May 192016

Both the public cloud and a publicly listed company are good things for a business says Netsuite’s Zac Nelson.

“Managing a public company is a great discipline and in some ways gives us an advantage over non-public company who don’t have to have discipline and make good investments,” says Zac Nelson, the CEO of Netsuite.

Nelson was talking to Decoding the New Economy yesterday at the annual Suiteworld conference, Netsuite’s annual gathering in San Jose.

The CEO’s comments are in contrast to a common view that being publicly listed company distracts a company’s management from focusing on long term objectives, a sentiment Nelson rejects.

“In terms of managing a public company I think it’s an important discipline, I think a lot of people are opposed to these SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley) rules but when I look at these rules I think they are just common sense. Are you managing your business right? You want to have control of your business so you aren’t blindsided.”

Probably the biggest advocate of taking companies private is Michael Dell who took his eponymous business off the markets three years ago and is now looking at doing the same thing with EMC in what will be the biggest IT merger in history.

Dell going private

Nelson doesn’t think Dell going private was a mistake though, “I saw Larry Ellison say it was one of the greatest business moves in the history of man, I’ll agree with Larry – he’s usually right on that stuff,” he laughed.

“The thing I see Dell doing that I understand is they are giving their smaller division more autonomy. Dell Boomi is going back to being just Boomi and Secureworks just went public. Certainly from a structural standpoint and business model innovation that makes sense and it’s what I understand.”

As a public company, Netsuite does come under scrutiny and one of the criticisms is that it continues to post losses, something that Nelson puts down to the treatment of stock options. In the last earnings report, the company claimed capitalising stock options added $30 million in costs and not including them would see the company reporting an eight million dollar profit last quarter.

“We’re cash flow positive, we generate over $140 million in cash,” Nelson says. “People are happy with it, we’re still investing. What we’re investing in this year is different to the past, we’re investing in services to enable our customers to invest in product.”

Integrating the stack

One of the advantages Nelson sees that cloud based companies like his have are integrated systems, “the client server world created this perspective that dis-integrated systems actually work – you have Windows, you have third-party apps – but what really works well are integrated systems.” he says. “Look at the most common system you guys use, called Apple, it’s an integrated end-to-end system. Same with Amazon, that’s what we’ve built.”

“The detour we took in the client-server world is still being taken in the software world, a lot of software people believe you can compile this stuff and it will magically work. No, it doesn’t. Integrated systems work better.”

Securing the cloud

One area he specifically sees where cloud services have an advantage in being integrated is with security, “a problem that large enterprises have that we to some degree don’t have is we have one system, we have five data centers. You look at some of these large enterprises and some of them don’t even know where some of their data centres are. How on earth do you secure that environment? It’s not a product problem, it’s a process and IT management problem.”

Nelson’s comments on security are a swipe at competitors like SAP and Oracle who are often criticised for having disparate systems.

With Suiteworld moving to Las Vegas next year, it will be interesting to see who’s taking bets against cloud services like Netsuite. Certainly with salesmen like Zac Nelson, they’re able to tell a good story. The key though is to show some profits in the longer run.

Paul travelled to Suiteworld in San Jose as a guest of Netsuite.


May 132016

Being on the public cloud is a competitive advantage believes Xero CEO Rod Drury.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been writing a lot about cloud computing. One of the themes being pushed by many incumbent IT companies – such as Dell and EMC recently at their Las Vegas conference – is that a hybrid model of computing is developing where certain functions are given to public cloud providers while others are bought back in house.

Rod Drury, the CEO and founder of Xero, has been one of the greatest critics of this ‘hybrid’ model of computing and during an interview with him yesterday I asked him about this view that companies are bring IT services back in house.

“I completely disagree with that,” says Drury. “We’ve been on a two year journey moving from our own hosted environment to AWS. The reason for that is important.”

“We have a trillion dollars worth of transactions for the last twelve months sitting on our servers, the next stage is to apply some of  the Big Data, machine learning and artificial intelligence type services. If you’re sitting there with your own private cloud, you have to invest in those technologies.”

“The benefit of being on the Amazon cloud – and this is part of the big battle between Amazon, Microsoft and Google – is you really have to be on that platform to take advantage of the commodity innovation that is in those platforms.”

