For some years now, multi-cloud has emerged as the prevalent trend as channel partners help their customers move from their rickety legacy infrastructures.
Hailed as the magic bullet for unlocking enterprise and governments’ digital innovation – and the end to the loathed vendor lock-ins – multi-cloud strategy is likely to be in place by 90 per cent of global companies by 2020, according to IDC’s recent FutureScape predictions.
However, new marketing guidelines released by the world’s biggest cloud provider, Amazon Web Services (AWS), risk putting a stopper on a number of the partner’s multi-cloud ambitions.
Released earlier this month, the co-branding guide ordered partners it will no longer approve terms such as “multi-cloud,” “cross-cloud,” “any cloud,” “every cloud,” “or any other language that implies designing or supporting more than one cloud provider, as reported by CRN Australia.
And for some partners, this signals a worrying trend. Speaking during AWS’ recent Public Sector Summit in Canberra, InFront and Buttonwood founder Allan King had blunt words for AWS: “We’re living in a multi-cloud world – get over it,” he told ARN.
“We found our niche by listening to our customer,” he said. “And 75 per cent of customers are saying their workloads will be in multi or hybrid clouds. We have developed a strategy that provides the same customer selection that they have often advocated, but now you cannot use language that indicates more than one choice and we’re no longer able to market or gain traction through it.”
AWS has not revealed the consequences of going against the guidelines, but partners on the ground at the AWS Public Sector Summit suggested worst-case scenario would be de-registration. As such, ARN understands that ahead of the conference partners had to hurriedly change their literature and stand branding to omit any reference to the banned terms.
And for King, this goes against the very ethos of Amazon itself.
“Amazon’s business model has been customer selection,” he said. “It’s the language Jeff Bezos uses himself. They have become a broker of choice of 10,000 suppliers in their marketplace. They have had a multi-consumption option for customers forever. It’s opposed to the way Amazon has grown up.”
Exclusivity versus loyalty
Given customers’ appetite, it is unsurprising that many channel partners have and are in the process of evolving their business models to support a multi-cloud world. King was one of these, having launched Buttonwood, a multi-cloud management start-up partnered with AWS and Microsoft Azure, four years ago.
Another company making headway in multi-cloud is AC3, which last year acquired Bulletproof. The company would not comment directly on AWS’ co-branding guidelines. However, in another discussion during the summit, AC3 NSW public sector sales manager Briant Kareroa reiterated multi-cloud’s importance to the company’s strategy.
“After we acquired Bulletproof 18 months ago, we had to reform our business to be a pure-play multi-cloud provider,” he said. “As part of our new go-to-market, we wanted to continue to leverage our relationship with AWS, but take it another level — if not to be the number one partner in Australia, to at least give it a good old crack.”
Although AWS is the company’s primary cloud provider of choice, particularly around its VMware offerings, as it provides an easier option for public sector migrations.
“It’s not about only AWS, but what it’s about is landing our clients the ability to land those workloads wherever they want,” added Kareroa. “AWS and Azure are front runners for that. We can’t just work with one though.”
Yet, as one partner who asked to not be named noted, AWS is facing “a lot of competition in the space from Azure”. In terms of infrastructure-as-a-service, Azure way still be considerably behind AWS in terms of global consumption — 47 per cent versus 15.5 per cent according to Gartner — but grew by 60 per cent last year, more than twice the rate of AWS. Alibaba and Google Cloud are also seeing rapid growth at 92 per cent and 60 per cent respectively
“There’s a strong incumbency in defending the territories,” the partner added. “But it’s a delicate situation because partners don’t work for you.”
“There’s a concept of loyalty and one of exclusivity. Quite often people say they’re the same thing. But I observed a paradox there: and the subtle difference is anchored by the trust. It’s reasonable to expect your partners to be loyal to you if there is a track record of investment and partnership, but loyalty comes without question. You shouldn’t have to talk about exclusivity or restrict talking about competitors,” the partner added.
Lowest common denominator
AWS has largely remained tight-lipped on the co-branding guide. During the conference, Simon Elisha, AWS’ head of solution architecture for A/NZ public sector, offered a few words claiming to have seen the “best success” from customers when they “choose to work with the cloud provider of their choice”.
“Where we see a lot of organisations fail is when they try and go with the lowest common denominator approach,” he added.
This statement is nothing new: three years ago, AWS CEO Andy Jassy reiterated the same words, claiming multi-cloud operations forced companies “to standardise on the lowest common denominator, and these platforms are nowhere close to the same”.
Speaking to The Register at the time, he added: “For anyone who's had to maintain multiple stacks, it's a pain in the butt. It's hard, it's resource-intensive, it's costly, and development teams hate it.”
King acknowledged multi-cloud operations can lead to complexity and risk slowing new service delivery while increasing the management overheads. However, impinging on partners’ marketing activities is not the answer, he added.
“The answer isn’t to limit customers to a single provider,” he said. “Instead, customers should be provided with the means to eliminate a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach. Buttonwood was developed to provide customer selection by supporting all native cloud services (PaaS, SaaS and IaaS) with the simplicity and confidence of using a single vendor.”
AWS’ guidelines also raise a wider theme about the evolving vendor-to-partner relationship.
Historically, according to King, partners were more likely to be a technology advocate, but years of increased disintermediation by vendors has eroded these relationships. As such, for King, today’s channel business model is to listen to the customer first.
Brendon Thwaites, who recently joined cloud infrastructure management firm HashiCorp, took a similar view, telling ARN customer conversations with customers rarely now start with the partner just putting a product on the table, especially in terms of cloud service. In fact, he claimed, partners are looking for ways to be as “cloud agnostic” as possible.
“The challenge is from a DevOps and cloud tooling perspective,” he explained. “You’ve got government and financial agencies driving their own multi-cloud agendas. So partners are adopting more of a consulting approach and want to be seen as agnostic. The customer problem comes first and only then are the tools discussed.
“The problem comes when the partner comes and says ‘this is the tool I’m going to promote’. In some cases that’s acceptable, but in many other cases you have to be a lot more open-minded because the customer’s agenda takes priority.”
For now, AWS has shown little signs of back-peddling on the restrictive guidelines. In contrast, rival Google Cloud has seemingly accepted its position to fit into a multi-cloud ecosystem.
Earlier this year, the company announced its new management tool Anthos, which allows users to run their Google-managed workloads on competing cloud platforms. While Google, which has four per cent of the world’s public cloud market, is unlikely to make any headway on AWS, King believes Azure may find new ground with partners especially in the enterprise space.
“AWS has grown up with an enormous amount off success in a world of cloud-natives and start-ups,” he said. “[The co-branding guidelines] will not affect AWS’ partner position in the start-up or cloud-native environment, but may do in the enterprise.
“Microsoft has a very clear partner strategy and understands the enterprise and their productivity tools. So now, Microsoft may claw back some of the ground they’ve lost over the last few years.”