Clouds, an existential threat to vendors – part 1

Was at a conference last month where there was discussion of the “cloudless” future. This is so wrong, clouds are a threat to every IT hardware and software vendor out there and it’s not going away

The hardware side is easy to see.

Clouds threat to IT hardware vendors

On the storage side, the big hyperscalers have adopted software defined storage from the git go. Smaller ones are migrating that way as well and it’s even impacting data centers as the big virtualization software vendors release more and more functionality in SwDefStorage

And on the networking side, the clouds were an early adopter of Openflow, software defined networking. OpenFlow gear still requires specialized hardware but mostly it’s just a server with PCIe accelerator cards that perform high speed switching. Ditto the prior paragraph here as the virtualization vendors are also moving their networking to SwDefNetworking.

Luckily for servers there’s no such thing as a SwDefServer, yet. But server offerings are under just as big a threat from the cloud. Hyper-scalars are sophisticated enough to design their own server hardware and have it manufactured to spec. The smaller ones can make use of whitebox servers. Both of them, at the volumes they consume servers, can force a race to the bottom on pricing.

So server vendors are being relegated to the data center for the most part. And as data center servers become more powerful, virtualized environments need less of them.

The threat to IT software vendors

Make no mistake about it, software is under just as much threat as hardware. AWS and Oracle was probably the best example of how this works. Oracle was once a profitable niche market on AWS. Today, Oracle is not even available on AWS marketplace anymore.

This sort of dynamic can happen to any solution where acceptable open source alternatives exist. With the cloud’s sophistication and volumes they can easily take the sting out of using open source by providing ease of deployment, use and maintenance along with performance scalability. That makes running open source on clouds as easy as any packaged solution.

Internet Splat Map by jurvetson (cc) (from flickr)
Internet Splat Map by jurvetson (cc) (from flickr)

Albeit, maybe the cloud may not offer the support or hand-holding one obtains with packaged software. But open source can be very responsive to bugs/security exposures. Cloud providers can take the time to make their open source solutions bullet proof. And with 1000s to 10,000s of users, running them at scale, it should be easy enough to find any high profile bugs.

Even all those software vendors that make software that executes only on the cloud, to make it run better, more secure or to add some unique functionally are at risk. All these vendors ultimately will suffer by “death from marketplace success“. As they become successful and cloud vendors know inherently how successful they are, they become more interesting to the cloud. Over time more successful solutions will attract cloud provider functionally-equivalent, open source alternatives, that will push them out of the clouds marketplace.

Dealing with the threat to hardware vendors

Hardware vendors have four grand strategies to address the cloud threat.

  1. Stick head in sand, hope it goes away (or at least takes a long time to kill them off). There are still some major vendors with this mindset. Yes, slowly but surely they are coming around to see the light but they think they have a long enough runway to hold on until something better comes along.
  2. Co-opt the cloud by providing unique, hardware capabilities in their cloud environment. There are a few hardware vendors that have adopted this strategy. This buys them more time as they can depend on current data center revenues and over time augment this with cloud revenues.
  3. Join the race to the bottom to become a supplier to clouds. Most hardware vendors started out in a highly competitive environment, but over time they have lost their way (found a higher profitability niche). But lurking in their past somewhere, there’s a competitiveness streak that’s dying to come out. The race to the bottom may never be as profitable as data centers but there’s significant revenue to be had here.
  4. Co-opt the cloud by providing services that span multiple clouds. Not exactly creating a hybrid cloud but rather providing a multi-cloud hardware service. Hardware functionality that can be accessed from multiple clouds can enjoy some advantages of the cloud but at the same time generate data center like revenues..

I may be missing some grand hardware vendor strategies but as I’ve talked with hardware vendors over time these seem to be the main ones moving ahead.

I’ve tried a couple of times to talk to vendors in the #1 mindset above about the futility of their approach. Mostly, I get ignored or at best politely brushed off as being alarmist. Their main hope is that the data center continues on in the present environment and that they can retain their dominance there.

Maybe they have a point. The 1960s mainframe environment still exists today. And IBM still remains dominant there, and generates profits there. But it just doesn’t matter that much to IT anymore. IT has moved on. .

Richard (Dick) Nafzger with Apollo data tape by Goddard Photo and Video (cc) (from flickr)
Richard (Dick) Nafzger with Apollo data tape by Goddard Photo and Video (cc) (from flickr)

Something similar will happen to IT’s data center. Yes it will still exist forever, and perhaps some vendors can continue to profit there.

