Google Compute Engine's biggest challenge

Is Google serious about the level of enterprise customer service needed to make its cloud computing service successful?

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I've been following the development of Google Compute Engine (GCE) since it was announced at the company's 2012 developers conference. At the time, I saw the Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offering as a direct challenge to Amazon's dominance of this space, and now that GCE is finally exiting its "limited preview" - cutting prices, bolstering its SLA, and adding features as it becomes a regular commercial service - that positioning remains true.

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But Google has yet to address what I see as the biggest challenge facing GCS - can it transform its corporate culture to give large enterprise customers the respect and handholding they deserve and expect?

Google is well armed for the fight

Don't get me wrong. Google brings plenty of ammunition to the fight for cloud computing. Google is the one company with the profits and infrastructure to put Amazon in its place. This is a company that's so rich, so dominant, it's in the process of cutting a deal to take over part of the local Silicon Valley airport just for its corporate jets. Even though it books slightly less revenue than Amazon, it earns billions in quarterly profits while Amazon is content to lose millions.

Google has the unique ability to muscle in to any market that strikes its fancy, without really feeling a pinch. Nobody else stalking the cloud computing market - not IBM, not Microsoft, not even Amazon - comes from such a position of strength. And, like Amazon, Google also has the infrastructure in place to support cloud computing on any scale it desires.

Ironically, though, Google's very scale could be its Achilles heel in the cloud computing market. Google is so big, and has so many users, that it has been forced to perfect a low-touch culture of sales and customer support.

Lacking the personal touch?

As its billions of users know, Google is really, really good at providing automated tools to provide assistance and support for its many products. There's no one better at that.

But the company doesn't fare as well when it's forced to deal with individual customer concerns and problems. That approach may be fine for startup and small business customers who want to use Google Compute Engine. The service's low prices may well be enough to entice them on board.

But since GCE was first announced, I have spoken to several CIOs, many of whom are used to special treatment for the millions of dollars they spend on IT services, who complained that Google treated them about the same as it treated any random Gmail subscriber.

If Google really wants to make a big dent in the enterprise IaaS market, it will need to change its ingrained approach of treating everyone the same no matter how important of a customer they are. Volume discounts, special services, custom agreements, and a lot of hand-holding have to be part of the offering, or many companies simply won't bite.

Google certainly has the capacity to do that. Heck, it has the money and smarts to do almost anything. But the example it has set selling Google Apps does not always inspire confidence that the company fully understands the difference between attracting vast numbers of users with free services and making a relatively small number of incredibly picky enterprise clients happy enough to spend big bucks on products like GCE.

Now that Google Compute Engine has reached commercial availability, though, we're about to find out.

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