of the beginning for cloud computing.

There is no longer much question whether public cloud will be the foundation for IT going forward; instead we quibble about timing and implementation details. The largest enterprises as well as the most sophisticated workloads are wafting up into the cloud. The leaders are distancing themselves from the pack while the dreams of cloud wannabes are deflating like footballs around Tom Brady. Legacy vendors’ worlds are imploding. Private cloud proponents are harder and harder to find: except for those few diehards hunkered down in their closet-sized data centers with several years supply of canned goods and tape backup cartridges, previous private cloud proselytizers now talk earnestly about hybrid clouds in hopes of retaining a few on-premises crumbs in the process. And even the very largest corporations are realizing they can’t keep up with the hyperscale public clouds.

I contend there were two critical inflection points for cloud this past year:

Customers tipped, specifically the enterprises who spend vast sums on IT. Most CIOs have shifted from resistance or tire kicking to active embrace, and are doing so increasingly for business reasons as opposed to technical. Sticking your head in the sand is no longer a viable option. The objections have been knocked down one after another. Security turned out to be powerful a reason to go to the cloud, not shun it. The enterprise tipping point is critical because it dramatically expands the size of the cloud opportunity. We can now realistically talk about a trillion dollars of existing IT spend in play, aka the “cloud jackpot”.

Amazon’s transparency, both financial and cultural. The breaking out of AWS financials in April forever banished the platitudes “your margin is my opportunity” and “the race to the bottom”. AWS proved to be a very large, very profitable and very rapidly growing business. Even bulls were surprised to learn not only that the business is profitable, but much more profitable than anyone imagined. The initial operating margins for AWS were almost identical to those of financial engineering savant IBM. Amazon also had some unsolicited transparency inflicted upon it by the New York Times, who took a deep look at the company’s culture.

“I CAN SEE THE CLOUD FROM MY HOUSE”

My thesis for the last two years has materialized: it is a two horse race located here in Cloud City (Seattle) with AWS in the lead and Microsoft the only other vendor who can still see them. Besides being extremely convenient for me, this means your cloud landlord is probably in Seattle. Please don’t be late with the rent check. The geographic version of Gartner’s Infrastructure-as-a-Service Magic Quadrant (™ ® © All rights reserved. p = 0.796513. Trough of disillusionment. Etc.) underscores that the cloud world is not flat.

It is so obvious that even the denizens of Wall Street have noticed, with one brokerage firm hyping it as a ‘206 area code street battle for the cloud’. (Never mind that Microsoft is in a different area code. I’m sure they’re using an area code map from The New Yorker where everything west of the Hudson blurs together, just as all those buy and sell recommendations from east of the Hudson blur together).

Where is Google in this race? In some ways they have the fastest horse and are certainly the third hyperscale player in terms of their global infrastructure footprint. But Google’s horse is sitting some other pasture, contemplating space elevators, indifferent to the idea they need to actually show up for the race to win it.

I have a fundamental question for each of the hyperscale players pertaining to whether and how market shares will shift as this market continues to grow, plus some thoughts on the rest of the rapidly diminishing field.

AMAZON WEB SERVICES

Amazon remains the cloud trailblazer, maintaining their frenetic pace of innovation while also making necessary investments to become a mainstream enterprise provider. The question for AWS is can they adapt and evolve their culture in order to extend their current leadership into dominant share of that trillion dollar cloud jackpot? (Note that cloud will also bring significant revenue compression, aka customer savings.) This is very much an issue of “what got you here won’t get you to the next level.”

Beyond all the substantive if boring investments required to sell to and support enterprise customers, there are a bunch of cultural issues AWS must navigate. Some stem from their position inside Amazon and some are unique to AWS. The broader Amazon culture issues that the New York Times highlighted also impact AWS’s ability to realize its potential, not least their ability to hire and retain talent. AWS is a very different business from the rest of Amazon and one sitting on the pole position of a trillion dollar opportunity. It requires a different culture than the core Amazon MVP trial balloon autocannon and one that doesn’t resort to zero sum political hackery to assuage its ego.

Public cloud providers are among the most important dependencies any company will take. Successful vendors in this position understand the nature of this relationship with their customers and actively work to build customer trust and mutual co-dependence. Not surprisingly, enterprise vendors are very transparent with their customers. Yet this is at odds with the secretive Amazon culture that seems incapable of putting numbers on the y-axis of charts.

Even more, successful enterprise vendors mitigate customer fears of lock-in. AWS has not figured this out and is struggling with lock-in fears, as evidenced by what can only be seen as disappointing adoption of higher level services like the EC2 Container Service and Lambda, despite their technical appeal. Business as usual will not overcome these fears, and not addressing them means a future where customers only feel comfortable consuming base compute and storage. Being cognizant about your own power is challenging, as big technology companies’ internal mindset invariably lags their growth. They go on thinking they’re the plucky little startup long after they’ve become Godzilla.

