Google’s Cloud Computing Platform Aims to Fuel Growth of Web Applications, Users, Revenues

[Updated April 5 with a correction: Google’s Mike Repass is based in San Francisco, not Seattle]
On Monday evening, I stopped by a talk on “Google’s world view of cloud computing,” organized by the Washington Technology Industry Association as part of its series of events on this emerging IT trend. The first event we covered, in early March, gave a glimpse into the strategy of Amazon Web Services. This more recent event, held at Google’s Fremont offices in Seattle, drew a packed room of almost 100 people, most of them software developer types. It provided an intriguing inside look at Google’s cloud computing platform and where it’s headed, as compared with other big players in the space. (The final presentation in the WTIA series will be given by Microsoft on April 23—location to be announced soon.)

Brian Bershad, Google’s Seattle site director, kicked off the evening by describing how Google got involved with the series last fall. “[WTIA head] Ken Myer and I were at a baseball game,” Bershad said. “He wouldn’t stop asking me questions…’How would a member of WTIA know which [cloud computing] system they should use?’ After 30 or 40 minutes of this, I don’t really like baseball, but I wanted to watch the baseball game! So I said, ‘Ken, why don’t we put together a multi-part series to get these questions answered? Not in a bakeoff, but let’s bring in the key players to get answers to the community.'” Bershad noted it was a good opportunity for outreach. “I’m really excited,” he said. “This is the kind of thing we can be doing in the Seattle community. We have all the big players here, which makes it a highly leveraged community.”

The topic du jour was Google’s cloud platform, which has the certifiably geeky name of “App Engine.” Like all cloud-computing software, its basic idea is to create a common language that allows developers to build new Web applications, create new code, gain access to processing power, and store their data on virtual machines via the Internet. It’s all in the name of helping companies avoid the costs of maintaining internally owned and operated servers, hardware, and teams of people to keep everything running right. App Engine has been publicly available since last April, and boasts about 150,000 developers, 50,000 applications (blogs, online messaging, and so forth), and 100 million page views per day. Just last week, the White House website selected App Engine to handle the processing of questions and votes for President Obama’s online town hall meeting. (The site ended up fielding about 100,000 questions and 3.5 million votes.)

All of these details came from the main speaker of the evening—Mike Repass, a Google product manager who joined the App Engine team in January. Repass is a computer programmer by training, and was a software developer and program manager at Microsoft before joining Google eight months ago. Most of the App Engine team is in San Francisco, and that’s where Repass is based. Although Google’s cloud computing platform has been available for almost a year, it is “still evolving very rapidly,” Repass said.

What App Engine uniquely offers, Repass noted, is a way to “pay as you go” for a Web-hosting platform built on Google’s formidable computing infrastructure. What’s more, App Engine is not a direct competitor of Amazon Web Services, Repass said—and Amazon representatives in the room seemed to concur (more on this later). “Google has deep technology assets, originally developed for Web search,” Repass said. “A lot of Google engineers have figured out how to take this technology and create new applications like e-mail and Google Reader. What if we could take that infrastructure, build that application, and have it reach Google users around the world?” By “infrastructure,” he meant sophisticated algorithms for hosting and routing Internet traffic, handling huge amounts of data storage, and the like. “That’s our passion and our excitement,” he said.

As Repass explained, App Engine’s offering is built around three tenets. One, there’s “no assembly required”—no configuring of plug-ins, extra tools, or operating systems, just one small download. Two, it’s easy to scale—Google figured out how to “write the code and organize data so you can index, track, and search it without having to worry about a bottleneck at 10 or 500 servers,” he said. And three, it’s free to get started, and able to handle about 5 million pageviews per month for your Web application, right out of the box. (After that, it charges you—more on that below.)

So where does App Engine fit in with other cloud computing offerings from Amazon, Microsoft, and EMC? “The cloud computing concept is very new, the definition is up in the air,” Repass said. “My personal opinion is, it’s a bit too early to talk about direct competition.” But he defined one axis of comparison, which consisted of a continuum of options. On one end of the spectrum are traditional “owned machines,” which might include a self-managed server that’s not part of the cloud. Then there are “leased machines,” in which someone else owns the physical machine that stores your data, followed by “virtual leased machines,” in which your data and processing power are moved around between various data centers (Amazon Web Services fits here, particularly its Elastic Compute Cloud). Next on the menu are “managed machines,” in which you have an account and upload code, but are bound by the limits of a particular machine. That is followed by a “managed platform,” which is where Google’s App Engine fits in—as Repass put it, Google manages the machines in the background, while developers give up some familiarity and control in the programming. Finally, there are what Repass called “mashup widgets” that involve no programming, just a graphical interface. (Yahoo Pipes would fit in this last category.)

It is still early days for Google’s cloud platform, and so far it’s aimed at developers who code in a language (Python) consistent with Google’s infrastructure. But Repass said his team is in the midst of adding a new language and other features he couldn’t say much about (such as handling data storage for big files like MP3s and images). “Ten percent of my job is not answering questions,” he joked. But, he added, “We’d love to hear feedback. We love to have discussions.”

In February, App Engine rolled out a billing system for its cloud services. It’s still free to start, but if a developer wants his or her Web application to be able to handle more than (say) 5 million pageviews a month, Repass said, “you can purchase it, if you want, at competitive market rates…You set up a daily budget. You own the budget, and we never charge you beyond that. You pay only for what you use.”

That doesn’t sound like a big profit center for Google. But the search and advertising giant is thinking much more deeply than that, of course. Google owns so much mindshare of the world’s online experience that in the end, it simply comes down to increasing people’s usage of the Web—and staying in the cloud computing game in the meantime. “Google wants to drive Web applications and Web users,” Repass said. “The more applications and users, the more revenue.”

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