AWS vs Azure vs Google: What's the best cloud platform for enterprise?

It's the defining cloud battle of our time: AWS vs Microsoft Azure vs Google Cloud Platform. Who can win the IaaS enterprise market? Computerworld takes a look at the merits of the big three vendors

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All vendors offer free introductory tiers, allowing customers to try their services before they buy, and typically offer credits to attract innovative startups onto their platforms as well as 'always free' tiers with strict usage limits.

Read next: Cloud vendor free tiers compared: AWS vs Azure vs Google Cloud Platform

For example, Google offers free usage up to 1GB of Google Cloud Datastore capacity, 28 instance hours per day for Google App Engine, one micro sentence per month for Google Compute Engine, 5 GB-months of Google Cloud Storage (regional only), 2 million Cloud Functions per month, 50GB of logs with Stackdriver for monitoring, as well as limited access to products like: Google Cloud Natural Language, Cloud Vision API, Kubernetes Engine and more.

In July 2018, Microsoft announced changes to the pricing plans for its on-premise and cloud products that came into effect in October 2018. These changes include setting one price for web direct for online services (OLS) and eliminating programmatic volume discounts in Enterprise Agreement (EA)/EA Subscription, MPSA, Select/Select Plus, and Open programs (Open, Open Value, Open Value Subscription).

Customers

A high-profile user base may not be the main reason for choosing your cloud provider, but it can help more cautious organisations understand how the public cloud is benefiting others in their sector.

This is clearly a strong point of AWS. It has increasingly taken on large customer deals. For example, although the US Central Intelligence Agency eventually signed a contract with IBM, it awarded AWS a contract to build its private cloud in a one-off deal in 2013, which could be seen as a symbolic moment for potential buyers.

A longstanding AWS customer is Netflix, which eventually decided to shut all of its data centres in a final move to the cloud in 2016. But aside from web pioneers, AWS has been truly successful in convincing more traditional businesses to move to the cloud.

Other major customers include: AstraZeneca, NewsCorp, AirBnB, Aon, Channel 4, Financial Times, Dow Jones, Kurt Geiger, Lonely Planet, Nasdaq, Nike, Nisa Retail, Pfizer, and the Royal Opera House. A full list of AWS customers can be seen here.

Read next: Wall Street regulator Finra goes ‘all in’ on the public cloud with AWS

Microsoft perhaps has fewer high-profile Azure users, with most of the messaging from the vendor appearing to be around its widely used software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools. But the Redmond firm has also notched up some notable customer wins such as Pearson, Ford, NBC News and Easyjet, to name but a few.

In a bid to turn this around Microsoft cut around 10 percent of its global sales force in July 2017, as part of a broad reorganisation to focus on selling its cloud services under the Azure brand.

The new selling strategy at the company was revealed in a leaked email, which was obtained by the Wall Street Journal. In it, Judson Althoff, executive vice president for worldwide commercial business, outlined how Microsoft wants to focus on targeting businesses instead of specific industries or market segments. He said he wanted to increase the "technical depth and better align sales and services to solution areas" at the company.

Google is in a similar position, but has notched up some key wins in recent years, especially when the streaming giant Spotify completed an all-in migration to GCP in the summer of 2018.

Read next: How Spotify migrated everything from on-premise to Google Cloud Platform

UK bank HSBC has also opted for Google Cloud for its analytics and machine learning capabilities. However, HSBC is taking a clear multi-cloud approach, partnering with all three providers for different workloads.

Read next: HSBC turns to Google Cloud for analytics and machine learning capabilities

Snapchat parent company Snap also spends a great deal with Google for IaaS, but it also spends with AWS. During the social network's IPO process it was revealed that the company is committed to a $2 billion five-year deal with Google for cloud services, as well as a $1 billion deal with AWS over five years.

Home Depot and Disney were also named as Cloud Platform customers during Google's 2017 Cloud Next conference.

AWS pros and cons

As mentioned before, the reasons for picking one vendor over another will differ for each customer. But there are aspects of the competing clouds that will offer benefits in certain circumstances.

The breadth and depth of the AWS offering is seen as a plus for AWS.

Read next: The history of AWS: A timeline of 12 defining moments from 2002 to now

AWS had a head start on the competition, building out its suite of cloud services since 2006. All of these are built to be enterprise-friendly so that they will appeal to CIOs as well as its core audience of developers.

The vendor ranks highly on platform configuration options, monitoring and policy features, security and reliability. Its partner ecosystem and general product strategy are also seen as market leading, and its AWS Marketplace has a large number of third-party software services.

