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Feature 5 October 2022 (ComputerWeekly)

Ofcom’s plan to investigate competition in cloud services – especially the position of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud – has raised eyebrows in provider communities.

Industry players argue that any threat might be more theoretical than real – at least for now.

Ulrich Voigt, vice-president of product management at media technology specialist Vizrt, works a lot with AWS, among other cloud providers – and he suggests that the benefits, including for sustainability and efficiency, outweigh any effect of their dominance. This is “anything but trivial”, especially when total costs of datacentre ownership only make sense at scale, he says.

“You actually get unlimited machines and optimisation,” says Voigt. “You don’t have to order and purchase a fully redundant system. And even smaller hosting providers have sweet spots – one is cheaper for bandwidth, another for the CPU.”

Two years ago, the distributed AWS offering for tape libraries passed the point where you could break even by purchasing a large, physical, automated tape library, he says. Data durability was also much higher than you could do on your own – and the hyperscalers often lead best practice on data management.

“In AWS, it was distributed geographically over three datacentres – highly redundant, completely managed and cared for,” says Voigt.

Does diversity need dominant players?

For Vizrt, AWS is always pushing for more encryption of video files, which is still “not easy” to achieve, he says. Dealing with video requires specific hardware approaches and cloud virtualisation, which entails differentiation when addressing the video needs of different verticals – medical versus entertainment, for example.

“And the more you put services into the cloud, the more you need good connections,” says Voigt.

He adds that overdependence on the hyperscalers can be partly avoided by using more than one – although having an architecture incorporating redundancy available at another hyperscaler is not easy either.

Voigt concedes that some do have concerns about the major cloud providers all being US companies – and that is not all about data sovereignty, which has been dealt with in the UK to some extent at least with post-Brexit US agreements.

But competition between the “three big guys” should keep the pressure on cost, with end-user customers that are tech providers then differentiating through their own added-on services and industry expertise, he says.

Gordon McKenna, chief technology officer for public cloud at managed services provider Ensono, describes himself as “a Microsoft guy for 25 years”. He feels the hyperscalers have helped drag people “kicking and screaming, if necessary” towards greater innovation.

“Those doing the disrupting are nearly all in the cloud, or mostly in the cloud,” he says.

“Innovation is happening with the hyperscalers because of the scale, the focus, and the money they’ve got. I think businesses that struggle are often not taking advantage of that.”

Microsoft, Google and AWS already have highly containerised datacentres, which make it less and less important to use anything else, he says. Meanwhile, those that prefer hybrid, private or on-premise infrastructures can still choose that – even if they are benefiting from hyperscaler edge tech at the same time.

McKenna hastens to add that he is not “completely all on the hyperscaler side”, due to elements of lock-in that still, in his view, need to be addressed. AWS, Microsoft and Google all have proprietary cloud-native services, microservices or platforms where a migration essentially means a rewrite on another platform.

“For a very large e-commerce or ERP [enterprise resource planning] application, it is almost impossible sometimes to get out,” he says. “But if you want to talk about lock-in, the likes of IBM have been doing that for 75 years. Whether it’s on-premise or in the cloud, companies typically take advantage of positions.”

McKenna would like to see pressure from regulatory bodies on further standardisation where needed – such as to drive sustainability.

Chris Royles, field CTO at Cloudera, broadly agrees, noting that each hyperscaler has its own ecosystem of startups, consultancies and other providers that help customers have choice that meets specific requirements.

“Data and their workloads will be born in the cloud and natively integrated with the hyperscaler’s platform from day zero,” says Royles. “But the types of workload and data can end up in different places.”

Lock-in might be a thing – but choice remains

People might favour Google if they’ve got a website with Google Analytics and aim to generate and use data with the customer journey, says Royles. That lands in BigQuery “whether you like it or not”, with Google adding relevant toolsets and analytics around that.

Royles has found that a lot of organisations focusing on SAP-type workloads – ERP, CRM [customer relationship management], SAP Hana offload and the like – can choose AWS. “Amazon’s done really well at making that easy,” he says.

Conversely, retailers sometimes avoid Amazon because of its e-commerce heritage – while organisations with lots of Microsoft in-house already, such as the NHS, may gravitate to Azure. Business alignment, economics, politics and ease of doing business can all affect the choice, he says.

“Some want to utilise some of the hyperscaler resources and services, but won’t move my data there – so that’s a dynamic as well,” says Royles. “It’s about the ecosystem they build and how that then flows down.”

David Friend, chief executive of object-storage services provider Wasabi, points out that when IBM had most of the storage market, no one thought others could compete. However, today’s datacentres have “dozens” of companies’ hardware all working together, often based on standards.

“Amazon has over 300 different products, from storage and compute to blockchain, gaming, analytics, facial recognition, AI, and on and on – and there are independent vendors in each category whose products are probably better,” he says.

Friend suspects that in five to 10 years’ time, hyperscalers may become the “Marks and Spencers” of cloud – a sort of non-specialist department store for commonplace requirements. For particular needs, especially where performance is a factor, customers can gravitate to specialists with expertise in a niche, he says.

“Yet there will always be a need for a form of one-stop shop where you can get it all in one place, on one bill, as well,” says Friend.

That said, he concedes that companies typically do attempt to prevent others nibbling away at profitable pieces of their market. The technique that Microsoft uses might be seen as a kind of bundling – with users of Office 365 often incentivised to buy Microsoft’s storage, compute, and other things as well. That, of course, is just “sales stuff”, he says. ...


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