Everyone is hyping Big Data – and it seems as though every company in the cloud computing world is hyping its one proprietary solution as the answer to every Big Data application. In some cases, this ‘one best tool’ is a storage solution; in others it’s a computing solution.
As is always the case with hot new tech industries, each player is trying to make as much noise as possible to rise above the other competitors, all in hopes of quickly snatching up customers and running the table. Of course, all of the other players are thinking the same thing. . . and so, as usual, there are a lot of claims being made that will never be fulfilled. That will represent billions of dollars in wasted investment – and that suggests that there will soon be a lot of very frustrated and unhappy customers out there in industry, government, the military and academia.
Meanwhile, there is one company out there that, because it is offering a one-size-fits-all solution at a reasonable price, and because it is not perceived as being part of the Cloud Computing/Big Data Land Rush, is almost never part of the vision for the future of this industry. It is Amazon. And while it has quietly become the world’s leading supplier of cloud computing services, its plain vanilla offering is typically seen – by computer companies, not by users – as merely a Model T Ford, a gateway product that will be quickly abandoned once cloud users become more sophisticated.
What these competitors forget is that the Model T ultimately controlled as much as 80 percent of the U.S. market – and perhaps nearly that around the world – and did so for almost twenty years. That’s not an also-ran; that’s a standard. It’s also darn near a monopoly. And, from what we’ve seen so far, Amazon may be slyly doing the same thing in the cloud.
At the heart of this strategy is not a political statement from Amazon; it is not claiming that it is either the best or the only solution to customer’s problems. Rather, it is offering a low-cost cloud service, with reliability that is not great but good enough for most users. As for applications, Amazon is essentially agnostic: it offers its own products, as well as those of its competitors.
You need storage solutions? Amazon’s got ‘em. Computing needs? Amazon’s got those too. Dealing with different types of Big Data? They can help you with that too. Unlike its competitors, Amazon isn’t trying to fit customers’ needs to their solutions, but the other way around. And it’s working.
Needless to say, this isn’t what they teach in B-school. Amazon is violating the classic Harvard Business Review rule that smart companies are supposed to have a single-minded focus on a narrow marketplace. And perhaps that’s true if you need to zero in on a small problem. But the cloud, and even Big Data, are still unfocused, fast-moving and protean marketplaces. No one really knows where they are going – or when, how, or even if, they will segment.
In other words, the real danger in cloud computing/Big Data right now is being too focused. Not only do you risk overhyping your service and angering customers, but worse, you are very vulnerable to a sudden and unanticipated market shift that leaves you sitting high and dry. Being unfocused, on the other hand, while very difficult to do, offers the greatest chance to go for the brass ring of not just being an industry leaders, but the industry platform.
Can you think of a company that pulled off just such a play first in books and CDs and then in retail? Oh yeah, Amazon. And to that list you can add Microsoft, Google, eBay and Facebook – all providers that went into fast-moving, differentiated markets with an easy-to-use universal solutions and ran the table.
Is that what Amazon is doing in cloud computing/Big Data? You bet. But Jeff Bezos and his team are being more clever than that. Amazon is not only offering the cheapest cloud around, and serving as the world’s largest marketplace for solutions in the industry, but it has also begun to offer some proprietary new solutions of its own. Bezos appreciates that Amazon is still a young company, still a locus for bright young talent (unlike, say, Microsoft or Oracle), and currently at its innovative peak. . . so why not leverage all that to write apps of its own?
Thus Red Shift, which the company introduced last week. With Red Shift, Amazon Web Services customers can build their own data warehouses using low cost provisioning, configuring, monitoring, back-up and security tools provided by Amazon – all for just $1,000 per terabyte per year.
That is a staggering price. Everybody else in the market offering a comparable solution is charging 300X that. That’s a game shifter, on the order of Bob Noyce in 1965 cutting the price of Fairchild integrated circuits to $1 and crushing the semiconductor industry. It is revolutionary. Amazon has pulled off a hat trick: it’s reached a threshold of quality that’s acceptable, kept margins thin, and now is charging just $1K per terabyte per year. Bezos has not only opened a new door and jumped through it, but now closed the door behind him.
The first to slam into the locked door will be corporate IT. Indeed, this may be the end of in-house data warehousing. How can IT ever again argue for the overall efficiency of their in-house solution when the cost is two orders of magnitude greater than going with Amazon.
And the big enterprise guys may not be too far behind. The biggest recent Big Data announcement in that field, SAP’s HANA, an in-memory high power database management platform that app developers are rushing to design to, now seems eclipsed by Red Shift. The irony is that SAP is touting HANA because it offers a powerful solution at budget price because it can run on the Amazon cloud: ‘just’ $300,000. That’s impressive performance for the price – but now Red Shift can give you most of that for 1/3rd of one percent of SAP’s price. For all of its features, HANA doesn’t look like that much of a bargain anymore, does it?
So is that it? Game over? Should Amazon just declare victory and its competitors fold their tents and slink off? Not quite yet. Even if Amazon and Red Shift become the industry platform, a number of things can still go wrong.
For one thing, to maximize profits Amazon will still be selling its competitors’ products and services, so it will have to be very careful about channel conflict. The company has long been good at this with retailers, but how will it do with Oracle and Peoplesoft?
Also, as we saw with Microsoft and are now seeing with Google, platform companies can either become complacent and not regularly upgrade their technology, or they get distracted with side projects that also draw resources from their core offering. Either way, that behavior can set the stage for a new and more competitive platform.
But if Amazon plays this right, it can simultaneously dominate the cloud computing/Big Data market, while still sustaining the environment for other players in the field, from the big enterprise boys like SAP to hot young niche players like RackSpace.
Amazon has played this brilliantly so far. It quietly took control of the cloud business while almost no one was watching. And now it has made a big move on Big Data while almost no one can match them. We’re watching business history being made.
Not bad for a virtual book store.