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Cloud revenue jumps, led by Microsoft and IBM

Microsoft cloud servers in Quincy, Wash. The cloud business today represents a tiny slice of the overall information technology market, but it is where the market is headed.

Microsoft via New York Times

Microsoft cloud servers in Quincy, Wash. The cloud business today represents a tiny slice of the overall information technology market, but it is where the market is headed.

NEW YORK — The virtue of fear as a source of animating energy has long been recognized in the quicksilver tech industry. “Only the paranoid survive,” as Andrew S. Grove, Intel’s longtime leader, put it, a guiding principle that was also the title of his 1996 book on management.

The fear factor is clearly at work now in the fast-growing market for cloud computing. The latest quarterly reports from technology companies and market research show that two of the fastest movers in the emergent cloud business are the incumbent giants of traditional software: Microsoft and IBM. Their business is most at risk from the shift to computing delivered over the Internet from distant data centers, with the business model of a pay-for-use service rather than a product.

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Microsoft’s cloud revenue jumped 164 percent in the second quarter, while IBM’s surged 86 percent, according to a report last week by Synergy Research Group.

Amazon is still way ahead, with $962 million in cloud revenue, compared with $370 million for Microsoft and IBM’s $259 million, Synergy estimates. But Amazon’s growth rate, at 49 percent, was only slightly ahead of the torrid 45 percent pace of the cloud market as a whole.

The progress by Microsoft and IBM was emphasized in the companies’ quarterly financial reports and conference calls with analysts.

“It’s not just talk; they are backing it up with a lot of investment,” said John Dinsdale, an analyst at Synergy.

The so-called magic quadrant reports by Gartner, a technology research firm, are closely followed by tech suppliers and their corporate customers.

If Microsoft and IBM do not move quickly, they will lose their long-term corporate customers.

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The reports include assessments of tech companies’ strengths and weaknesses as well as a graphic that plots companies on two axes. Left-to-right placement in the graphic is based on “completeness of vision,” and bottom-to-top placement shows “ability to execute.”

“Leaders” are in the upper-right quadrant of the graphic, while “niche players” are consigned to the lower left.

In Gartner’s report last year on basic cloud services, IBM was among the niche players. (And in 2012, it was not even included as a player.) This year, helped by the acquisition of SoftLayer, a cloud startup, and its own internal investment, it has moved sharply to the right, and higher, though it is not yet in the leaders area.

The vision is strong, according to Gartner, but the execution still lags a bit.

Microsoft has moved up and to the right this year, into the leaders area. Last year, Gartner positioned Microsoft about where IBM is this year.

Amazon is still the star in Gartner’s chart of the cloud industry, some distance above Microsoft, the only other company in the leaders quadrant, among 15 companies Gartner included in the report.

Measurements in the cloud marketplace are tricky. Companies define their cloud businesses differently. And the big companies do not report their cloud revenue or profit separately, although they do occasionally make statements.

When Microsoft announced its quarterly results last month, it declared that its cloud revenue was running at a $4.4 billion annual rate. IBM said its cloud business was 50 percent higher so far this year, but did not supply a dollar figure. In its annual report, IBM said that its cloud revenue in 2013 was $4.4 billion. So this year would appear to be on track to be well north of $6 billion.

Amazon’s cloud revenue, according to a recent estimate by Pacific Crest Securities, will reach $5 billion this year.

Yet the Microsoft and IBM numbers include things not in the Amazon estimates. Amazon’s cloud offers computing, storage, and basic software tools used by engineers.

But Microsoft and IBM add the software delivered to customers over the cloud, from spreadsheets to data-analysis applications.

IBM’s revenue total, analysts say, also includes cloud-related services and even hardware used in setting up cloud computing environments that companies own themselves, so-called private clouds.

So comparing Microsoft and IBM’s cloud revenue to Amazon’s is not an apples-to-apples exercise.

“For Microsoft, it is apples, oranges, and pears,” said Lydia Leong, a Gartner analyst. “For IBM, it’s apples, oranges, pears and the kitchen sink.”

Yet it is the business beyond basic cloud computing — beyond the apples, to continue the analogy — that is most strategic to Microsoft and IBM. They have to convert their lucrative traditional software products to cloud offerings, and both companies are doing that aggressively.

Microsoft and IBM may lose licensing revenue in the shift to the lower-cost cloud model, selling services rather than products. But if they do not make the transition quickly, they will lose their most valuable asset: their long-term corporate customers.

The cloud business today represents a tiny slice of the overall information technology market, but it is where the market is headed. Microsoft and IBM are eager to make that transition, and so are their clients.

“In the past year, we’re seeing customers take the incumbents with them into the cloud,” said Robert P. Mahowald, an analyst at IDC.

For tech suppliers, big changes in the models of computing delivery and economics can be brutal or beautiful.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the shift away from mainframes and minicomputers to personal computers tethered to corporate servers — known as client-server computing — nearly killed IBM, and it made Microsoft the dominant company of that era.

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