Why performance will help Google steal cloud customers from Amazon

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This week’s announcement by Google of its new Google Compute Engine cloud offering is a big deal, and GigaOM’s coverage to date has been pretty spot on. However, having read the excellent coverage by Om Malik and Derrick Harris, as well as some interesting analysis on other sites (like here and here), I’m stuck with the feeling that most are missing the real reason Google will get some stalwart Amazon Web Services customers to give Compute Engine a try. Google’s quest to win over users will be all about performance.

The Google Developers Blog post announcing the service broke down three key “offers” of GCE,  which I interpret as the three key differentiators from Google’s perspective of its service over the competition (not necessarily just AWS):

  • Scale. At Google we tackle huge computing tasks all the time, like indexing the web, or handling billions of search queries a day. Using Google’s data centers, Google Compute Engine reduces the time to scale up for tasks that require large amounts of computing power. You can launch enormous compute clusters – tens of thousands of cores or more.
  • Performance. Many of you have learned to live with erratic performance in the cloud. We have built our systems to offer strong and consistent performance even at massive scale. For example, we have sophisticated network connections that ensure consistency. Even in a shared cloud you don’t see interruptions; you can tune your app and rely on it not degrading.
  • Value. Computing in the cloud is getting even more appealing from a cost perspective. The economy of scale and efficiency of our data centers allows Google Compute Engine to give you 50% more compute for your money than with other leading cloud providers. You can see pricing details here.

Scale and price matter, but …

A demo of genome analysis on Compute Engine.

All of the coverage I’ve read to date has focused on the scale and value elements of Google’s story. And these are critically important. When it comes to scale, few can match a launch that includes roughly 100,000 servers and 770,000 cores of available capacity (though I doubt you’ll be able to grab half that for yourself in a few weeks). Google does scale for a living, and with a reported 1 million servers in operation across the company, nobody comes close — except maybe Amazon.

When it comes to value, Google fired a shot across AWS’s bow with roughly equivalent pricing, though Google argues that app-for-app, their service will be cheaper—or, as it says, “50% more compute for your money than with other leading cloud providers.” Other analysis questions this, and certainly any advantage Google has today will be challenged quickly by Amazon, given its own history of reducing prices.

Performance is Google’s ace in the hole

However, I think the key potential differentiator for Google, if it wants to take market share from AWS, is the performance of the cloud infrastructure itself. If Google can deliver a service that eliminates most of the I/O and network performance inconsistencies that AWS customers currently experience, I can guarantee you there are many major compute customers of AWS that will want to give Compute Engine a test run.

The I/O experience alone has been a real thorn in the side of many technologists, who — despite having designed applications to account for performance inconsistency — have real concerns about whether their applications can run as efficiently as possible in such an environment. If Google’s performance claims are confirmed, you will see one or two large-scale AWS customers begin to spread their compute loads between the two services by the middle of 2013. Heck, at least one may actually move off of EC2 altogether.

Still, if performance turns out to be not significantly better than AWS, or if there are other major limitations to the Compute Engine service, those customers will quietly put to rest their experiments and return to the “tried and true” AWS service that they know. And others will no doubt use Compute Engine, even if it’s not the best thing since sliced bread, turning it into a real contender in the cloud computing space but nothing near an AWS killer. The scale and value stories are legitimate, they’re just not compelling enough by themselves to drive too many customers to change how they do cloud computing.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user David Castillo Dominici

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