Some rain in the clouds

It was bound to happen: The cloud is starting to leak some rain. The big three cloud providers (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Alphabet/Google Cloud) reported earnings this past week and with the exception of Google Cloud, they came in below analyst expectations. That’s not the same as saying the cloud providers are doing poorly, because they’re not. Each continued to grow at impressive rates on hefty revenue bases.

It does suggest that the recession we’ve feared is almost certainly here. Certainly, CIOs are getting antsy about spending money. Earlier this year, I cited Morgan Stanley survey data that indicated security and cloud computing would be somewhat impervious to budget cuts, and this remains largely true. It is, after all, in such moments that one of the most important capabilities of cloud computing shines; namely, enterprises can optimize their spending to match conditions.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it during the Microsoft earnings call, “The big winner in all of this will be public cloud because public cloud helps businesses offset the risk of taking demand risk.”

Still growing, just not as fast

A widely used definition of recession is two consecutive quarters of declines in gross domestic product (GDP). Economists are currently haggling over whether we are in a recession, but we most certainly are not in a recession of cloud computing. The stocks of each of the major cloud providers took a beating last week, but that came down to weakened fourth-quarter guidance and/or slowing growth.

To be clear, the cloud is emphatically, unequivocally, growing. Just not as fast as it had been.

  • AWS, the market share leader, grew 27% year over year on a staggering $82 billion run rate. In the company’s last quarter, revenue grew 33%, and in the quarter before, it grew 37%.
  • Microsoft Azure grew revenue 35% year over year, down from 36% growth the quarter before.
  • Google Cloud grew 38%, the lone provider to actually accelerate growth over the previous quarter, which was 36%.

Even for Google, however, the general trend has been toward slowing growth. Some of that has nothing to do with curtailed demand and everything to do with the law of large numbers, as technology reporter Jordan Novet suggests (and helpfully charts). But some slowing does come from enterprises getting more conservative with their spending. Regardless, we’re talking about slowing growth, not an about-face on cloud priorities. For every Basecamp that decides to reverse course on the cloud and move back to homegrown data centers, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of other companies can’t get to the cloud fast enough.

What did the executives at the major cloud providers have to say about slowing growth?

A sign the cloud is working

In the bad old days of on-premises data centers, if you bought a server, you owned it. No matter how generous the discount you negotiated with your hardware vendor, once they sold it to you, it really didn’t matter how little you made the CPU spin—they weren’t going to give you any money back. Fast forward to the days of cloud computing, by contrast, and it’s a fundamental principle that you pay for what you use. Use less, pay less.

Does this mean enterprises may elect to use fewer cloud computing resources in a downturn? Of course it does. Is that a good thing? Absolutely. Why? Because it’s a customer-centric view rather than a vendor-centric view.

Each of the cloud providers understands this, which is why their executives were united in praising, not lamenting, the ability of customers to spend less when times are hard. Alphabet/Google CEO Sundar Pichai introduced this theme, arguing that “the long-term trends that are driving cloud adoption continue to play an even stronger role during uncertain macroeconomic times.” Namely, cloud yields flexibility for enterprises to scale up or down based on their needs.

Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky continued the point, noting, “With the ongoing macroeconomic uncertainties, we’ve seen an uptick in AWS customers focused on controlling costs.” That’s bad, right? Nope. That’s an unalloyed good. He continued, “We’re proactively working to help customers cost optimize, just as we’ve done throughout AWS’ history, especially in periods of economic uncertainty.” Wait, what? Why would a vendor do that? Because that’s a fundamental reason to move to the cloud, and it clearly yields more benefit to customers and vendors over time. In addition to customers simply slowing their use of services, Olsavsky called out how AWS is helping customers “shift workloads to our Graviton chips,” promising 40% better price performance versus x86 chips.

Nadella repeated this talking point, suggesting that there was a focus on “proactively go[ing] to customers and help[ing] them optimize their workloads.” Again, seems bad for the vendor, but isn’t. “Ultimately, those optimizations bring value even as budgets are still growing.” How? He indicated that “this is still the way to build growth and leverage in your business … [because] you can then make room for new workload growth.” In other words, helping customers lower costs now (and always) frees up room to spend more on cloud, not less.

According to the Morgan Stanley Research data mentioned above, security and digital transformation, which is intricately tied to the cloud, are the top two budget categories that enterprises are loathe to cut. If this recession plays out like past ones, enterprises will figure out how to do more with less. Pichai suggested that even Alphabet/Google is doing this: “There are periods where you take the time to optimize to make sure we are set up for the next decade.” He continued, “It gives us a chance to make sure we are identifying the most important areas and making sure we are directing our incremental investments toward those, as well as where we can realign.”

We’re in such a period, and although today’s cloud growth has slowed to enable enterprises to recalibrate their spend, the emphasis on cloud will grow, not contract, during this period. Smart enterprises will recognize this is a time to move more workloads to a model that aligns value with usage, as the cloud does.

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