“Our understanding is our incumbent competitors are still working on migrating their desktop platforms and their own data centres to cloud and haven’t made that investment where they get access to the next generation of technology.”

“So we think we’ve built a sustainable competitive advantage by being on AWS, we see Salesforce have announced they are getting on AWS, and you really have get in there because of what’s happening.”

That’s a clear view from Rod Drury and one that most ‘cloud native’ businesses will endorse. Despite the risks of vendor lock-in, companies like Xero are choosing the cloud vendors because of the access to tools and services.

For Amazon’s competitors, from the small services to the major providers such as Microsoft Azure and Google, the challenge is going to be developing and offering services that can compete with AWS.

In many respects the cloud computing world is beginning to resemble the desktop marketplace 25 years ago where Microsoft dominated and controlled the sector. Whether Amazon dominating today is in the interests of today’s cloud native companies remains to be seen, certainly though Xero’s Rod Drury seems to be happy about it.

Drury’s point though about innovation as a commodity is important though and key for businesses like his that have to adapt to changing markets quickly. Maybe that increased flexibility is the key tradeoff when dealing with the AWS juggernaut.

May 062016

Despite the benefits, there’s a number of risks of having your data or applications hosted on cloud services. The three most important are costs, availability and portability.

Having spent the last three days at EMC World in Las Vegas, the cost factor in public cloud services is clear for larger enterprises and many companies – including the soon to be merged EMC and Dell – are basing their business plans on corporations and government agencies bringing at least some of their IT function back in-house.

Smaller companies too are at risk from high costs as a myriad of cloud services can quickly become a big drain on a small business’ finances.

Availability has long been a problem with cloud services as they are at the mercy of internet access and, more importantly, subject to the whims of companies’ policies. Two good examples being Amazon’s arbitrary deleting of users’ kindle licenses and Google’s Real Names debacle.

In the last two days another version of this has arisen where a musician found Apple Music had deleted his collections, while there are claims this ‘bug’ this may be due to clumsy user interfaces it shows the risks in entrusting key data to the cloud.

Which leads us to the most critical point with cloud services – portability. Many online businesses are working on the basis of locking customers into their services.

Most founders asset they want to lock customers in by offering the best services but it’s not hard to see as these companies grow, the urge to use proprietary formats or convoluted exporting tools to keep clients on the platform becomes stronger.

Cloud services aren’t going away but all of us are going to have to take precautions and understand the risk. And backup locally as often as possible.

Apr 262016
group collaboration on a project

Offering free products to students and academics has long been a tactic used by software companies to build their market presence. The current fight for dominance in the cloud is seeing the same tactics being used.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Amazon Web Services’ Glenn Gore about his company’s academic support program.

Part of that conversation ended up in a story for The Australian about how researchers are now using cloud computing services and it’s worthwhile looking at how AWS are using this program to cement their products’ market positions.

“We work with the majority of universities across Australia,” Gore said. “It’s part of an international focus around how we support the education sector in general.”

In some respects AWS’s behaviour isn’t new, for years Microsoft, Autodesk and Adobe have had programs offering free or deeply discounted products for academic or student use. The success of those schemes in becoming defacto industry standards is no small reason why these companies have dominated many sectors.

Microsoft themselves have the similar Bizspark program for tech startups and it’s easy to see how that initiative is helping push Azure’s adoption into a field that has been dominated by AWS.

One of the drawbacks though with cloud computing services is the risk of ‘sticker shock’ where customers end up with big bills. One of the universities I spoke to in researching the story recounted how 0ne of their faculties was presented with a huge AWS invoice because their engineers didn’t provision the services correctly.

This is where AWS’s team steps in with advice for researchers, “in the case of Koala Genome Project use the on-demand model, the standing pricing model for the cloud,” recounts Gore in pointing out the nature of their work could use spot-pricing to take advantage of cheaper prices in off-peak times. “As a result of making that one change they were able to do eighty percent more research.”

