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Google Speeds Up Cloud Expansion in Race With Amazon

March 22, 2016
Chief cloud officer Greene: “There was a pretty darn good vision in place and now I’m just bringing everybody together so that we all know what we’re doing. The cloud is a revolution, rivaling the industrial revolution, and it’s pretty fun being this involved.”

Google’s new cloud chief Diane Greene had unsettling news for employees at an internal sales meeting this month in Las Vegas: They weren’t taking corporate customers seriously enough and needed to sell harder, be hungrier and be less complacent.

That was an unusual message at Google, which typically venerates technology over sales and marketing, but it was a necessary one. Google is third in cloud computing, an increasingly popular way for companies to run their IT operations. That’s a $20 billion-a-year business forecast to grow 35% over the next year, according to Gartner Inc.

To climb this ranking, the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary will massively expand its network of data centers, a move that fits with Google’s tendency to rely on technological solutions to challenges. 

But Greene is also adopting strategies beyond Google’s usual playbook. The company is working on tools that can broaden its corporate user base to include less technically savvy customers, and it’s embarked on a hiring spree aimed at selling and explaining these new products.

“There was a pretty darn good vision in place and now I’m just bringing everybody together so that we all know what we’re doing,” said Greene, who’s also on Alphabet’s board. “The cloud is a revolution, I mean it’s rivaling the industrial revolution, and it’s pretty fun being this involved.”

After pretty much inventing the cloud for its own use in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Google left Inc. to turn the idea into a service that other companies could rent. That became Amazon Web Services, a division that made almost $8 billion in sales in 2015, making it top cloud dog ahead of Microsoft Corp. and Google, which pulled in $500 million last year, according to Morgan Stanley.

In November, Google hired Greene to change that. She’s a Silicon Valley legend who co-founded VMware Inc. in 1998 to bring a technology called virtualization into the data centers of most large companies. Virtualization lets a single computer server do the job of many, a valuable capability that made Amazon Web Services possible. When she was fired in 2008 after falling out with VMware’s board, the company lost almost a quarter of its value in one day.

In coming months, Google will open two new cloud regions – Google-speak for data centers stuffed with computers and software that customers can rent over the Internet – in Oregon and Japan. Another 10 are coming over the next 12 to 18 months, either as facilities leased from other providers, or built and operated by Google. 

“We know what the recipe is,” said Urs Holzle, Greene’s new technical consigliere who has run Google’s infrastructure for over a decade. “Let’s go apply it everywhere.”

Google has three regions today. By quintupling its digital reach, the company can serve more businesses faster while conforming to local regulations, many of which demand that certain types of data never leave a country. Amazon operates 12 regions today, with a further five planned.

New Territory

Greene is also changing the way Google sells and markets. She’s hiring across the board and demanding staff work more closely together and talk to customers more often. That includes creating a team that meets with enterprise customers to ensure Google is building what they need. That’s normal for traditional enterprise companies like Inc. and Oracle Corp., but new territory for Google, which specializes in self-service Web offerings.

The West coast cloud sales team doubled to almost 50 people over the last few months, while the Google Apps team that works with independent IT vendors like startup Avere has grown substantially, say people familiar with the company.

Google is also spending more on marketing to compete against enterprise-focused rivals like Microsoft. Google’s pioneering, Web-based suite of work apps now trails Microsoft Office365 in revenue, Forrester Research estimates. “We have, like, the best office productivity suite, but people don’t know it,” said Greene, who is hiring a chief marketing officer. Google is splashing out on billboards around San Francisco ahead of a conference this week for cloud customers.

Greene is an avid sailor and moors a trimaran in San Francisco. An all-woman round-the-world crew recently asked for sponsorship, but she’s so far resisted the urge to pitch Google cloud products from the bows of expensive yachts like Oracle’s Larry Ellison. “I’m quite happy to go sailing without having the Google boat,” Greene said.

Still, extra investment in sales and marketing is good news for Google’s partners, which can sell more if customers become familiar with Google’s cloud. These re-sellers have asked for more support for years, said one former Google employee. This year, Greene came to a crucial customer meeting with SADA Systems, a big Google partner. It was the first time in nine years an executive of her seniority attended a customer meeting, said SADA CEO Tony Safoian.

She’s also tapping her VMware Rolodex, talking with big enterprise rivals like SAP SE, Microsoft and Oracle, to get more of their products into the Google cloud. That’s must-have for some large companies, which need prepackaged software from these providers to run their businesses. No Oracle or SAP products are available on Google’s cloud today. Microsoft and Oracle declined to comment, while SAP confirmed early talks.

Too Advanced

Greene’s experience should help her solve Google’s biggest, most-surprising challenge: its technology is too advanced. The company’s powerful internal systems work in radically different ways, which can make selling it harder.

Google’s first attempt at the cloud, App Engine, let developers upload software code and Google would handle everything else. It was a futuristic vision, but people didn’t want to rent computers like that. Instead, customers flocked to Amazon’s less-advanced but more-flexible offerings. Google is now developing products that look a lot more like its rival’s. “You have to meet people where they are,” Holzle said. “Otherwise they can’t get started.”

“They are probably the most advanced cloud operation on the planet. It also doesn’t matter,” said Carl Brooks, an analyst at The 451 Group. Google needs more humdrum enterprise features like compatibility, compliance, and security, he said. 

“Those are fair requests from our users,” Greene said, “and they’re coming immediately.”

By Jack Clark

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Licensed content from Bloomberg, copyright 2016.

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