But the vast majority of IT workloads will be moving to the cloud over time, relegating this to a smaller (proportionally) niche market. They’ve been saying tape is dead since 1967, but it’s still alive, it’s just moved from being a large market to a smaller one (proportionally).

The #2 mindset vendors have a clearer view of wha’s happening with the cloud. They are moving select hardware functionality out to the cloud as soon as they are able. Some are even placing their hardware in cloud provider availability zones (data centers) to support this. We all hope they enjoy lasting success doing this.

But ultimately they to, shall suffer the same fate as software vendors above, due to the cloud’s death by marketplace success. The more successful they become, the higher the likelihood that the cloud providers will go after them with their own functionally-equivalent, software defined solution.

I’m not privy to the contracts between hardware vendors and cloud providers bit perhaps this later transition, to outright competition, can be forestalled enough to make the cloud providers reluctant to compete with them. But hardware success can only lead to more cloud interest and no contract can protect against every contingency.

Those vendors adopting the #3 mindset have to return to their competitiveness roots. Doing this will never be as profitable as today’s data center. So the transition will be painful, but they need to do this soon, while they still have some profits coming from data center sales. The sooner they can deploy these $s to fix supply chains, manufacturing quality/production, drastically slim down marketing and sales, the faster they can start supplying the clouds with appropriate hardware. Profitability will suffer early on but it may never fully recover.

The #4 mindset applies equally well to software vendors as well as hardware vendors but the hardware group seems to be doing this already. Many storage vendors have multi-cloud solutions with hardware positioned in cloud-adjacent facilities that can be accessed from multiple clouds. Such services have to be consumable like any cloud service. But once in place they have a unique value proposition, the ability to move work and data from one cloud to another.

But the only thing stopping cloud providers doing something similar is that they don’t want to help any current user to use a different cloud. Again, depending on how successful this multi-cloud approach becomes, there’s nothing prohibiting the cloud providers from providing similar functionality.

Dealing with the threat to software vendors

Software vendors see 4 grand strategies to deal with the cloud threat:

  1. If you can’t beat them, join them, and create their own cloud. IBM exemplifies this best but one can see this with Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and others. If they can create their own cloud, they can start to compete with cloud providers on an equal footing. Yes they will be smaller but they can enjoy many of the same benefits of bigger clouds, just not as much. .
  2. Offer their software services/stack on the cloud providers. This is similar to the hardware vendors #2 mindset. Yet this has suffered from death by marketplace success since the inception.
  3. Co-opt the cloud by providing services that fuse the data center and the cloud environments. Thus creating hybrid cloud solutions that span the data center-cloud environment which seem to have a longer runway. But this lasts only as long as the data center is a significant market.
  4. Co-opt the cloud by providing services that span cloud provider vendors. Multi-cloud solutions are more apparent for hardware, but nothing prohibits a software vendor from offering services that spans clouds.

I may be missing a few grand strategies here but these seem to be the major ones software vendors are using to deal with the cloud. And just like hardware vendors above, much of the success of these strategies (at least #2,3 &4) depends on flying under the radar of cloud providers. Limiting your success may give you some time to eek out a decent revenue/profitability stream, while the cloud provider kills off the more successful solutions ahead of you. But you’re all living on borrowed time.

The most interesting one is #1. Yes economies of scale will matter, which will make their long term viability a concern. But at least you can be on the same playing field. Most of these companies have sizable treasure chests and if invest serious money on their own clouds, they may have a chance to survive.

Cloud providers are taking their time

The other thing that’s prolonging the data center and correspondingly vendors existence is cloud providers expenses. With all their hardware volumes, use of white box or own designed hardware and open source software, does it make any sense that IT could provide matching services in data centers by themselves.

But something is chewing up their revenues, Maybe it’s marketing, customer acquisition, software/hardware development or support expenses. I tend to think it’s trying to keep pace with customer growth. They end up having to anticipate this growth ahead of time and position hardware, software and services before the customers exist to use them.

I don’t think there’s anything more mysterious to their lack of profitability than that. They all want all the customers they can get. They are have significant growth and they are all charging a premium for their service. However, I may be wrong.

But how long can such hyper-growth last. At some point, as more and more IT organizations move to the cloud this growth will slow, prices will start to come down and it will set off a vicious cycle, more cloud success brings more volumes, less overhead and should lower prices which brings more cloud success.

More cloud success brings less volumes for hardware and software vendors, more overhead and ultimately higher prices.

None of the above solutions seem that attractive to hardware or software vendors but I see only a few ways forward for all of them.

In part 2, I’ll discuss some out of the box strategies that move beyond the data center and the cloud that may be just the way forward for hardware and software vendors need to take the cloud on.

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