AWS and Microsoft reap most of the benefits of expanding cloud market

While it appears that overall economic activity could be slowing down, one area that continues to soar is the cloud business. Just this week, Amazon and Microsoft reported their cloud numbers as part of their overall earnings reports.

While Microsoft’s cloud growth was flat from the previous quarter, it still grew a healthy 76 percent to $9.4 billion, or a $37.6 billion run rate. Meanwhile AWS, Amazon’s cloud division, grew 46 percent to $7.4 billion, or a $29.6 billion run rate. That’s up from $5.11 billion a year ago. As always, it’s important to remember that it isn’t necessarily an apples to apples comparison, as each company counts what they call cloud revenue a little differently, but it gives you a sense of where this market is going.

Both businesses also face the law of large numbers in terms of growth; that is, the bigger you get, the harder it is to keep growing at a substantial rate. The two companies are doing quite well, though, considering how mature their offerings are.

Last year Synergy Research reported the overall cloud market worldwide grew 32 percent to $250 billion. In Synergy’s last report on cloud market share in October, it had Amazon well in the lead, with around 35 percent and Microsoft around 15 percent. A Canalys report from the same time period had AWS with 32 percent and Microsoft with 17 percent, so close you could call it a tie for statistical purposes.

Alibaba just reported earnings was up 84 percent, but only have a small worldwide market share. IBM, which bought Red Hat for $34 billion last year hoping to grab a bigger piece of the hybrid cloud market, reported cloud revenue was up only 12 percent for 2018 in its earnings report last week, which seems pretty paltry compared to the rest of the market. It’s worth noting that the Red Hat sale won’t close until later this year. Google will be reporting at the beginning of next week, but has not been breaking out cloud revenue recently. It will be interesting to see if that changes.

Most experts agree that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of cloud adoption and that the vast majority of workloads are still locked in private data centers around the world. That means even if there is a broader economic downturn in the future, the cloud could be somewhat insulated because companies are already in the process of moving parts of their businesses to the cloud.

As these companies grow, it requires increasing numbers of data centers to deal with all this new business, and a Canalys report found that Microsoft and Amazon have been busy in this regard. Amazon currently has 60 cloud locations worldwide, with another 12 under construction. Canalys reports that the company’s CapEx spending (which includes non-data center spend) reached $26 billion, up a modest 7 percent. Meanwhile Microsoft, which is chasing AWS, had much more aggressive infrastructure spending, with expenditures up 64 percent to $14 billion.

You can expect that unless something drastic happens, the market pie will continue to expand, but the numbers probably won’t change dramatically as these two market leaders have hardened their market positions and it will become increasingly difficult for competitors to catch them.

Alibaba continues to gain cloud momentum

When Alibaba reported its earnings yesterday, the cloud data got a bit buried in other stories, but it’s worth pointing out that its cloud business grew 93 percent in the most recent quarter to $710 million. That’s down a smidgen from the gaudy triple digit growth of last report, but their market share has doubled in just two years, and they are growing fast.

As John Dinsdale, principal analyst at Synergy Research, a firm that keeps a close eye on the cloud market points out, the dip in growth is all about the law of large numbers. Alibaba couldn’t sustain triple digit growth for long.

“Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform have recently seen similar reductions in growth rates, and if you go back far enough in time, AWS did too. The key thing is that the market for cloud infrastructure services is now very big, yet is still growing by 50% per year — and the leading players are either maintaining or growing their market share,” he said.

Back in 2015, when the Chinese eCommerce giant launched a big cloud push as part of an effort to expand beyond its eCommerce roots, Alibaba Cloud’s president Simon Hu bragged to Reuters, “Our goal is to overtake Amazon in four years, whether that’s in customers, technology, or worldwide scale.”

That is obviously not happening, but the company has managed to move the market share needle, doubling from just 2 percent of worldwide cloud infrastructure market share in 2016 to 4 percent today. That’s nothing to sneeze at, according to Dinsdale, but it’s also worth pointing out that most that business is in Asia, and of that, most of it is in its native China.

Like all its cloud competitors, the company is concentrating on some key technologies to drive that growth including big data analytics, artificial intelligence, security and Internet-of-Things, all of which are resource intensive and help grow revenue quickly.

To sustain its growth, however, Alibaba needs to begin to develop markets outside of China  and Asia. Dinsdale thinks that could happen as Chinese customers expand internationally. He also recognizes the political realities that the company faces as it tries to move into western markets. “Alibaba has what it takes to seriously challenge the top four cloud providers — despite some inevitable political headwinds that it will face,” he said.

While Alibaba might not reach the lofty heights of catching AWS any time soon, or probably ever, it has a good shot at IBM and Google Cloud Platform and for a company that just started taking the cloud market seriously in 2015, that’s amazing progress.