(Note: After an award-winning career in the media business covering the tech industry, Bob Evans was VP of Strategic Communications at SAP in 2011, and Chief Communications Officer at Oracle from 2012 to 2016. He now runs his own firm, Evans Strategic Communications LLC.)
CLOUD WARS -- When Amazon releases its much-anticipated Q2 financial results any day now, two outcomes are extremely likely to occur: first, its AWS cloud-computing unit will post exceptionally strong numbers, and second, those numbers will fail to match those of Microsoft's the world leader in the enterprise cloud.
I've predicted that Amazon will post $6 billion in Q2 cloud-computing revenue on 49% growth, and its AWS unit will very likely continue to generate the lion's share of the parent company's overall profits.
But as good as those numbers will be, they just won't be as strong as Microsoft's. If Amazon's going to overtake Microsoft in the cloud, then Amazon will have to make a significant acquisition to close the gap that Microsoft's created through a sweeping series of reorganizations, through the customer-centric vision of CEO Satya Nadella, through its leverage of its power of incumbency within hundreds of thousands of companies large and small across the globe, and through relentless, focused and high-volume investments designed to rapidly turn Nadella's vision into real-world solutions that create business value for customers.
To fully understand what Microsoft's doing in the cloud and why it's staying ahead of outstanding performances from Cloud Wars competitors including not only Amazon but also IBM, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle and Google, it's best to closely monitor and analyze the words of CEO Nadella. In his 4-1/2 years as CEO, Nadella has engineered what must be viewed as one of the greatest corporate turnarounds and revitalizations in the history of business, and his single greatest weapon in that stunning performance has been the cloud.
So in this article, I've broken out 10 key elements of Microsoft's progress and strategy in the words of Nadella—and in a few cases from CFO Amy Hood—from their comments during Microsoft's July 19 earnings call for its fiscal 2018 Q4. Here's a quick look at the 10 topics I've selected as the most helpful in understanding what's driving Microsoft's current breakaway success, and following that's a deeper dive into each item. The list:
- Azure Is Hyperscaling.
- The Azure Buildout Is Accelerating.
- Massive Mission-Critical Workloads Are Moving To Azure.
- Creating A Path To The Cloud Via Hybrid.
- Creating A Path To The Cloud Via Microsoft 365.
- Microsoft Reveals Its "Real Competitive Advantage."
- And, Microsoft Reveals Its "Best-Kept Secret."
- SaaS: Dynamics 365 Versus 'The Monoliths.'
- The Power Of Leverage.
- The LinkedIn Effect
- Azure Is Hyperscaling. In its fiscal year ended June 30, Microsoft closed "a record number of multimillion-dollar commercial cloud agreements" and also "doubled the number of $10-million-plus Azure agreements," said CFO and executive vice-president Amy Hood. Commercial unearned revenue was $29 billion, up 23%, with both numbers beating the company's expectations. Fiscal fourth-quarter commercial-cloud revenue surged 53% to $6.9 billion, with Azure revenue growing at 89% while also becoming more profitable: "We improved the gross margin percentage in each cloud service, with Azure seeing the most significant improvement," Hood said. The significance of Azure's increased profitability, of course, is that Nadella and Hood will continue to accelerate Microsoft's investments in its surging enterprise-cloud business.
- The Azure Buildout Is Accelerating. For the past year, Nadella has been touting the benefits of elegantly interweaving the cloud and the edge, which he says is not only a logical extension of Microsoft's single-architecture strategy but also an ideal platform for customers' digital transformations. If he's right about the potential of intelligent cloud plus intelligent edge—and so far Nadella appears to be exactly that—he will force Amazon, IBM and others into trying to play catch-up. "Azure is the only hyperscale cloud that extends to the edge across identity, data, application platform, security and management," Nadella said. "We are investing aggressively to build Azure as the world's computer." Among some of the fruits of that aggressive investment:
- A "global data center footprint" of 54 regions, an infrastructure Microsoft says is unmatched among the enterprise-cloud providers;
- 500 new Azure capabilities in FY18;
- Azure Stack for hybrid environments;
- Azure Sphere for securing and managing IoT devices and solutions;
- and efforts to "democratize data science and AI" with Azure Cognitive Services, Azure Machine Learning and Azure Cosmos DB.
3. Massive Mission-Critical Workloads Are Moving To Azure. Echoing a strategic breakthrough noted in Cloud Wars several months ago, Nadella said, "The one thing that I would say that I am increasingly seeing is Tier 1 workloads. In some sense, when you think about some of the commitments being made by some of the biggest brands in the world in terms of what they’re doing, one, it’s very core to their operation; and two, they are running it in the cloud. And so, that’s one thing that definitely is a market difference for us." In the process, businesses are using both Azure and Azure stack as they migrate workloads to the cloud, which Nadella says "continues to drive a lot of IaaS growth for us as people are looking to basically lift and shift a lot of their current data-center workloads." And as that occurs, he said, more and more businesses decide it's the ideal time to modernize their legacy apps—a trend Nadella said is accelerating—and very often complement that with higher-level AI services and data services.
4. Creating A Path To The Cloud Via Hybrid. Asked to describe the drivers behind the continued growth in Microsoft's on-premises server business, Hood said, "A really important thing for us is continuing to focus on creating customer value. The concept of adding a lot of value by giving comfort to the customers that as they make a commitment to the Microsoft platform they can move between a commitment to on-prem to the cloud in a high value way—I believe that's a unique thing that we offer at this time."
