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Interview: Google's cloud computing strategy

Jo Maitland, Contributor

Google launched App Engine in April 2008 for Web developers to build applications and host them on its internal infrastructure. It claims there are thousands of developers using the service, which competes with Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure. Does this mean Google wants to be in the software development game or the web hosting business? What's the company's vision for App Engine, and where does it fit in the cloud computing landscape? We caught up with Mike Repass, product manager for

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Google App Engine.

 

SearchCIO ANZ: What makes you think you can create and support a software development company when software development is not your core business?

Mike Repass: There are lots of people carving out bits of the public web and fencing it off. We'd like to keep it open and App Engine is a way to encourage that. We're saying, let's build a business that supports web advocacy, even though it may be low margin, let's make it easy for people to build on the web. We're never going to get to the level of Microsoft, in terms of the number of people we have in support and training and all of that, but maybe we can think up some novel solutions for that.

SearchCIO ANZ: App Engine is in the platform as a service market. Does Google see itself getting into the infrastructure as a service business?

MR: Hosting is a commodity business. [Meanwhile] Adwords, [Google's core business], is the highest margin business of all time, and we'll never get that margin off App Engine. It's the same for Saleforce.com on their core business, selling CRM as a service, versus Force.com [their development platform]. They are really pushing Force.com, but perhaps for promotional purposes or lead generation, it's a loss leader and perhaps we are in the same boat [with App Engine].

The question gets at, what are Google's core competencies? We know how to deal with hundreds of thousands of machines. All our hardware is custom built and not something we could easily serve up at a raw level in a way that makes sense to people. Infrastructure as a service would be a play against Google's core competencies.

We're saying, let's play with clouds and see if we can catch lightning in a bottle. Google does not say, "Let's build a product." The company doesn't work like that.

SearchCIO ANZ: Are people building anything besides web apps on App Engine?

We're saying, let's play with clouds and see if we can catch lightning in a bottle.
Mike Repass, product manager for Google App Engine

MR: It's mostly web apps today and people are using it for what I call web services glue, typically to transfer or cache data. Time.com used it as a web server proxy and has dumped a ton of data in App Engine, and there are a lot of social networking apps doing that. But rather than one big enterprise poster child, we'd rather have a hundred small web poster children, the kid in Brazil or China that wants to build apps on the web. It's very hard to build the pipeline to extract money from the big guys.

SearchCIO ANZ: Will you sell the App Engine software for people to use internally?

MR: No, we wouldn't separate it from the Google infrastructure. But we'd love someone to build an App Engine compatible product and sell that to other companies.

SearchCIO ANZ: I have an existing app not written in Python, can I run it on App Engine?

MR: Today we support Python and Java, but App Engine is designed to be language independent. In the future, we may support other languages.

SearchCIO ANZ: Why would a developer limit themselves to App Engine when they can work in any language today on Amazon AWS?

MR: They are very different offerings. In AWS, you still have to be concerned with the infrastructure, whereas with App Engine, we abstract it entirely. You are straight into writing code without any worries about how the underlying infrastructure should be connected.

SearchCIO ANZ: If there was no Google and you were starting out today, which cloud would you use?

MR: For development, I would use Heroku, which lets you develop Ruby on Rails (RoR) apps on Amazon EC2. They expose some of the infrastructure details to you, unlike App Engine, but it has things like a blended billing capability. You have the scaling capability of EC2 combined with the development environment.

Personally, if there was no Google, I'd build a cloud management company. People are spending a fortune on management of cloud infrastructure. If you're spending $500 a month for RightScale on management, the money that's being saved on EC2 is being funneled into the management.

SearchCIO ANZ: That sounds a lot like today's world, where hardware is getting cheaper but management of it is expensive. So the cloud is just replicating that scenario?

MR: Cloud management vendors need to find a way to make this affordable or they will not survive. In the data center internally, there is someone you can yell at, but in the cloud the software really needs to work and be cost-effective or companies will not adopt it.