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October 17, 2008

Google Is Not a Cloud Computing Leader

Derrick Harris

There, I said it. And I’ll stand by it as long as we’re talking about the enterprise.

More and more, I’m seeing cloud computing diverge into two distinct sets of users: enterprises and consumers. But the latter doesn’t know or care that it’s doing anything “in the cloud”; consumers just know their iPhones are running some rad apps. In my non-IT life, I know all sorts of people with all sorts of gadgets and at all levels of social networking addiction – and never once have I heard uttered the term “cloud computing.” The same goes for anyone I know who uses Google Docs (or GMail or anything) for any non-IT ends. Cloud computing just isn’t on their radars, even though they’re using these supposed cloud services.

If a tree falls in a forest but no one is around …

I think the same goes for enterprises. Whether sanctioned or not, the evidence seems to indicate that a lot of people (and departments) within enterprises are using Google Apps for a variety of reasons. However, that doesn’t mean they’re thinking of it as cloud computing. Probably, the collaboration capabilities just make Google Apps more appealing than local office software. And, trust me, if cloud computing simply meant software as a service, there would not be the levels of hype, skepticism and, in some cases, flat-out fear that have permeated the enterprise IT world. Whether enterprises choose to leverage SaaS for non-mission-critical applications — especially, it would seem, office software — has little to do with the concerns they have around cloud computing.

The truth is, it’s only cloud computing to me because I care about the infrastructure that makes it possible to deliver Google’s undeniably impressive line of Web services and applications to millions of users. The undisputed leader of all things Web thanks in large part to this infrastructure, Google definitely is a leading user of cloud computing.

Where Google is undoubtedly a provider of cloud computing is with its App Engine service. Here, we’re talking about Google actually carving off a piece of its leading-edge infrastructure, adding and subtracting features where it deems necessary, and offering a computing resources to users. App Engine certainly is a step or two beyond the average consumer, but still — in its alpha offering, at least — falls well short of anything enterprises would seriously consider adopting.

Why? Because enterprises want SLAs, they want security, they want flexibility, they want support, they want enterprise-class virtual infrastructures, and they want familiarity. Depending on your definitions, SLAs and support are not too common in the cloud world yet, so hammering Google on this front seems uncessary. Even still, the inflexibility might be a bigger issue anyhow. Python might be great for certain Web apps, but I’m not aware of any serious enterprise applications written in that language. The same with BigTable: it’s ideal for Web needs, but most enterprises require a more robust database. A few might use App Engine for testing or developing some specific Web apps, but the reality is that pretty much any other cloud computing offering that seems more enterprise-friendly by comparison.

But I’m not faulting Google at all. At this point, it is not trying to become the cloud platform of choice for the enterprise. If it was, it would include bare-metal access, a host of operating systems, various image sizes, etc. Google is a Web company and is targeting Web users. And even it acknowledges that App Engine is a work in progress. When Google decides to target the enterprise, I think we’ll know. I just want to stop hearing about “the Googles and the Amazons” in reference to cloud leaders.

From my perspective, Google’s only legitimate cloud computing option is very limited and very specific, and doesn’t really compare to the more robust and feature-rich cloud platforms out there. This could all change tomorrow, of course, but until it does, maybe we can start giving props to the cloud providers who have start-ups based entirely on their infrastructures, and who are constantly adding features in the hopes of enticing the elusive enterprise user (if only for testing).