Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian: Cloud computing is on the brink of a new era

Kurian tapped his enterprise experience from 22 years at Oracle to reshape Google Cloud as an open, hybrid and multicloud player. What comes next?

Thomas Kurian

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian spoke with Protocol.

Photo courtesy of Google/Weinberg-Clark Photography

When Thomas Kurian landed the CEO role at Google Cloud, he was welcomed as a respected technologist and executive bringing 22 years of needed enterprise chops from Oracle for a substantial undertaking: turning an underdog into a heavyweight contender for meeting major corporations’ cloud needs.

At the Google Cloud Next conference in early 2019, Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai introduced Kurian, then about three months into his tenure, as a “tremendous leader with a powerful vision” who already had met with hundreds of customers and partners and whose “personal productivity is testing the limits of G Suite and Calendar.”

Before leaving Oracle, Kurian had been its product development president since 2008, reporting directly to founder and chairman Larry Ellison. In early 2018, it was Kurian who unveiled Oracle’s ambitious plan to build up its own cloud capabilities with a massive buildout of its data center footprint and services using machine learning to automate routine operations. Growing differences with Ellison over Oracle’s cloud direction — including Kurian’s desire for a multicloud approach — reportedly led to his departure.

Three and a half years into his tenure at Google Cloud, the bet on multicloud has been a key foundation of Kurian’s reshaping of the No. 3 cloud provider around infrastructure, data analytics, cybersecurity, collaboration and communication, and industry-specific products and services. In his view, the next decade of cloud computing is likely to look very different from the first 16 years of its evolution.

Google Cloud’s success can be seen in its financial results — revenue has increased some 230% since Kurian joined Google Cloud, and is on track to exceed $23 billion this year — and customer adoption from the likes of Deutsche Bank, Ford Motor Company, Mayo Clinic, Univision and the U.S. Air Force, Kurian told Protocol in a recent interview.

“There's always more to be done at all times, but clearly we've had a lot of success these last three years,” he said.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Read our other story on the evolution of Google Cloud here.

Is Google Cloud enterprise-ready or is it still a work in progress, and what are the indicators of that?

It's the customers who indicate that. And given the number of very large customers — from stock exchanges, to large telecommunications companies, to big banks, to hospital systems, manufacturing companies that are running large systems and using our cloud to run the core parts of their business — I would say, yes, the answer is yes. We've really, really transformed, and most of our largest customers have been super successful in adopting and using cloud through the work they've done with us. So we definitely feel very confident we're doing that.

Where do we have more work to do? Obviously, we have a certain size and scale. We want to expand to more countries, to more industries, and there's a lot of work going on to expand both our data center footprint around the world, as well as our sales, distribution and service organizations around the world. So there is more expansion that we want to do globally to bring our technology to more countries, more places.

Where do you see the most opportunity to expand globally?

We've expanded significantly overseas in Europe. We are growing very quickly in Latin America. We're expanding in Asia to many more markets. We are quite strong in the big markets, which is India, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, greater China and ASEAN, but there's always more places in Asia, whether that's in Thailand, Vietnam, etc. Similarly, in Latin America, there's a lot of potential for growth. There's more that we want to grow in Japan. We are expanding our presence in Africa. So there's a lot more other geographies that we want to go to in addition to expanding in our core geos, whether that's the U.K., France, Germany, United States, Canada, etc.

How market-share-oriented is Alphabet when it comes to Google Cloud? And if not market share, what is it using as a metric for success?

Despite the growth that people have seen so far, the market is very early in its transition, and so we see the market potential in three different ways. First of all, many customers have not yet transitioned [to the cloud]. Secondly … if you look at surveys from Gartner, IDC, the analyst firms, they will tell you that almost all large customers plan to use multiple cloud providers, which was not true a few years ago.

So when you look at the market, whether that's new solutions like analytics or cybersecurity, these are all new segments that are opening up for cloud. We think the market is in its early stages. So we're investing for growth and investing in terms of both our investments in capital, data centers and our global network, in products and in go to market. And we're doing it in a thoughtful way. I think you've seen our financial results, and both the growth and the improvement of profitability because of the growth speaks for itself.

Sundar Pichai and Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat have said that Alphabet is in it for the long term with Google Cloud. Is there any timeframe under which you have to meet a certain measure?

No, when we say long term, five to 10 years. If you look at the cloud market data today versus five years ago, it's vastly different.

Five years ago, if you talked to customers, there was a lot of anxiety that if you go to the cloud, will it be less secure, as an example. Today, cybersecurity tools that we offer in our cloud are being used by large retailers, large financial institutions, large telecommunications companies. A market segment that did not exist in the cloud five years ago — cybersecurity tools — is now being created in the cloud as a new opportunity for people to go after. So in our view, we are looking at growing our business, diversifying the product portfolio in a thoughtful way. And how the market looks in five years or 10 years will be quite different than the way it looks like today.

Is Google Cloud's embrace of multicloud a big selling point, and what are customers with a multicloud strategy coming to Google Cloud for?

If you went back and looked at our announcement in April 2019, where we said we are going to enable multicloud — and what we mean by that is you can build applications that can co-exist across clouds, you can do analytics that spans data that sits across clouds, you can use our machine-learning tools to access information and get better insights from data and inference across clouds — that was not possible before then. It's become almost a norm now in large companies, where they want to use the best of the best from different cloud providers.

People come to us for our infrastructure. Many people come to us for our analytics and large-scale data processing and databases. Others come to us to protect their systems with cybersecurity. It really depends on the customer and which part of the journey they're on. Infrastructure, analytics and data, and cybersecurity are typically the top three that people choose us for.

