Google digs deeper into the enterprise at Google Cloud Next ‘18

Google Cloud Next '18 put customers, developers, partners and analysts through their paces last week in San Francisco, with an exhausting set of more than 100 announcements. The event confirmed the transformation Google Cloud has undergone since Diane Greene took the helm, and it revealed Google's growing momentum with enterprises and advances against Amazon Web Services and Microsoft.

But if Google really wants to vie for cloud supremacy in the next few years, it must also improve its global marketing, strategy for vertical markets and integrations with the wider consumer Google and Alphabet businesses.

Let's take a look at some of the leading announcements and then go deeper into our assessment.

Event underlines Google Cloud transformation

It's been three years since Diane Greene became CEO at Google Cloud and in that time, the company has transformed almost beyond recognition. This was evident in the scale of this year's event, with 25,000 attendees compared to only a 2,000 just a few years ago.

At that time, many argued Google lacked relevancy and credibility in the enterprise market, but this sentiment has changed dramatically. The event showcased a rapidly expanding network of partners, and focused audiences on its key differentiators: engineering smarts, customer engagement, security, data tools, machine learning and a commitment to open source. There was also a boost in commitment to hybrid cloud services, the Internet of things and edge computing, all areas we highlighted were missing from its strategy in 2017.

The progress was demonstrated in part by the number of customers showcased at the conference, including Target, Nielsen and Twitter, which is moving over 300 petabytes of data to the platform.

Pushing ahead with artificial intelligence and machine learning

Two major themes in this year's keynote presentations were security and artificial intelligence (AI). As Ms Greene put it, "Security is the number one worry and AI is the number one opportunity."

Google's AI portfolio has rapidly become one of its most significant sources of competitive advantage. The company reiterated its strategy of democratizing the technology by focusing on bridging the skills gap and building more business solutions for customers.

These themes formed the focus of its two major AI announcements. Firstly, it announced the expansion of its AutoML platform to incorporate translation and natural language processing. Secondly, Google announced Contact Center AI, a product with similar technology foundations to Google Duplex. It integrates Dialogflow, Google's natural language-based virtual agent technology that supports live agents and analytics specifically for contact centres.

Google also stated that Kaggle, Google's community for data scientists that it acquired in March 2017, has seen its membership rise 90 percent to over 2 million. The platform has more than 7,000 publicly available data sets.

Google's progress in AI has improved remarkably over the past year. The focus on applied AI and business solutions are making it easier for customers to think of Google as an AI leader and to approach it, even if using another cloud provider, to get started with machine learning. The expansion of AutoML in particular, along with Kaggle, are key assets that set Google apart from Amazon and Microsoft. The latter has established an early lead in AI — see Microsoft Showcases Its AI Leadership.

Establishing trust through security measures

Security has become a vital resource in helping Google establish trust with customers for its cloud services and advanced solutions such as AI.

It announced several additions to its arsenal, including Context Aware Access, an access control solution that factors in user identity and location; a FIDO-based security key for protection from phishing attacks; and a host of security features for containers. It also unveiled improvements to G Suite security, including an investigation tool that helps identify infected user accounts, remove file access in Drive storage or delete malicious emails.

The moves are key steps for Google Cloud. In the past, customers uneducated about Google's enterprise business would typically perceive security and trust as a major weakness. But this sentiment is changing as it continues to elevate and centralize its security messaging in 2018.

We have argued that Google will be among the key cybersecurity firms of the future, but this requires the company to think of itself more as a supplier of security services in addition to being a secure platform provider. Chronicle, Alphabet's cybersecurity business that recently graduated from its X research operation, should also factor into its story in the future.

G Suite progress, driven by artificial intelligence

Another major focus area was the ongoing progress of G Suite, especially in its use of AI. The platform now has 4 million paying customers, 1 million more than in 2017. In addition, G Suite has built a major following in the education sector: there are 80 million users of G Suite for Education worldwide, up from 70 million in 2017.

The company will bring its Smart Reply feature, which offers users three choices of responses and accounts for more than 10 percent of responses in Gmail, to Hangouts Chat. Google also announced Smart Compose for Gmail, which makes writing messages quicker by intelligently completing sentences and adapting to an individual's writing style and the context of the message.

Google Sheets Explore analyzes spreadsheet data using natural language queries, and Google Docs will use the machine learning capabilities from Google Translate to apply accurate grammar to text.

Google is still playing catch-up with Microsoft in cloud productivity and collaboration, but it's making progress. A major challenge has been G Suite's lack of marketing and awareness. It is virtually unadvertised outside the US at a global level. Google will need to improve this in 2018.

New initiatives in the Internet of Things and hybrid cloud

Google also used the event to make a major push into the Internet of things and edge computing. San Francisco marked the first set of announcements made by Injong Rhee, Google Cloud's new head of its Internet of things activities, who joined the company earlier in 2018 from Samsung.

Google launched an edge computing version of its Tensor Processing Unit chip, known as Edge TPU. This is a scaled-down version of its big brother that runs TensorFlow models that have been compressed using TensorFlow Lite. It also unveiled Edge ML, a runtime for machine learning models on edge devices. Most importantly, it announced an edge cloud component — Google Cloud IoT Edge. This software runs on edge devices, with various workloads running in containers that control local analytics and machine learning, and links back to a central cloud service. It runs on Android Things and Debian Linux.

Another highlight announcement was its new Cloud Services Platform, a collection of Google services that will be seen by many as the company's major attempt to fill a gap in its portfolio of hybrid cloud services. The new offering will fold its hugely successful open-source Kubernetes platform and its recently developed Istio, an open-source management platform for various Kubernetes environments, into a single service.

What's next for Google?

Above all, the Next event showed Google's investments over the past year have helped it emerge as a viable and increasingly differentiated option for enterprises. But Google must focus on three key areas when vying for supremacy against Microsoft and Amazon in the long run.

Firstly, it must improve its global marketing. Google needs stronger, clearer and bolder advertising beyond its core IT engineering and developer communities. It will also need to hire more sales and marketing professionals to provide a better balance among its skills and staff as well, which are heavily skewed toward engineers and people who build products, not those who sell them.

Secondly, it must continue to expand its strategy for vertical markets beyond retail and media into domains like healthcare, where it is doing some strong research with Google Brain and into regulated industries such as financial services, pharmaceuticals and energy.

Thirdly, although Google has made good steps in integrating Google Cloud with the wider consumer organization and bringing a "one Google" approach to the enterprise, it needs to work harder to integrate further within Google and Alphabet in certain areas. These include better alignment with Google AI and DeepMind, given the proximity that research has to competitive advantage in AI, as well as more broadly with the Chronicle business in security.

Diane Greene closed the opening presentation by stating, "Google's mission is to organize the world's information. Google Cloud's mission is to organize enterprise information and supercharge it with AI." These improvements will be critical to this mission as the cloud wars intensify over the next few years.

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