Analysis

New battleground for AWS and Google: customer service

Cloud companies are starting to think differently about customer support as competition for customers unfamiliar with the tech heats up.

A woman in a server room

As the basic features of cloud computing commoditize, buyers looking to migrate their old infrastructure to the cloud could elevate customer support alongside features and pricing as a key factor.

Photo: DigitalVision via Getty Images

Cloud computing is a story of scale, and of the incredible power that a vast network of machines can deliver. Turns out people don't scale as easily.

The newest generation of cloud customers needs more help understanding how the cloud works than the early adopters, and cloud providers are scrambling to catch up. The startups and rogue IT departments that built the cloud played as much a role defining cloud best practices as the providers themselves, but the customers who have come on board over the last couple of years have different needs and face a steeper learning curve.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

There's evidence providers are taking the challenge seriously. Google just announced Google Cloud Premium Support, which allows smaller companies to purchase enterprise-level support features rather than languishing in the queue for tech support with everyone else. Meanwhile, AWS is hiring hundreds of "solutions architects," asking them to help new customers get up and running in the cloud. As the basic features of cloud computing commoditize, buyers looking for a reason to choose a provider could elevate customer support alongside features and pricing as a key factor.

"Over the last 10 years, since I've been in the public cloud market, the support has gotten to be much better," said David Linthicum, chief cloud strategy officer at Deloitte Consulting. But, he said, "I've seen people not pick a cloud provider because they were not fast enough in returning their calls."

And there are more companies using the cloud than ever: Amazon Web Services has doubled its revenue over the past two years, and its rivals have been growing even faster. Not that long ago, you didn't necessarily have to be a big spender to get cloud product executives on the phone. But these days, even high-rollers don't necessarily get that level of personal touch.

That all makes for a crowded technical support queue at most cloud providers, perhaps most noticeably at AWS, which runs the most sizable cloud operation by a significant margin. Few people enjoy the technical support process, but it's one of the most important ways that cloud buyers interact with their providers and maybe the easiest way to bolster or tarnish a brand.

"Different people with different backgrounds have different support expectations, and in the cloud, you need to reshape those expectations," said Corey Quinn, analyst and chief cloud economist at The Duckbill Group.

In general, cloud providers are pretty good about paying close attention to their biggest customers in the Global 2000 ranks, Linthicum said. But, as with many customer support experiences, things tend to be different for small- and medium-size businesses looking for support.

Customers at the very low end of annual cloud spending tend not to bother with technical support from cloud providers, because they know how the pecking order works, Linthicum said. That has created an enormous opportunity for systems integrators, consultants, and other services organizations to help clients navigate the support system through a larger institution like Deloitte.

"[Cloud providers are] dealing with the latency that comes with any saturation of resources," Linthicum said. "Everybody's trying to scale up, and there's always a latency in the last three to four years in terms of the talent you need and the talent you have. [That means] phones are going unanswered, emails are going unanswered."

That's a frustrating experience for anyone trying to run a business where downtime and bugs can cause disasters, and some of the businesses that fall into this category are still spending millions a year on cloud services.

By contrast, it's often easier to get support from traditional data-center hardware and software providers, which can be a dispiriting realization for companies that just made a multiyear bet on moving their applications to the cloud.

"The traditional hardware and software vendors have the luxury of not having a market that's expanding as quickly as the cloud market is," Linthicum said. "They're able to maintain the talent levels of the people to support it, so they're able to keep up."

Given the flexibility and long-term cost benefits of cloud computing, even top-notch technical support might not be enough to keep potential cloud customers using their own servers, especially when trying to compete against nimble upstarts built on the cloud. But it does signal that cloud providers need to up their game when it comes to providing technical support, because when the underlying services are a commodity — as is the case with traditional servers — other aspects of the customer experience become more important.

One of the aspects that's getting more attention now is deployment. In the old days of packaged software familiar to a lot of the enterprise companies just now making the jump to the cloud, customers were more or less responsible for getting the software they just bought up and running on their own servers, said Jon Schrader, senior vice president of customer success at Skytap, a Seattle cloud services company.

In the past, companies "might go spend $5 million on some technology, and if they never get it deployed … that was not that uncommon" he said. "In the [cloud infrastructure] world, if it doesn't get deployed, we don't get paid."

To address some of this need, providers like AWS are hiring solutions architects who teach customers how to renovate their older applications for the cloud. That type of help is generally contingent on a commitment to spend a certain amount of money over a certain number of years, but cloud providers have every incentive to make sure their customers' applications are running correctly because the meter is on.

One job ad on AWS' career page describes the "architect" role as the conduit back and forth between customers and AWS product engineers. "The successful candidate will get the opportunity to work with a wide array of AWS infrastructure architects and specialists, as well as being brought in as the compute expert to meet with customers and partners."

Demand for these skills will only grow as older companies with challenging migration problems start using cloud services in greater numbers. Skilled infrastructure engineers have been a hot commodity in cloud circles for over a decade at this point, but in the next era of the cloud, people skills might be even more important.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins