Google revs up cloud engine in AWS catch-up race

A renewed infrastructure as a service (IaaS) push by web giant Google could heat up competition among top providers

Google has announced that its infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offering, Google Compute Engine (GCE), is finally ready for full launch.

The company originally revealed the service 18 months ago, but has now beefed up GCE with high-availability guarantees, extended support for all Linux distributions and kernels, and other new features to attract enterprise customers (see panel below). These include making it faster for intensive computing tasks and less disruptive to maintain. It has also lowered basic prices by 10% to become more competitive against IaaS market leader Amazon Web Services (AWS).

In May 2013, Google made GCE available for anyone to use, but it stopped short of putting its own "general availability" label on the product until now.

“Before committing services to this label, we want to ensure they surpass our highest standards and provide a great user experience,” the company told Computer Weekly.

GCE is one of three key planks in Google’s Cloud Platform, the others being its platform as a service (PaaS) component, known as App Engine, and various cloud storage options.

Barak Regev, Google’s European head of Cloud Platform, said the announcement was a significant step forward for the company’s cloud ambitions. “App Engine has been available since early 2008 and every year users ask us for more options and variables. As such, the introduction of IaaS is a major piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Jostling for position

For such a dominant web player, Google has been relatively slow to bring its cloud offerings up to the standards expected by large enterprise customers, and Amazon’s runaway lead in the public cloud space must rankle in certain quarters of the organisation.

Google Compute Engine features

  • Monthly SLA guaranteeing 99.95% availability
  • 24/7 support
  • Support for all Linux distros, kernels and software
  • Live migration and automatic restart of VMs (US only for now)
  • 16-core instances for high-performance workloads
  • Persistent Disk storage now cheaper and faster
  • Prices of standard instances cut by 10%

A recent survey from Synergy Research Group showed AWS has retained its tight grip on the IaaS/PaaS market, capturing a bigger slice than, IBM, Microsoft and Google combined. Even more galling for Google, in the third quarter of 2013 it fell into fifth place, having ceded market share to both IBM and Microsoft since the third quarter of 2012. That said, Amazon’s four main challengers are still fairly evenly matched.

Regev played down the rivalry. “It’s not about market share, it’s about the adoption of our platform. What drives me is building a highly talented team, inspiring the developer community and helping them make their dreams become a reality,” he said.

But Regev admitted the announcement was a significant play by the company to woo more customers, including traditional corporates. “This is a strategic move for us and one I think highlights our true commitment to Google Cloud Platform and the public cloud more generally,” he said.

Carl Brooks, an analyst at 451 Research specialising in internet infrastructure services, noted the company had a long way to go to “even get close” to Amazon. “AWS is already at a massive scale of operations and delivers on new features far faster than any other IaaS provider. GCE is comparatively basic, vanilla access to servers and storage and it is one of a large crowd of similar providers in absolute terms,” he said.

Yet he added it would be foolhardy to dismiss the company’s chances of ever closing the gap. “Google is one of the few providers that can be seen as a long-term competitor to AWS, based only on the similarities between the parent organisations. Microsoft is another, and IBM, thanks to the Softlayer acquisition, might be a third,” said Brooks.

Will it appeal to customers?

Google’s Regev, meanwhile, is bullish about the company’s cloud prospects. He believes the new enterprise-friendly features of GCE will translate into wider appeal for Google’s Cloud Platform.

Eventually I think we'll integrate PaaS, IaaS and big data into one beautiful solution

Barak Regev, Google

As well as guaranteeing customers 99.95% availability and 24/7 support – baked into a service level agreement (SLA) that results in money back for customers if Google fails to meet its commitments – he believes the offering now has unique differentiators that will start to tempt organisations away from AWS and Google’s other cloud competitors.

Not least among these are live migration and automatic restart of virtual machines, features which have already set tongues wagging among AWS customers.

“That’s a really cutting-edge innovation in the cloud market. We have learned through 15 years of handling our vast data infrastructure that you have to maintain it as a living organism. We can literally take whole datacentres offline for maintenance and users won’t see even the slightest performance glitch – we simply move the workload elsewhere,” said Regev.

“When we need to take systems down for maintenance, or detect hardware failures or performance issues, we will fully migrate customers’ IaaS environments and automatically restart their virtual machines [VMs]. At any other cloud provider, the legwork is left entirely to the customer. You have to monitor your VMs, and restart them yourself if there are any issues,” said Regev.

Currently, this feature is only available to US customers, but Regev promised it would soon be rolled out in Europe, too.

He said another key differentiator was the speed at which the IaaS service can be scaled up. “Unlike any other cloud provider, you don’t have to contact us in advance to warm up machines if you’re planning on a major upscale. Customers can ramp up from, say, zero to one million requests instantly,” he said.

To anyone that claims Google has not pushed ahead fast enough in this market, the company seems to be saying “watch this space”.

“GCE is the first major milestone, but there’s more to come," said Regev. "For example, we’re heavily innovating around big data and PaaS, too. Eventually, I think we’ll integrate PaaS, IaaS and big data into one beautiful solution.”

An as for the accusation that its products are too “vanilla”, Regev said: “Many cloud providers offer a lot of variations of their solution, but we hear plenty of feedback about reliability and I believe our story is compelling in terms of providing that consistent performance. I predict that will result in an amazing uptake of our platform by many customers – be they startups, bricks-and-mortar enterprises or individual developers.”

It will face a tough fight along the way, but for customers that should be good news. It suggests prices will continue to fall and services will keep improving across the public cloud market.

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