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Google Rebuff’s McKinsey’s Cloud Computing Claims

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Apple might be the original “Think Different” company, but it has a close cousin in Silicon Valley neighbor Google. For example, the search giant has no qualms about stating something most IT vendors wouldn’t be caught dead saying: “We expect the hardware to fail.”

That statement was included in a detailed promotion of the benefits of cloud computing Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) posted Tuesday that started with a polite jab at management consultancy McKinsey & Company. Last month McKinsey posted a report through the Uptime Institute entitled ‘Clearing the air on cloud computing.’

Among other points, the McKinsey report touted virtualization as offering more proven, cost-effective benefits to IT organizations than cloud computing.

“Clouds already make sense for many small and medium-size businesses, but technical, operational and financial hurdles will need to be overcome before clouds will be used extensively by large public and private enterprises,” the report said.

“Rather than create unrealizable expectations for ‘internal clouds,’ CIOs should focus now on the immediate benefits of virtualizing server storage, network operations, and other critical building blocks,” the report added.

While Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) isn’t necessarily concerned with a firm’s inner datacenter workings, its blog post argues that McKinsey’s outlook on cloud computing focused too much on internal clouds and overlooked the potential of external clouds for supplemental computing.

“There’s quite a bit of talk these days about corporations building a ‘private cloud’ with concepts like virtualization, and there can be significant benefits to this approach,” Rajen Sheth, senior product manager for Google Apps, wrote in Google’s enterprise blog.

“But those advantages are amplified greatly when customers use applications in the scalable datacenters provided by companies like Google, Amazon, and soon, Microsoft… This offers them much lower cost applications and removes the IT maintenance burden that can cripple many organizations today,” he went on to say.

Sleth told he disagrees with McKinsey’s assertion that cloud computing is less cost-effective than large enterprise datacenters and that uptime and security concerns haven’t been adequately addressed.

He noted, for example, that Google lets administrators of Google Apps Premier set policies on top of the applications for things such as which ones to deploy, implanting single sign-on and integration to back-end systems.

“I think one thing that gets lost in the discussion is the different layers of value in the cloud,” he said. “There’s the hardware savings, but then there’s the services offerings and the scaling capability. For example, with Google App Engine, you deploy some Java code and we’ll scale the database without IT having to think about clustering or any scalability issues.”

On the cost side, he said the price difference between Gmail and traditional corporate e-mail systems like Microsoft’s Exchange “are incredible.” Sheth pointed to a Forrester Research study that said Gmail costs less than a third of an on-premise solution like Exchange and offers as much as a hundred times more than the typical storage.

“There is limited value to running an Exchange Server in a virtual machine in the cloud. That server was never designed for the cloud, so you don’t get additional scale,” he wrote in the blog. “You’d also need to continue to maintain and monitor the mail server yourself, so the labor savings are marginal. But with cloud-based applications like Gmail, we take care of all of the hassle for you. We keep the application up and running, and have designed it to scale easily.”

Google also releases updates to Gmail and some of its other apps on a fairly regular basis, versus years between updates to Microsoft’s Outlook client.

This isn’t the first attempt to better define the scope of the all-encompassing term “cloud computing.” Even Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison have expressed varying levels of exasperation over what the term entails.

Leave the hardware to us

One of the biggest selling points of cloud computing is that the provider manages the hardware and upgrades. While vendors pitch ever more powerful systems with better performance and reliability ratings (along with maintenance contracts), Sheth says Google takes a different approach.

“Our philosophy is that the hardware is going to fail at some point, so we focus on how to make the software robust and keep the hardware costs low,” he said.

The blog post described Google’s approach to maximizing its datacenter: “In the virtualization approach of private data centers, a company takes a server and subdivides it into many servers to increase efficiency. We do the opposite by taking a large set of low cost commodity systems and tying them together into one large supercomputer. We strip down our servers to the bare essentials, so that we’re not paying for components that we don’t need. For example, we produce servers without video graphics chips that aren’t needed in this environment.”

One example of Google’s scalability in action is the recent online town hall meeting held by President Barack Obama. Google said the White House was able to instantly scale its database to support more than 100,000 questions and over 3.5 million votes, without worrying about usage spikes.

“If you were doing that yourself, you’d have to allocate the servers, plan for capacity and peak loads,” said Sheth. “He said no government servers were used for the event which was run using Google’s Moderator application.

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