At Google’s cloud conference kickoff, it was all about the customers

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Some 10,000 people came to Google’s annual Cloud Next conference for software developers and partners today in San Francisco to hear about new technologies. They didn’t get much of that.

Instead, the tech giant spent much of a more than two-hour keynote presentation trotting out new customers of its cloud. The company clearly was seeking to demonstrate that it is deadly serious about becoming a cloud computing force versus Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, which have big leads over the Google Cloud Platform — and neither of which merited a single specific mention Wednesday morning.

In particular, Google is pushing to get large enterprises that haven’t yet moved much of their operations to the cloud. They’re well over 80 percent of the trillion-dollar information technology market. Although Google has touted new-age cloud customers such as Snap Inc. and Evernote, the fact remains that, coming from behind, the biggest opportunity may be to build upon fledgling deals with the likes of Whirlpool, Coca-Cola Co. and Home Depot to get mainstream companies to sign on.

“Google Cloud is a natural extension of our mission to make information universally accessible and useful,” Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said at the keynote presentation. “It’s just for businesses.”

Google showed off a series of large new clients of Google’s cloud, including the international bank HSBC, Verizon, Colgate-Palmolive, Home Depot, eBay Inc. and Walt Disney. Most of them are early users that approached Google in the past year or so to move various operations to the cloud, and most emphasized that they’re still in the early stages of a move to the cloud.

Marquee partner: SAP

The biggest announcement of the day came from a new marquee partner: Enterprise software giant SAP SE pledged to make its flagship applications available on the Google Cloud. At first, the only application on the Google Cloud will be its HANA data processing engine, and SAP isn’t saying when its signature enterprise resource planning and other business applications will be available. But it’s a major checkbox for enterprises, which depend on SAP as much as any other company for their basic business applications.

It’s not an exclusive agreement, since SAP already has deals with AWS and Azure. And SAP will continue to host its applications on its own cloud service for enterprises if they wish. But the two companies said the agreement also includes joint work to improve cloud data security and privacy as well as a deal to bring Google’s G Suite of productivity applications to SAP.

What’s more, Sam Yen, managing director of SAP Silicon Valley, said in an interview with SiliconANGLE, the two companies will have engineers teaming up in an ongoing relationship. “We see this as a long-term partnership,” he said. “We’ve seen Diane Greene aggressively expand its partner ecosystem.”

Google cloud chief Diane Greene

Google cloud chief Diane Greene

As for the customers, Diane Greene, the senior vice president in charge of Google’s cloud operations, said the company has seen “unbelievable acceleration” of uptake, though she didn’t provide hard numbers except to say that Google’s cloud wins half the business it competes for. ”The quality of our customer conversations is really changing,” she said. Where earlier last year most customers were doing specific projects involving, for instance, machine learning in the cloud, “recently, several of them said, ‘Hey, let’s do a lift-and-shift,’” the industry’s term for the wholesale movement of workloads to the cloud.

Several customers, no doubt partly at Google’s behest, emphasized the cloud provider’s willingness to provide plenty of engineering and customer support. Darryl West, chief information officer of the global bank HSBC, said the chemistry of his and Google’s teams was key. “It’s a multi-year journey, so you have to like who you’re hanging out with,” he said.

However, West also pointed out a reality that may put some brakes on the cloud push not only by Google but AWS, Azure and others. Noting that HSBC is early in its cloud journey, he said it’s not ready yet to completely to the cloud. “We’re going to have a hybrid strategy for a long time,” he said.

Technology tidbits

There were a few technology tidbits, though the main product announcements were reserved for Thursday. Fei-Fei Li, recently hired chief scientist of AI and Machine Learning at Google Cloud, unveiled new machine learning tools. In particular, a new Video Intelligence application programming interface uses machine learning to automatically find objects such as animals in videos. She also announced the general availability of Google’s Cloud Machine learning API.

Google also said it bought Kaggle, a community of data scientists and machine learning enthusiasts that has held contests to advance the state of machine learning. Although it was cagey about why it’s buying the company, Li provided a hint during a press conference when she said that there was a bigger need for marketplaces of data, which implies the Kaggle community could contribute to or create such marketplaces.

During the brief press conference, Greene also took the opportunity try to “smash” a longstanding concern among business buyers that it often changes direction with little warning. That may happen on the consumer side, she said, but vowed that in the cloud and enterprise businesses Google runs, “We cannot take anything away.” She also said Google would always maintain compatibility of new products with older ones.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet Inc., also sought to underscore Google’s commitment to the cloud, which he said the company has spent $30 billion to build. “We’re here for real. You’re here for real,” he said. “The company has the money, the means and the commitment to pull off a new method of computation.”

Google didn’t, however, manage to show specifically how it’s differentiated from AWS, Azure and others. The only reference to AWS was Greene’s oblique reference to the need for cloud reliability (AWS’s storage service had an outage of several hours recently). “They’ll have to be more overt with this if they want to punch through the noise,” said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy.

Moreover, even with the new partnerships, Google has a lot of catch-up to do. “The big change from last year is that they have a much better go to market story: solution architects, system integrators, etc, who can help customers put together a migration plan,” said George Gilbert, an analyst with the analyst group Wikibon, owned by the same company as SiliconANGLE. “But that migration plan still requires big amounts of rewriting existing apps, far more than AWS or Azure require.”

Even Google’s machine learning capabilities still have issues, Gilbert added. “Their useful ML stuff is all about understanding and generating speech, text, and vision. these are mostly related to nexgen user interfaces,” he said. “It’s not about getting actionable insights from your data. They have that in GCP ML Engine, but it’s just a raw library of ML algorithms — really raw, like random forest — not much better than customers would get licensing any of a dozen different tools.” Microsoft has done a much better job of packaging machine learnings into useful solutions such as anticipating subscriber churn and marketing lead optimization, he said.

The 10,000 people expected at the sold-out conference were five times the number at last year’s first formal cloud show. Google is presenting a wide variety of panels, workshops and training in its cloud offerings, which currently have a heavy emphasis on machine learning and big data analytics.

Photos: Robert Hof