Getting more research time is always attractive for researchers and Dr Rebecca Johnson who leads the Australian Museum’s part of the koala consortium was particularly effusive about the support from AWS staff,

“What we have been able to access via this partnership with AWS is compute time and compute capacity that we just would not have had access too,” Dr Johnson said in a media release. “It would have cost us thousands and thousands of dollars to create and we just would not build such a computer system these days. You would not create your own computer infrastructure as we would only use a fraction of it anyway. So, it is great for us to piggy back off these already built systems.”

Being a relatively small institution, the Australian Museum is a good example of how cloud computing can work for those without the resources of big universities or corporations in the same way small businesses and startups can access resources formerly only available to enterprises.

Amazon’s programs though show the Microsoft model of getting students and startups onto their systems early pays dividends. It’s good for academic institutions but one wonders whether it’s also another form of vendor lock in.

Apr 222016
happy guy with lots of money

Alphabet, aka Google, and Microsoft yesterday announced their quarterly results and despite both making healthy profits the numbers show the online world is a tough place to make money.

Microsoft’s stockholders took a five percent hit to their wallets after the company announced weaker than expected results for the last quarter.

Notable in the results were the stunning sales growth of its cloud services with Azure boasting a 120% year on year on year increase.

Yet Microsoft’s Intelligent Cloud division which includes Azure saw its profits fall nearly 13%, showing the company’s products may be making inroads against Amazon Web Services but making profits in that market is very tough indeed.

Similarly Alphabet’s results still show the company is sill totally dependent upon the advertising river of gold for its profits.

Particularly concerning for Alphabet is its ‘other bets’ division doubled its sales but saw losses increase by 20%. Overall Google’s advertising revenues made up 89% of Alphabet’s total revenues this quarter compared to 90% last year.

While both companies have very healthy profits – about five billion dollars this quarter for each – Alphabet’s continued dependence on Google advertising and Microsoft’s declining profitability should be a worrying sign for shareholders in both companies.

Both companies show that despite the apparent riches of the technology sector, making profits is getting tougher. Shareholders of both companies should be watching carefully for any disruption to either business.

Mar 202016

Computer programming is one of the jobs of the future. Right?

Maybe not, as Japanese industrial robot maker Fanuc demonstrates with their latest robot that learns on the job.

The MIT Technology Review describes how the robot analyses a task and fine tunes its own operations to do the task properly.

Fanuc’s robot uses a technique known as deep reinforcement learning to train itself, over time, how to learn a new task. It tries picking up objects while capturing video footage of the process. Each time it succeeds or fails, it remembers how the object looked, knowledge that is used to refine a deep learning model, or a large neural network, that controls its action.

While machines running on deep reinforcement learning won’t completely make programmers totally redundant, it shows basic operations even in those fields are going to be increasingly automated. Just knowing a programming language is not necessarily a passport to future prosperity.

Another aspect flagged in the MIT article is how robots can learn in parallel, so groups can work together to understand and optimise tasks.

While Fanuc and the MIT article are discussing small groups of similar computers working together it’s not hard to see this working on a global scale. What happens when your home vacuum cleaner starts talking to a US Air Force autonomous drone remains to be seen.

Mar 122016
Networks and computers connecting to the web

The one company that has driven both the adoption of cloud computing and the current tech startup mania is Amazon Web Services.

Later this week AWS celebrates its tenth birthday and Werner Vogels, the company’s Chief Technical Officer, has listed the ten most important things he’s learned over the last decade.

The article is a useful roadmap for almost any business, not just a tech organisation, particularly in the importance of building systems that can evolve and understanding that things will inevitably break.

Importantly Vogels flags that encryption and security have to be built into technology, today they are key parts of a product and no longer features to be added later.

Most contentious though is Vogels’ view that “APIs are forever”, that breaking a data connection causes so much trouble for customers that it’s best to leave them alone.

Few companies are going to take that advice, particularly in a world where changing business needs mean APIs have to evolve.

There’s also the real risk for businesses that their vendors will depreciate or abandon APIs leaving key operational functions stranded, this could cause major problems for organisations in a world that’s increasingly automated.

Vogel’s commitment to maintaining APIs may well prove to be a competitive advantage for Amazon Web Services in their competition with Microsoft Azure, Google and an army of smaller vendors.

Werner Vogel’s lessons are worth a read by all c-level executives as well as startup founders looking to build a long term venture, in many ways they could define the new rules of business.