Another of the benefits of the AWS cloud is its openness and flexibility. For example, Transport for London - which also relies on Azure in other parts of its operations - has used AWS to meet spikes in demand for its online services such as its Journey Planner tool.

However, one area AWS falls short to some degree is with its hybrid cloud strategy, where it has tended to be dismissive of the benefits of on-premise private clouds. As outlined above, the vendor is slowly coming around to the idea though.

Another downside to AWS is the scale of its offering. While this is an attraction in many senses, it can be difficult at times to navigate the large numbers of features that are on offer, and some see AWS as being a complex vendor to manage.

Microsoft Azure pros and cons

The big pull for Azure is where Microsoft already has a strong footing within an organisation and can easily play a role in helping those companies transition to the cloud. Azure naturally links well with key Microsoft on-premise systems such as Windows Server, System Center and Active Directory.

In addition, while both AWS and Azure have PaaS capabilities, this is a particular strength of Microsoft's.

One of the downsides, however, has been a series of outages over the years. Gartner analyst Lydia Leong has recommended considering disaster recovery capabilities away from Azure for critical applications hosted in the cloud. AWS isn't immune to downtime, though, suffering a major S3 outage of its own in March 2017.

As part of its 2017 IaaS global Magic Quadrant, Gartner states that its clients have had issues with "technical support, documentation, training and breadth of the ISV partner ecosystem" - but the company has been steadily working on these areas.

Whereas AWS provides users with many options for supporting other platforms, Azure can be somewhat restrictive in comparison. If you want to run anything other than Windows Server then Azure might not be the best solution, but Microsoft has been willing to embrace open source platforms, if a little slowly. For example, the company has been busy extending its support for Linux operating systems in 2017.

Google Cloud Platform pros and cons

Google has a good track record with innovative cloud-native companies and has a solid standing in the open source community, but has traditionally struggled to break into the enterprise market.

Its go-to-market strategy has been focused on proving itself on smaller, innovative projects at large organisations, rather than becoming a strategic cloud partner. Increasing the breadth of its partnerships and supporting pre-cloud businesses and IT processes will need to become focus areas if it wants to attract more traditional enterprises.

This could all be set to change now with the arrival of new CEO Thomas Kurian in November 2018.

"We have a clear vision of what we want to offer customers in a number of industries who are going through digital transformation," he said on stage during his first Google Cloud Next conference in June 2019. "We want to give them global scale, distributed, secure infrastructure; a digital transformation platform that that helps people build innovative digital transformation solutions, and then, industry specific-capability for digital transformation in a number of industries."

Read next: New Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian lays out his vision for the vendor

The ex-Oracle executive also laid out his plans to grow "our go-to-market function and our work with partners to deliver the right solutions for customers, which means adding people in sales and customer service and customer engineering, which is our technical teams, as well as hiring people with deep industry backgrounds."

He also laid out a commitment to openness, mirroring his rival CEO at Microsoft, Satya Nadella, by saying: "Our goal has always been simple: you have to have the best technology and the easiest to adopt solutions that give customers choice. If you do, they will choose you, if you don't, eventually they will be unhappy."

The company should continue to bet big on its machine learning tools though, with the firm's internal AI expertise and popular TensorFlow framework as selling points in what is set to become a key battleground.

Read next: How Google plans to bring AI and machine learning to the enterprise

It has also proved itself more than an AWS copycat, launching innovative features in the machine learning space as well as its BigQuery analytics engine, and the Cloud Spanner distributed database.

It is also worth noting that Google has the smallest footprint of global instances of the big three.

Verdict

In very broad terms, AWS continues to lead the way in terms of offering the widest range of functionality and maturity. It continues to be the clear market leader, but the gap is closing.

Its expansive list of tools and services, along with its enterprise-friendly features make it a strong proposition for large organisations. Meanwhile its huge and continuously growing infrastructure provides economies of scale that enable aggressive price cuts.

But it appears that Microsoft has started to bridge the gap between the two, and will continue to do so with its ongoing investment in building out the Azure cloud platform and further plans to strengthen ties with its on-premise software.

For organisations already heavily invested heavily in Microsoft in terms of technology and developer skills - of which there are undoubtedly many - Microsoft Azure will continue to be a strong proposition.

Then there is Google, which could prove a more serious enterprise competitor under its new leadership. It was already making good progress with certain customers, especially with its Kubernetes and machine learning expertise, but has much more work to do to prove itself a viable enterprise option.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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