I used to think Amazon should spin off AWS so it could maniacally focus on retaining or expanding their current share of the cloud jackpot, and build the distinct culture necessary to fully realize that opportunity (and avoid the distractions from the rest of Amazon). After seeing the financials, I believe AWS should spin the rest of the Amazon e-commerce business.

MICROSOFT

Microsoft has executed extremely well to emerge as the only credible challenger to AWS, leveraging both their platform heritage plus the fortune of a massive and overly-optimistic infrastructure build-out for search. Further, they’re the only vendor from a previous generation to make the leap to hyperscale. Unlike many of their peers, Microsoft’s survival in the cloud era is not in doubt.

But as the enterprise market for cloud really begins to open, the question for Microsoft is whether they can bring their enterprise capabilities to bear in a way that both reels in AWS and allows them to materially expand their share of the cloud jackpot. It is not clear Microsoft fully appreciates those enterprise capabilities, in relative or absolute terms. It is a long road to become a credible enterprise vendor, and having lived through that process when I was at Microsoft, it brings great cognitive dissonance to realize they are by far the best of the hyperscale bunch (and it is even weirder to see the company getting good marks for “Playing well with others” these days). Microsoft also has an advantage as a full spectrum provider across IaaS, PaaS and SaaS, to which AWS is just starting to react. But more of the same is not going to materially increase Microsoft’s market share position. Further success starts with a strong dose of self-awareness.

GOOGLE

The big question for Google is when will they realize cloud is more than just an engineering problem? If they want to build a real business where customers take a enormous dependency on them, they are going to have to do some critically important but mundane things that don’t involve algorithms. Worse, it is likely to involve fickle humans. They must overcome their deep antipathy to both customer-facing operations and enterprises as customers.

Post Alphabet, where any previous inhibitions about pursuing new hobbies have evaporated, it is even harder to imagine the “capital allocators” choosing to invest in thousands of enterprise sales and support people given alternatives involving life extension and/or space elevators. After all, won’t the robotics division eventually solve any problem that today requires humans?

THE CULLING OF THE WANNABES

Last year we catalogued the delusions afflicting a long list of public cloud wannabes. This year we simply observe the epidemic of sobriety sweeping the vendor landscape (and the morning-after wreckage). HP managed to exit the public cloud business not just once but twice this year. Helion is Heli-off. Rackspace, still recovering from its OpenStack misadventure, is shifting its center of gravity from the data center to the call center. Both vCloud Air and Virtustream have disappeared into a miasma of highly leveraged financial engineering emanating from Austin. AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon are all hoping no one remembers they once claimed to be public cloud providers (and probably will get away with it). Cisco, presumably, has filed a missing persons report for their InterCloud.

THE SUPERBOWL OF CLOUDWASHING

While the number of hallucinating vendors has plummeted, devotees of delusion should not despair. Despite all the departures, aggregate levels of industry delusion may be hitting new highs between the efforts of IBM and Oracle. These delusional dinosaurs are locked in a battle every bit as fierce as one between the hyperscale competitors, except they are vying for the World Championship of Cloudwashing™. Given cloud poses an existential threat to both companies, it is not surprising they are talking cloud. But their delusion manifests itself in the colossal gap between their rhetoric and their actual capabilities.

I have been arguing for almost three years that IBM is likely to be the cloud’s biggest scalp. Their best outcome is they’re just a much smaller company in the cloud era, not that they’re executing on that path. The stock is down a third since I started beating this drum and is currently exploring new five-year lows. They continue to confuse boutique hosting with hyperscale cloud, and have been reduced to asserting Watson will somehow be their cloud Hail Mary (at what point is it reasonable to expect Watson to progress beyond an endless PR campaign, never mind drive revenue material enough to bolster the ever-shrinking IBM topline?).

A year ago IBM had the cloudwashing title wrapped up but Larry “Lazarus” Ellison is not one to back away from a challenge. Hypercompetitive: yes. Hyperscale: not even remotely. The question for Oracle is do they really believe it when they assert they are the leaders in cloud (or even have a cloud as opposed to some SaaS apps?) or they believe that empty rhetoric is a legitimate substitute for millions of lines of code and billions of dollars of capex? It is embarrassing when your employees feel compelled to point out the discrepancy between announcements and action, and in particular recurring confusion around tenses (also a lesson here for press who happily write the “this time we’re serious AND we are already the clear leader” Oracle cloud story every year without reflecting upon their credibility or past proclamation performance).

