AWS vs Azure vs Google Cloud: What's the best cloud platform for enterprise?

It's the defining cloud battle of our time: AWS vs Microsoft Azure vs Google Cloud Platform. Who can win the IaaS enterprise market? Computerworld takes a look at the merits of the big three vendors

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Lukasz Szmigiel (CC0)

The adoption of cloud computing has quickly become a key driving force for businesses today, as applications are moved out of on-premise data centres in a bid to innovate, cut costs and increase agility.

Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) is a model where a third-party provider hosts and maintains core infrastructure, including hardware, software, servers and storage on behalf of a customer. This typically includes the hosting of applications in a highly scalable environment, where customers are only charged for the infrastructure they use.

Early concerns over security and data sovereignty have largely been addressed by the 'big three' public cloud vendors - Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform - with only the most heavily regulated businesses continuing to tread carefully when it comes to the adoption of cloud services.

This has fuelled a crowded IaaS market, pegged to be worth a total of $49.1 billion in 2020, up from $38.9 billion in 2019, according to research firm Gartner's latest figures.

It is a market that has been dominated by AWS since day one, when it entered the sector in 2006. Now, Synergy Research Group's figures for Q3 2019 have AWS as the clear market leader globally for public IaaS and PaaS market share at 33 percent, followed by Microsoft at 16 percent, Google at 8 percent and Alibaba at 5 percent. 

Despite AWS’s dominance, Microsoft has gained ground under the leadership of "cloud first" CEO Satya Nadella, building a huge global cloud network of its own.

Then there is the internet giant Google, which has been busy with its public cloud services and IaaS business under the Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

"There has been a massive arms race in cloud computing over the past 12 months, but we are now starting to see some real differences between the cloud providers in terms of the deals they are winning in the market," says Nick McQuire, vice president of enterprise research at CSS Insight.

What is it, then, that differentiates each of the American 'big three' cloud providers? And how can you start to decide which IaaS platform is best suited to your organisation?

Key strengths

Selecting one cloud vendor over the others will come down to the wants and needs of each individual customer and the workloads they are running. It is often the case that organisations will use multiple providers within different parts of their operations, or for different use cases, which is called a multi-cloud approach.

However, there are a number of key differentiating factors that separate the approaches of the three firms, which can help end users consider which is right for them.

Starting with AWS, the key strength for the market leader continues to be the breadth and depth of its services, with more than 175 across compute, storage, database, analytics, networking, mobile, developer tools, management tools, IoT, security and enterprise applications, at last count.

“Without doubt the market leader, AWS often wins on developer functionality, due to the breadth of its services as a result of its first move advantage. AWS has also done a good job at translating its scale into economic benefits for customers, although there are times where cloud can be cost prohibitive," as McQuire at CSS Insight puts it.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research identifies similar strengths with the AWS proposition, but does highlight that "one challenge is pricing on AWS, where many companies don’t fully understand the metrics and the impact on architectural decisions and the costs to support certain services."

Microsoft on the other hand tends to be a popular choice with C-level executives that have long-standing relationships with the vendor and know that they can consume a great deal of their enterprise computing needs all in one place, from productivity and enterprise software all the way down to flexible cloud computing resources for their developers, with one hand to shake.

Wang also positions Microsoft as "a strong number two to AWS", thanks to its combination of Azure, Office 365 and Teams. "Microsoft is often seen as the safe global bet but most clients have more than one cloud vendor," he added.

Naturally, all three vendors are strong in machine learning as they can draw on deep wells of internal research and development expertise, but this is one area where Google often stands out as customers look to tap into the magic that powered the search giant at unprecedented scale over the past couple of decades.

Google also often stands out for its deep expertise around open source technologies, especially containers, thanks to its central role in the development of Kubernetes for orchestration and the Istio service mesh, which are quickly becoming industry standard technologies.

McQuire is bullish on Google Cloud, positioning the vendor as "the market’s fiercest challenger," under the new leadership of CEO Thomas Kurian: "What tips the scales in its favour is its engineering muscle and in particular the way customers gain access to and engage Google engineers, particularly for co-development. The firm has also heavily embraced open source and its culture of innovation lends itself to customers who prioritise these areas above all in the digital transformation.”

Wang adds: "Those organisations that seek good AI and machine learning capabilities, along with translate, search, and security have been gravitating towards Google Cloud Platform.

"The arrival of Thomas Kurian has put a product and roadmap discipline in place that aligns better with the needs of enterprises. This has opened up opportunities for more competition in the cloud duopoly of Azure and AWS."

Features and services

At their core AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform offer largely similar basic capabilities around flexible compute, storage and networking. They all share the common elements of a public cloud: self-service and instant provisioning, autoscaling, plus security, compliance and identity management features.

All three vendors have launched services and tools targeted at cutting edge technology areas like the Internet of Things (IoT) and serverless computing (Lambda for AWS, Functions with Azure and Google), while customers can tap either cloud to variously build a mobile app or even create a high performance computing environment depending on their needs.

Machine learning has also been a booming area in the great cloud computing arms race as of late. 

AWS launched SageMaker in 2017 as a way to simplify the adoption of machine learning by bringing together a hosted environment for Jupyter notebooks with built-in model management, automated spin up of training environments using EC2 instances, and HTTPS endpoints for hosting capabilities with Amazon S3. The vendor also has a broad set of off-the-shelf machine learning services for use cases like image recognition (AWS Rekognition), text to speech deep learning models (Polly) and the engine that powers Alexa (Lex).

Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning allows developers to write, test and deploy algorithms, as well as access a marketplace for off-the-shelf APIs.

Google offers a one-stop-shop AI platform, which helps machine learning engineers build and deploy models based on its popular open source TensorFlow deep learning library.

The recent buzz around containers is catered for as well, with all three providers offering managed services around popular container services like Kubernetes.

Finally, for UK customers worried about data sovereignty, AWS launched its UK region in December 2016, with Microsoft and Google quickly following suit.

Compute, storage, databases and networking

For compute, AWS' main offering is its EC2 instances, which can be tailored with a large number of options. It also provides related services such as Elastic Beanstalk for app deployment, the EC2 Container service, ECS for Kubernetes (EKS), AWS Lambda and Autoscaling.

Meanwhile, Azure's compute offering is centred around its Virtual Machines (VMs), with other tools such as Cloud Services and Resource Manager to help deploy applications on the cloud, and its Azure Autoscaling service.

Google's scalable Compute Engine delivers VMs in Google's data centres. They are quick to boot, come with persistent disk storage, promise consistent performance and are highly customisable depending on the needs of the customer.

All three providers support relational databases – that's Azure SQL Database, Amazon Relational Database Service, Redshift and Google Cloud SQL – as well as NoSQL databases with Azure DocumentDB, Amazon DynamoDB and Google Bigtable.

Read next: Best cloud-based relational database options for the enterprise

AWS storage includes its Simple Storage (S3), Elastic Block Storage (EBS), Elastic File System (EFS), Import/Export large volume data transfer service, Glacier archive backup and Storage Gateway, which integrates with on-premise environments.

Microsoft's offerings include its core Azure Storage service, Azure Blob block storage, as well as Table, Queue and File storage. It also offers Site Recovery, Import Export and Azure Backup.

All three typically offer excellent networking capabilities with automated server load balancing and connectivity to on-premise systems, which brings us to...

Hybrid options

One growing trend amongst the hyper-scale public cloud providers in the past year or so has been a growing focus on helping to serve customer's hybrid and multi-cloud needs. 

This tends to apply where customers are deploying across multiple vendors' infrastructure and also need to maintain some applications on-premise. Vendors have responded with a range of solutions to help serve these customers who aren't ready to jump all-in on public cloud just yet, which is of course the majority of large enterprises.

Microsoft has long been the go-to option for hybrid deployments amongst the big three with its well-established Azure Stack. This provides customers with the hardware and software required to deploy Azure public cloud services from a local data centre with a shared management portal, code and APIs for simple interoperability.

AWS signalled its first serious move into hybrid deployments at its re:invent conference in 2018 with the launch of Outposts, a fully managed service where the vendor delivers pre-configured racks to your premises, where AWS services can be run as though it were in their data centre.

Read next: AWS gets serious about hybrid cloud with Outposts, so who is it for?

Google then made its own push into hybrid in 2019 with the release of Anthos, which is effectively a rebranding of the Google Cloud Services platform and brings together a combination of the existing Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), GKE On-Prem and the Anthos Config Management console. This promises unified administration, policies and security across hybrid Kubernetes deployments.

Read next: Everything you need to know about Google Cloud Anthos

Speaking about Anthos at the Google Cloud Next conference in April 2019, new CEO Thomas Kurian said: "Many large companies truly want to train the people once on a set of technology that they can deploy anywhere. None of the other cloud providers are solving that. Today, if you talk to Azure they will say you can run Azure Stack on-premise and on the cloud, Amazon will say you can run Outposts on-premise and in the AWS cloud. They are fine companies, but they're not solving the multi-cloud problem."

Pricing

Pricing can be a huge attraction for those considering a move to the cloud, and with good reason: there has been a continued downward trend on prices for some time now as the big providers compete.

In general terms, prices are roughly comparable, especially since AWS shifted from by-the-hour to by-the-second pricing for its EC2 and EBS services in 2017, bringing it into line with Azure and Google.

However, making a clear comparison can be tough as all three offer slightly different pricing models, discounts and make frequent price cuts. Of course not all customers will pay the sticker price either, especially at the enterprise level where volume discounts can be negotiated with sales reps.

AWS provides a price calculator here, Microsoft here and Google here.

Read next: Cloud vendor free tiers compared: AWS vs Azure vs Google Cloud Platform

All vendors offer free introductory tiers, allowing customers to try their services before they buy, and typically offer credits to attract innovative startups onto their platforms as well as 'always free' tiers with strict usage limits.

Customers

A high-profile user base may not be the main reason for choosing your cloud provider, but it can help more cautious organisations understand how the public cloud is benefiting others in their sector.

This is clearly a strong point of AWS. It has increasingly taken on large customer deals. For example, although the US Central Intelligence Agency eventually signed a contract with IBM, it awarded AWS a contract to build its private cloud in a one-off deal in 2013, which could be seen as a symbolic moment for potential buyers.

A longstanding AWS customer is Netflix, which eventually decided to shut all of its data centres in a final move to the cloud in 2016. But aside from web pioneers, AWS has been truly successful in convincing more traditional businesses to move to the cloud.

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