5. Creating A Path To The Cloud Via Microsoft 365. This is one that drives the inside-the-bubble purists crazy: they love to dismiss this part of Microsoft's business as "not really cloud" or propose absurd arguments such as "if you take out the revenue for Microsoft 365, Microsoft's overall cloud revenue would be much smaller." That's about as logical as saying if the Golden State Warriors didn't have Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, the team wouldn't be as good—true, but utterly and completely irrelevant. In fact, in Microsoft's case, Microsoft 365—a combination of Office 365, Windows 10, and EMS (Enterprise Security + Mobility)—allows business customers to leverage their existing investments, processes and familiarity to begin moving aggressively into higher-level cloud services. As Nadella put it, "Microsoft 365 is now a multibillion-dollar business that gives our customers a path to the cloud and broadens our reach with new and underpenetrated markets, including more than 2 billion first-line workers, and industry-specific workflows.
6. Microsoft Reveals Its "Real Competitive Advantage." Asked to compare the relative sizes of the markets for edge computing and centralized cloud computing, Nadella gently dismissed the premise of the question, saying, "The vision we have always had is that distributed computing in some sense will remain distributed. So, we don’t split this into, over there is an edge computing, and over here is cloud computing." And that concept of a single unified approach and architecture is central to everything Microsoft is doing in the cloud, Nadella said: "So if you think about what our real competitive advantage and differentiation is, we have one programming model, one identity model, security, management, etc, so that modern developers as well as IT can use the compute available from Azure Sphere to Azure. And the reality is these modern workloads in fact use it all."
7. And, Microsoft Reveals Its "Best-Kept Secret." And that secret is: Azure Hybrid Benefit, a licensing model allowing businesses to shift dollars committed to on-premises versions of Windows Server Standard and Datacenter Editions to the Azure cloud. Saying he doesn't think Microsoft has done a good job at promoting this initiative, Nadella put it this way: "I actually think that these Hybrid use benefits are being sort of our best-kept secrets. So, I’m actually hoping that going into this next fiscal year, we do a much better job... because of the Hybrid use benefits across the entire workload are pretty phenomenal." Nadella went on to say the opportunity has not "really played out" and he expects significant growth to occur around this program in the future.
8. SaaS: Dynamics 365 Versus 'The Monoliths.' Beginning by saying "We are very committed and very bullish about the opportunity in Dynamics," Nadella said Microsoft's suite of Dynamics 365 SaaS applications is " very disruptive in the marketplace because it brings a very different value proposition. It has a price advantage and the value advantage for customers—and in it what is fundamentally a fragmented market, this is not now and never will be a winner-take-all business." For Microsoft, that means fully exploiting its position as an enterprise-cloud provider that spans the entire spectrum of services and technologies large and midsized businesses could want by guiding customers through the digital-transformation journey. "So in some sense, this one has always been about being able to serve customers especially in increasing the digitization of work, where the need for more business-process automation is increasing. For example: you take an IoT project and then translate that into a preventive-maintenance process in Azure and then it ends up as a field-service application with Dynamics. That’s been one pattern and we’ve seen a ton of traction with it." That's the "disruptive" quality Dynamics 365 can offer, Nadella said, adding that such an approach will cause problems for competitors pushing "monolithic" apps: "So us going to these new secular growth opportunities while being disruptive to the status quo of anyone who has high margins and very high-price monolithic products today is basically our strategy going forward."
9. The Power Of Leverage. Despite Microsoft's aggressive buildout of its global data-center infrastructure as described above in #2, cloud revenue is growing faster than capex is growing, Hood said in response to a question about capex growth and margins. "If you think about it at a high level, our capital expenditures are growing at a lower rate than our overall cloud revenue is growing. And that's why you're starting to see leverage flow through the P&L. And I think that the rate of capex growth, as I said, in FY '19 will moderate. That happens because, of course, we're doing some replacement, but we're also adding regions and seeing a lot of global demand and improving margins." And as margins improve, so does Microsoft's ability to continue investing many billions of dollars across its broad spectrum of enterprise-cloud services.
10. The LinkedIn Effect. One of the first topics Nadella cited in his opening remarks was the excellent ongoing results for LinkedIn, and the impact of that $26-billion acquisition continue to reverberate across the company. "It was a record year for LinkedIn, now with more than 575 million members and revenue growth of 37% in Q4, the fifth consecutive quarter of revenue acceleration," said Nadella. "We saw record levels of engagement and job postings again this quarter, with sessions growth up 41% year-over-year. This strong engagement is driven by quality of the feed, video, messaging and acceleration of mobile usage, with mobile sessions up more than 55% year-over-year. We will continue to invest to make LinkedIn the essential platform to connect the world’s professionals and help them achieve more with experiences powered by LinkedIn and Microsoft graphs."
Like elite athletes, world-class companies at times experience periods of extreme performance that make them seem almost invincible. They're not, of course, and over time even the greatest companies, just like superb athletes, come back to Earth and succumb to the rigors of mortality: executive departures, misplaced priorities, failure to maintain focus, bureaucratic bloat, or disruptive technology trends.
As brilliantly as Microsoft's performed over the past several quarters as it's ascended to the top of the Cloud Wars and extended its lead, it's surely not invincible. But for Amazon or anyone else to displace it will require a combination of circumstances and market dynamics that at least for now are nowhere to be found.