For Google’s Cloud to Beat Amazon’s, It First Must Survive

Photograph by Jason Hodgins

The cloud vendor of choice has been Amazon, with its Web services unit that has built a beachhead since its debut in 2006.

Buzz, Gears, Wave, Knol, Web Accelerator — that’s just a partial list of Google’s failed products in recent years. Then there’s Google TV, Google Reader and Google Wallet, which may or may not be busts — the jury is still out.

It’s an established truth in Silicon Valley that outside Internet search, where it dominates, Google has a spotty track record when it comes to stickwithitness.

So when the company said last week at its I/O developers conference that it’s entering the cloud infrastructure market, potential customers would have been forgiven for their skepticism. This product in particular — dubbed Compute Engine — has a major hurdle to jump because customers will be putting their most important stuff, the stuff that runs their companies, in Google’s hands.

Up to this point, the cloud vendor of choice has been Amazon.com, whose Web services unit has built a beachhead in the tech startup scene since it was launched in 2006. Google has nibbled around the edges with a product called App Engine, for hosting Web apps, and Cloud Storage, for housing and managing data. Neither has put a dent in Amazon’s armor, struggling the same way Microsoft has to lure developers.

Maha Ibrahim, a venture capitalist at Canaan Partners who invests in Web startups, expresses Google’s frustration this way: “I can’t believe I let a bookseller beat us in cloud computing.” She calls Google and Microsoft’s failure to crack the market “perplexing.”

Both Microsoft and Google are trying harder than ever to turn the corner, capitalizing on the trend of fewer companies buying their own servers and managing costly data centers are coming to an end. Google said that Compute Engine gives customers 50 percent more power for the money than other leading services.

“Google has strong momentum in the enterprise space,” the Mountain View, California-based company said in an e-mailed statement. Customers were asking for more functionality, “which is why we are continuing to dedicate ourselves to the space by launching Google Compute Engine,” the company said.

Even with its past challenges, Ibrahim said Google has a shot, because unlike some of their products in social networking, TV and Web content, cloud infrastructure fits with their other offerings. She estimates that 98 percent of Silicon Valley startups use Google Docs, Gmail or Calendar, if not all three. Those products are all storing massive amounts of data in the cloud and delivering services on demand.

“It’s a natural extension for these startups, as they grow, to want to continue to be underneath the Google umbrella,” Ibrahim said.

As part of the launch, Google announced that it’s partnering with RightScale, Puppet Labs, Opscode and Numerate, which are all investing heavily in building services on top of cloud infrastructure.

While Google may have some work to do in convincing developers that it’s in this business for the long haul, Opscode co-founder Adam Jacob is already a believer. That’s because Google uses this very same infrastructure to run its own sites (like YouTube) and apps while also managing 11 billion-plus searches per month.

“I’ve sat in rooms with the guys who build the infrastructure,” Jacob said. “They’re smart dudes building awesome infrastructure that no one else even gets a shot at building.”

That’s one vote of confidence.

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