Google built a supercharged business model around searching the Internet. Now it's opening its cloud to businesses in the form of application hosting, enterprise search, and more.
In April, Google introduced Google App Engine, a service that lets developers write Python-based applications and host them on Google infrastructure at no cost with up to 500 MB of storage. Beyond that, Google charges 10 to 12 cents per "CPU core hour" and 15 to 18 cents per gigabyte of storage. This month, Google disclosed plans to offer hosted enterprise search that can be customized for businesses.
Yet Google, like Amazon, has demonstrated the risks of cloud computing. Google App Engine last week was crippled for several hours. Google blamed the outage on a database server bug.
For end users, there's Google Apps--Web-based documents, spreadsheets, and other productivity applications. Google Apps are free or $50 per user annually for a premium edition. Microsoft's PC-based Office 2007 suite, by comparison, costs up to $500 per user.
More than half a million organizations have signed up for Google Apps--including General Electric and Procter & Gamble--and there are now some 10 million Google Apps users. But keep that in perspective: The majority of those users are consumers, college students, and employees of small businesses, not the corporate crowd. Google senior product manager Rajen Sheth acknowledges that Google's apps aren't intended to replace business tools like Office.
Google has taken steps to make its applications, originally aimed at consumers, more attractive to IT departments. Last year, the company acquired Postini, whose hosted e-mail security and compliance software is now part of Google Apps, and in April it partnered with Salesforce.com to integrate Salesforce CRM and Google Apps, including a premium package that comes with phone support and third-party software for $10 per user each month.
Google is also adjusting to the reality that users sometimes need to work offline. Google Gears is a browser plug-in for doing that.
Google has teamed with IBM to provide cloud computing to university students and researchers. The Google-IBM cloud is a combination of Google machines and IBM BladeCenter and System x servers running Linux, Xen virtualization, and Apache's open source Hadoop framework for distributed applications.
"One great advantage we have, and one of the reasons we started to explore this, is that we run one of the largest online apps in the world, if not the largest," says Sheth, referring to Google's Web search engine. The project, Sheth says, will help "foster new innovation and new ideas" about cloud computing.
Google and IBM have been cagey about any plans to extend their cloud collaboration to enterprises, but it would be an obvious next step. "There's not that much difference between the enterprise cloud and the consumer cloud" beyond security requirements, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said a few weeks ago. "The cloud has higher value in business. That's the secret to our collaboration."
With its plug-and-compute simplicity, the cloud seems ethereal, but don't be fooled. Google's cloud represents a massive investment in IT infrastructure. Google has recently completed or is in the processing of building new data centers in Iowa, Oregon, North Carolina, and South Carolina, at an average cost of about $600 million each.