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Monday, September 9, 2013

The Cloud Era Begins for Enterprise Tech

Let’s say it: Last summer was the beginning of the end for the old guard in what is still the biggest part of technology - business spending on everything from servers to software. This fall begins a new competition for the hearts and minds of corporate customers.

Consider a few of summer’s events. Dell started to go private in the face of eroding personal computer demand. Hewlett-Packard once again announced lower revenue, and had more executive reshuffles. Microsoft’s chief executive, Steven A. Ballmer, resigned, then in the last big weekend of summer bought the handset business of a deeply weakened Nokia.

That last step, an effort to build up mobility, is at the heart of Microsoft’s efforts to be relevant in a new world of cloud computing, smartphones and tablets. So was VMware’s announcement that it is building out its cloud business and changing its sales strategy globally.

With autumn, we begin the new round of tech announcements, the way Detroit used to announce next year’s car models. What you should look for is how the old guard adapts to the cloud, and how the new guys aim to consolidate disparate offerings and win trust.

The world now passing away consisted of business systems dominated by computer servers and personal computers. The new one subsumes these into cloud computing and devices like smartphones and tablets. The inability of companies like Microsoft and Dell to cope quickly enough with this change led to their current problems. The steady, thorough way that companies like Amazon and Salesforce have used the new technology to go after their elders’ business is what makes them contenders.

Other challengers include Google, Workday and NetSuite. There are many more, but these companies in particular have both the assets and the money to build comprehensive offerings in software and services, and also to afford something like service guarantees in what many see as a still-unstable and security-challenged world.

One way to do that is to become the unifying agent for all the data that companies are spreading across their servers and cloud services. On Friday, Salesforce announced Salesforce Files, which searches through things companies have stored in Sharepoint, Dropbox, Google Drive and other storage and collaboration services.

“The way to remove friction among all these repositories is to virtualize everything into a common repository,” said Nasi Jazayeri, general manager of Salesforce Chatter, the company’s corporate collaboration product. He added, “We’re not trying to compete with the other repositories - we’re trying to make it easier for people to find things.”

Salesforce wasn’t trying to compete with the repositories because Chatterbox, its effort to do so, was a dud. But if Salesforce becomes a central hub for sorting diverse information, that loss can be a win.

Workday, which has announced that it is putting data-analysis services in its cloud-based human resources and financial software, may be making a similar move to consolidate information for customers. “Big data analytics is unifying,” said Dan Beck, Workday’s vice president of financials and analytics, since it may draw from information in, say, a Workday database and an SAP or Twitter database. “We’re broadening out our applications footprint. Customers expect that.”

In the past several months, Amazon has introduced a “trusted advisor” program that inspects a company’s use of Amazon Web Services, its cloud service, and suggests ways it can be better used. It has had a global series of “summits” aimed at ordinary business people along with skilled technologists, and built out a lot of big data offerings.

Google has also expanded its corporate cloud strategy, enlisting more developers and guaranteeing higher performance for its cloud. It is also selling new and different ways people can use Google for big data analysis.

Big data is being sold as a way to build efficiency and gain insights. But for many of these companies, offering big data services is also a way to consolidate data for customers. If you control information, you are almost by default the trusted partner, or what is known in the business as “the single throat to choke if something goes wrong.” Jobs like that pay a premium.

Some of these older enterprise tech companies, which also include Cisco and Oracle, will make the transition, just as incumbents like I.B.M. made it from mainframe computers to servers and PC’s. Oracle’s approach is to offer a complete system, making it a single throat to choke. I.B.M. already seems to be working both camps in the new world, offering its own systems and consulting with the new players. But just as surely as all of them, in their time, supplanted big incumbents, there will be other companies coming along to topple them.