Do you see any holes in your technology or areas that you want to beef up?

We're always looking at where we have areas for potential growth and where the market itself is changing, and then either we organically build new capability or we acquire.

As an example, if you look at our rationale for Mandiant [a detection-and-response cybersecurity company that Google Cloud announced it was buying for $5.4 billion in March]. There are two primary challenges we see that organizations have with cybersecurity.

First of all, very few organizations, if any, know whether they're truly secure. Almost every cyber breach for most organizations are “black swan” events. They thought they were secure prior to it; after it occurred, they realized they were not secure.

Infrastructure, analytics and data, and cybersecurity are typically the top three that people choose us for.

The second is people want a platform. Today, the challenge most organizations have is they don't have the capability to understand what occurred to cause a cyber breach, [to] analyze which of your systems have been compromised, [to] remediate that through workflow and then test whether you, in fact, are secure. We have two of the pieces. We have the “analyze whether you're being compromised” [piece] and then “remediate the breach through workflow.”

We realized in the front, we needed really great threat detection and response capability. Mandiant brought us that. And then at the end, after you've gone through all of this, you have to actually be able to test whether you are secure from the breach if it were to happen again. Mandiant also has the capability to do that. So recognizing that combination would complement what we had, we chose in this particular instance to say, “Let's acquire a company that will complement our products and fill it out.”

We wanted customers to have a very high-end, relational database transaction-processing platform based on an open platform. [In May,] we announced a new product at [Google] I/O called AlloyDB. It's designed to allow people who are running large-scale transaction systems, but to use a much [more] open platform database to process large-scale transactions with great performance and reliability.

The second thing we saw was people really love our BigQuery [serverless data warehouse] technology. They like the fact not only is it a very scalable, analytical platform, but it also allows them to access and analyze data across clouds, meaning you could have your data in another cloud, and you can still analyze that using BigQuery. You don't have to move all your data to our cloud for the purpose of analysis. We then felt that you would want the equivalent capability for something called a data lake, and so we announced a product called BigLake, an evolution of our analytic platform to support the notion of a large-scale, very scalable data lake that can run across data stored in multiple environments.

So these are all areas where we look at the needs of customers, we look at what we can help them solve. In the case of Mandiant, we chose to acquire because we think they're an exceptional team, and they have exceptional technology and exceptional expertise. In the case of these other two products … we've chosen to build out ourselves.

Which vertical industries are getting the most traction for Google Cloud?

We have traction in many industries. If you look at financial services, we have a lot of traction with our data platform, analytics, machine-learning tools and AI. If you look at retail, we are a huge part of the ecommerce infrastructure as well as the retail store transformations that are going on. If you look at health care, many pharmaceutical and biomedical companies use our platforms for molecular modeling, genetic analysis of all kinds, etc. — what's sometimes called high-performance computing. If you look at public-sector agencies, many state governments, for example, in the United States are using us to transform health and human services, transformation of their mobility and transportation departments, etc.

Telecommunications is another one. We have a lot of capability in media, given our expertise in streaming and other things from the work we've done historically with YouTube and how we're bringing that to customers. A lot of people during the pandemic spent a lot of time gaming, and our platforms have helped some of the largest games in the world.

What's behind Google Cloud’s recent reorganization of its sales and customer success teams? Was the previous setup built in 2019 under former global sales president Rob Enslin not working? And when you reorganize these teams again, are you worried about the signal it’s sending the customers?

We've talked to many customers and partners. I've talked to over 100 of them in the last week alone, and over 200 in the last two weeks. Customers' and partners' feedback are the rationale for [why] the changes make sense.

When we started in 2019, we were largely focused on acquiring customers. When I say acquiring customers [I mean] winning new customers, because we had very few. As we have ramped our business, increasingly, the sales organization that's working with the customer to identify new opportunities in the account, and the customer success team that ensures the projects are going well, and the team that works with partners like Accenture, Deloitte, etc., all need to come together, because the salesperson is identifying the opportunity, the customer success coordinates the engagement with the partners, etc. So they all need to work in one coherent fashion, right at the point of client engagement.

We integrated the two organizations in each geography so that they could be much more effective working with customers. The feedback internally from our own teams and the feedback from customers and partners has been, “we really like what you've done.” So we're very confident in the quality of our leadership, in what the changes have been, how the changes have been made. And we remain committed to making sure that this change will help our customers grow and mature their relationships with us.

What are top customer complaints or challenges that you're trying to address?

Our biggest challenge right now is expanding globally. There's demand in many countries where we don't have presence. There are lots of places we'd like to take it to, and building an organization to support those expansions is obviously something that we spend a lot of time on.

Are any of your enterprise customers asking for more help to cut costs given inflationary pressures, and what are you doing to address that?

We have a team from our professional services that works with customers and our technical account managers to do what's called cost optimization. Cost optimization is, you're running your workload on our cloud, you have a certain pattern of usage, [and] we observe the pattern of usage after you've got to some steady state and then we teach you how best to modify the way in which you're using the cloud to be much more efficient in cost. We have tools that show people how to do that. It's a methodology that we offer, and it's also something we make available through our services teams to support customers. It's something that's been ongoing for the last two years, and certainly for an ongoing basis.

Throughout the pandemic as well as now, [customers have] come to us saying, “Hey, I'd like to have you help me reduce my costs in this area or that area,” and we work with them. It's part of getting them to be efficient in using our cloud. We think the more effective we can be at teaching them how to optimize, the more they will use in the future.


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