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Google Cloud CTO Brian Stevens on using open source for competitive advantage in the public cloud

Google Cloud CTO Brian Stevens on how the enterprise cloud conversation is changing, and why not all supplier declarations about supporting open source technologies are quite what they seem

The worldwide public cloud market is a verified three-horse race, with Amazon, Google and Microsoft leading the chasing pack, as enterprise IT buyers look for ways to diminish their spend on on-premise systems.

As all three continue to vie for the affections of CIOs, how they market their respective public cloud propositions to enterprise IT buyers has subtly shifted over time.

For evidence of this, one only has to look at how little fuss the big three now make about rolling out price cuts for their services compared to several years ago, when one provider announcing a price drop would not only make headlines, but prompt its competitors to publicly follow suit too.

This in itself is indicative of the fact enterprises expect more from providers than just access to cheap commodity IT services these days, and that ongoing cost reductions are simply an accepted part of using cloud, Google Cloud CTO Brian Stevens, tells Computer Weekly.

“We have such a broad infrastructure that we’re constantly working on efficiency things that bring our costs down, and our cloud customers are our benefactors,” he says. “So, while it might feel like the ‘price wars’ are no longer happening, this quest for ever-better efficiency is still happening, but it is just not highlighted as the sole reason [to move to cloud] anymore.”

This in turn has prompted all of the big three to tweak their messaging in recent years, with more of a focus on the other areas that set their platforms apart from one another, he says.

“We’ll all tell you we have the best security and reliability, and that is true compared to most enterprises, and [price] was kind of the thing for many years, and with that, what do you compete on,” he says.

Open source as a competitive advantage

Where the Google Cloud Platform is concerned, a major point of competitive difference is in its championing of open source technologies. Not just in terms of consumption, but in how active a role the company plays within the open source community, and how much code it contributes.  

“It’s one thing for a cloud provider to consume open source, but it’s another thing for a cloud provider to drive open source and to create new capabilities and innovation, and that is what comes as such a surprise to people: that we’re federating so much of the technology,” he says.

“Google wants to be a steward, a contributor and a community member because that just helps elevate the whole open source movement.”

Stevens joined Google initially as its vice-president of cloud platforms in autumn 2014, joining the firm ahead of a sizeable restructure that resulted in its disparate cloud offerings – spanning infrastructure and software – being brought under the sole control of the Google Cloud brand.

The move was intended to make Google’s overall cloud proposition easier for business users to make sense of, as part of a wider push to bolster the enterprise appeal of its public cloud technologies.  

Given how big a concern cloud supplier lock-in continues to be for the C-suite, positioning Google cloud as an open platform is no coincidence, and – given his background in open source – it is fair to say that Stevens’ hiring was not either.

Before taking on the role of Google Cloud CTO in April 2017, he spent nearly 13 years at open source software technology firm Red Hat, and has also previously served as a board member for the OpenStack Foundation.

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In his experience, firms that champion open technologies end up being the ones that disrupt the “incumbents”, who see proprietary systems as a way of holding on to their customers at any cost.

“When you’re an incumbent, you don’t really want to open source – you want it to be harder to get away and you want more friction,” he says. “At the end of the day, open is better for users. It gives them flexibility and choice and makes it easier for them to exit – but incumbents don’t lead with open.”

Google is far from the only cloud provider throwing its weight behind the open source movement, as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft have previously made public declarations of support in this area, and IBM and Oracle have open source initiatives too.

Not all declarations carry equal weight

According to Stevens, though, not all of these declarations carry equal weight, and it is important for enterprises to look beyond their words and scrutinise what their participation really amounts to.

“It’s one thing to consume open source, but what are you seeing [on the] production and innovation side? Would they take [their] Crown Jewels and open source it? That’s kind of a measure – are you really all-in, or are you messaging around it? We’re obviously all-in, intuitively,” he says.

On this point, Stevens references Microsoft’s relatively recent push to reposition itself as a supporter and custodian of the open source community, but says the Redmond software giant could still afford to do more.

“Who would have thought Microsoft would all of a sudden be much more embracing of open source, and I think they do a great job of embracing it, but they don’t really have the research side and that cloud-scale we have with our consumer apps – and that is influencing all these net-new open source projects [Google] is working on,” he says.

“They join and they participate but they’re not driving [the open source community], and I would love to see them not just bring lines of code, but actually change the surface area of capabilities of what is out there in the open source corpus – instead of just using that as a competitive edge.”

Big data is a big deal for enterprises

When it comes to positioning cloud to enterprises nowadays, cost is now a bit of a non-starter, as businesses are far more interested in hearing about the technology’s potential to help them make better use of their data for financial and productivity gains, says Stevens.

And, for this reason, cloud is also no longer a conversation that is solely taking place between the CIOs and potential suppliers, but also the CEO and line of business department heads too.

“CIOs are definitely part of the [cloud buying] process, but now it is much more about the CEOs and line of business, and for them it is not a cost thing – it’s about how do we change the top-line, and create a new experience and be more competitive,” he says.

For Google, that means emphasising the machine learning and big data analytics capabilities of its public cloud platform to prospective enterprise customers, and making them aware of just how transformative an impact these tools can have on the how they work, says Stevens.

As an example, he points to how these parts of its product portfolio are being keenly used within the retail sector, whereby machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to make stock predictions or drive online sales by making product recommendations to customers.

And there are lot of other industries that are reaping the benefits of these technologies too, but the challenge for many enterprises is getting them to appreciate the many use cases within their organisations that AI and machine learning can be applied to, he continues.

“A lot of them come to us with good ideas, but what they don’t see is the art of the possible. They see the more obvious use cases around text translation and vision, because there are enough examples out there [of those in operation] within consumer products,” says Stevens.

Dispelling misconceptions

Educating businesses on this point feeds into Google’s ongoing efforts to court the enterprise market, as it works to dispel some of the misconceptions that businesses might have about the firms, given its consumer market heritage.

“Whenever you change your audience like that, it takes time to get awareness, and to change sentiment and understanding,” he concedes.

To get its message across, Google favours the hands-on approach, with Google engineers working side-by-side with enterprises to do use case explorations on its AI technologies, for example, says Stevens.

“Take the financial services industry as an example,” he says. “We’ll come in, do a use case exploration with their line of business teams in money laundering or fraud, for example, looking at how they can apply our models, augment our data scientists, our teams and platforms to help them solve whatever problem they are having.”

For Google, this approach is another important point of competitive difference, as enterprises weigh up whether or not to move their applications and workloads to its public cloud platform or to one of its rivals.

“Others have [engagement] models built on partners, and that is helpful to scale – and we have those – but the richest results come from developing that direct relationship with the customer,” says Stevens.

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