But this speaks volumes about Oracle’s cloud:

For instance, when the team was struggling with Oracle’s central IT to get the server resources they needed, the team requisitioned a bunch of desktop computers from Oracle’s Seattle office and turned them into an OpenStack-powered private-cloud-development environment so they could continue their work in peace, right in the middle of the office floor.

IT involved? Check. Private cloud? Check. OpenStack? Inauspicious. Desktop computers under the desk? Are you f*%king kidding me?

To paraphrase William Goldman: “Follow the capex” with IBM and Oracle. We’ll see if they’re still pretending next year.

(CLOUD) BURSTS

Dell/EMC/VMware/WTF: the metal-bending M&A muttonheads have likely inflicted irreparable damage to VMware, the best asset in the so-called “federation”. Pivotal also risks being caught up in financial shenanigans perpetrated by those who neither understand nor appreciate software.

DevOps: if you’re buying DevOps tools, you’re doing it wrong.

Digital Ocean: needs to make its play as the dark horse window is closing.

Docker: despite all the political hijinks as competitors tried to box Docker in, Docker has become boring. That is good; the container infrastructure continues to mature. More exciting perhaps are new developer models emerging that are “native” to containers.

GitHub: the Craigslist of cloud?

HubSpot: this is not cloudy, but given the infrequency of my blogging, I will predict their CEO steps down in 2016 with p = .7. The board may follow. The level of transparency has not yet become “uncomfortable”. But it will.

Industry Foundations: after an ugly outbreak of industry foundations last year, we can only hope to be certified Foundation-free in 2016. As we have seen, this affliction is highly contagious. As with cockroaches, when you see one foundation, you will likely see more. So it is important to prevent potential foundation epidemics; the best protection is not letting companies that can’t write code get involved.

PaaS: still a zero billion dollar market though the data is suggesting I might finally have to stop using that line next year. Perhaps more importantly, containers have reinvigorated the endless ontological debate about what exactly constitutes a PaaS. Cloud Foundry is having some success selling to very large enterprises, but they seem to be selling hope more than product. The Fortune 500 is packed with companies grasping for anything that lets them believe they can become software companies.

OpenStack: like a poorly performing European football team, OpenStack has been relegated to a lower division. It is now a solution for telcos. As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, you can still sell it to telcos. OpenStack is a great fit with the NFV misdirection, which gives telcos the infrastructure toys everyone else had a decade ago while leaving the networking crown jewels firmly in vendor hands.

(Free) Stock Tips: if wave one of the cloud disruption hit enterprise hardware, wave two is hitting enterprise software. VMware preemptively tubed its stock by letting itself be the funny business in the Dell-EMC deal, so it not clear how much more downside there is in VMW. Oracle’s stock has already started to roll over. But there is still time to short Red Hat who, despite being irrelevant to cloud, sports a multiple of over 75 yet will see a much smaller fraction of every dollar that shifts to the cloud. If you have a cloud infrastructure software company to sell, Red Hat is your first call.

9 thoughts on “A Dispatch from Cloud City – State of the Union 2016”

  1. Charles,

    I see where GE is building a new cloud and platform called Predix. They say it will be better than anything that Microsoft or Amazon are building because it will be more secure. They are also saying that they understand the IoT better than most since they are actually building the equipment. What do you think? Does this platform have a chance?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

  2. I am skeptical. All my data says GE is much better at marketing and PR than software. They tell a good story but hard to see how GE catches up to AWS/Azure on scale, capability, security, hyperscale ops or anything else. The idea they know more about security is laughable. I bet they end up running some workloads on AWS and/or Azure and declaring victory. Meanwhile, their industrial competitors will work directly with the big clouds and not allow GE to control their hardware.

  3. Thanks – What about HANA from SAP? They are beating our doors down saying that they are platform of the future. It seems like everyone is the platform of the future.

  4. I don’t see any HANA traction outside of the SAP footprint. Might make sense if build apps that work with SAP, but hard to make any case beyond that. It gives them something new to talk to their customers about and try to turf out the existing database vendors. What is their pitch for HANA?

  5. It’s mainly around extending SAP workloads but they are also talking about HANA as a multi-purpose development platform. Feels like vendor lock-in to me. It looks like all of these vendors are focusing on some variant of an in-memory database, combined with an engine like SPARK and/or R (saw where MSFT recently acquired an R engine). There is so much hype in the press today.

  6. I would only consider HANA if you’re building/extending SAP workloads. We’re in midst of change in database architecture as memory economics change, so in-memory definitely will become more mainstream. Not sure any more hype than usual though 😉

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