Why Amazon won’t be the IBM of cloud

by Robin Harris on Wednesday, 1 February, 2017

IBM was the driving force in the computer industry beginning with the advent of the IBM 360 mainframe family. Their big idea was to build a family of computer systems that all ran the same software and, generally, used the same peripherals.

The IBM 360 was a brilliant idea and a massive success, making IBM the growth stock for a decade. It also made IBM the giant of the industry, with a 70-80% market share.

What happened to AWS?
Three years ago it looked like AWS was set to be the IBM of cloud, with, by some estimates an 80% market share. AWS is still the clear leader, but the competition has made major inroads, and will continue to chip away at their lead.

Tl;dr: Different inputs; different outputs.

Longer version –

  • Competition. Early on, IBM’s competition were small firms started by techies who had no idea how to sell to the large companies that were IBM’s bread and butter. Later, some of these firms were bought by larger companies, like NCR and Remington Rand, that were limited by internal politics and/or their particular customer base.
  • Distribution. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, direct sales was about the only channel, and then, as now, it was expensive, requiring massive investments in people and local infrastructure. IBM had that already, and they leveraged it well.
  • Support. As the excellent movie Hidden Figures showed, early computers were complex, cranky, and a world away from the calculators and tabulating machines that dominated business processing. IBM had its problems with the 360 rollout, but they were expert at keeping customers in the fold.
  • Investment. IBM went all in with the 360 project, investing the equivalent of $5 billion in today’s dollars, building new factories, writing new software, and, of course, designing new hardware. IBM – and their customers – endured massive pain in the process, but, paradoxically, the pain united customers to IBM – Stockholm syndrome – and gave IBM a giant leap up the learning curve.
  • Software. IBM was plowing virgin ground, but today the prevalence of open source software makes it hard to build a sustainable and significant differentiator. AWS is beavering away to create software lock-in, but the pace of change in software – where were containers five years ago? – means today’s lock-in is tomorrow’s old news.

It’s a new world
AWS faces a very different world than IBM did in 1960. Its competitors are large, profitable, and, most importantly, well differentiated from AWS.

  • Microsoft is working off its Windows base, leveraging the Microsoft Research brain trust, and its massive financial clout. AWS hires bright people too, but MR has a much deeper bench.
  • IBM is leveraging its long term relationships with enterprises to take the lead in private cloud management and support. IBM also has a significant research arm, and it looks like their endemic “suits vs geeks” warfare has been tamped down in the cloud efforts.
  • Google, is, surprisingly, the weakest player in this group, which underscores just how tough the competition is. Under Eric Schmidt Google whiffed the cloud market, but Larry Page seems serious about making up for lost time. Google is the least in tune with customers, but has strong roots with developers and, like Amazon, their own massive and profitable infrastructure to build on. They might even figure out how to leverage their Android base.

Dark horses
HPE seems to have dropped out of the race, but Dell/EMC might figure out something that augments their installed base, much as what NetApp is attempting. Slim chance, but that’s why they’re a dark horse.

Despite all its misfires online, Apple might get its act together and build something great on its iOS base. Yes, slim chance, but they’ve got money and, maybe, vision. Execution is their problem in this space.

Facebook. They’ve got the scale and the money to compete and become the Everyman’s cloud infrastructure, taking a piece of Microsoft and Apple.

The Storagemojo take
In five years the specter of AWS cloud dominance will be a distant memory. The potential cloud market is enormous and we are, in effect, where the computer industry was in 1965. AWS will be successful, just not dominant. No tears for AWS.

Also, we should remember the downsides of IBM’s dominance. They fought interactive computing and peer-to-peer networking. And while they invented the disk drive, they also worked hard to keep customers locked into proprietary interfaces, impeding the development of a robust storage industry, until they took their eye off the ball.

It’s good for the industry and customers that there are four powerful cloud competitors, as well as tempting private cloud options. Expect the rapid development of the cloud market to continue apace, with benefits for all consumers – and challenges for the competitors.

Courteous comments welcome, of course.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sergio February 2, 2017 at 12:08 pm

I indeed agree with that, I would take that thought further: no company won’t be the IBM of any technology business anytime soon. As you stated before, IBM hardly had to face any competition back then, today there is a plethora of tech companies claiming their slice of the pie.

sm February 10, 2017 at 6:22 pm

Yes, the days of dominance of one company is over. IBM had a great run. AWS is doing well but in enterprise market where the big bucks are they are facing challenges from Microsoft, IBM. Google hopefully is getting their act under Diane Greene. Enterprise market is more about contacts, long term contracts, support, sale etc., The old boys have advantage there as most of the enterprise companies have their sales / support team in place and can utilize their service to get to cloud accounts. Among the dark horse, Oracle is investing a lot in their new cloud infrastructure for the enterprise and have their sales team too. They could take some pie too. Since Larry Ellison is personally involved and driving it, I see some bloodbath there.

PRao February 25, 2017 at 11:01 am

The market is corporate and consumer. IBM and Google, leave alone Facebook, are not targetting the same customers. This report is not providing usable opinion to the readers.

For a storagemojo blog to wholesomely leave out a $40billion annual revenue _storage origin_ company that supplies systems and software to corporate customers worldwide – Oracle – it seems a bit ridiculous to lay claim to and comment on the market. No?

Storage Tutorials October 14, 2017 at 7:27 am

Looks like you have point. Now every company is jumping into cloud and there is very tough competition for AWS in the market.

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