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Bits: Taking the Temperature Inside the (Feverish) Cloud

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IBM’s Watson robot in Barcelona in February. At conferences this fall, tech giants are defining themselves by naming their closest competitor. Few mention IBM. Credit Lluis Gene/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — Autumn is a good time to see what is happening next in the $ 3 trillion business technology market. In particular, it’s a good time to check out what’s new in corporate paranoia.

This time of year, San Francisco’s streets are blocked off so companies like Oracle and Salesforce can bring in thousands of customers for several days of presentations, coffee and performances by Milli Vanilli-era pop stars. In the next few days, Salesforce expects to host 171,000 people, enough that even seedy hotels in the Tenderloin neighborhood cost $ 600 a night.

At conferences here, or in Atlanta, where last week Microsoft gathered 23,000 people, companies state their visions on the current and future state of tech.

These talks are, as they say, buzzword compliant, with the companies praising their capabilities in cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence. They are renting computers in remote data centers over the internet and using the tremendous amounts of data we are now collecting from computers, phones and sensors to analyze and predict how to make and sell more stuff.

The best part of these talks isn’t viewing the technology, it’s listening to each sponsoring company brag about how much better it is than its competitors. Each presents number-rich charts to prove it.

Who a company names as its enemy and how it measures its relative greatness says a lot about how the company sees its own strengths and the overall stakes in the competition for the world’s computing.

For Oracle’s chief executive, Lawrence J. Ellison, who used to slam Microsoft or Salesforce at these events, the main antagonist is now Amazon, which has led the migration of business technology to internet-based cloud computing.

“Amazon’s lead is over,” Mr. Ellison told his audience in September. “We’re aggressively moving.” Using select data, he described Oracle as better in speed, security and, most important, price. “If you’re not willing to pay less, you can’t place the order,” he said.

For Microsoft, which has spent tens of billions of dollars building its global cloud computing system, the most important factor is not money — rather, it’s focused on size, resources and its track record.

“The only comparison to our depth and breadth is Google,” Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said in an interview after his Atlanta keynote.

On Thursday, Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, went on Twitter to cheer efforts by the European Union to look into antitrust concerns surrounding Microsoft’s $ 26 billion purchase of LinkedIn. Salesforce is scrambling to acquire both data and analysis resources.

Also on Thursday, Google held a coming-out event for its corporate computing effort, called Google Cloud, with a Google-level array of dizzying statistics about its scale and size. The company has had 339 product releases since January, and it has 10,000 engineers working on corporate computing.

The company even showed a photograph of its undersea cable to Japan, which is 9,000 kilometers long and capable of sending 60 terabytes of information a second (one terabyte is roughly the size of 500 hours of video).

Alphabet, the parent company of Google Cloud, has a capital expenditure of $ 9.9 billion a year, said Urs Hölzle, Google Cloud’s senior vice president. Almost all of that consists of various forms of computing infrastructure. “That is just shy of Amazon and Microsoft put together,” he said.

Mr. Hölzle said data that would take Amazon eight hours to sift could take six minutes on Google. In one case, analysis on Google was 29 times as fast as on Amazon Web Services, he said.

The velocity itself is the crucial metric, Mr. Hölzle said in a separate interview, and he said it would decimate most of today’s contenders.

“This is like Android versus the iPhone in 2008,” he said, evoking a comparison with Apple. “There were older phones, the BlackBerry. Android managed to be relevant even though the first versions weren’t great. It wasn’t that it was free, or it had maps — it was the velocity that it changed.”

Five years from now, Mr. Hölzle said, the biggest clouds will look as different to us as today’s smartphones seem from the phones of 2008. Last week BlackBerry, the business phone darling of the old era, stopped making a phone, and hardly anyone noticed.

At times these corporate comparisons can feel like a vicious version of Lake Wobegon; everyone is superior to the point of annihilating the other guy.

The sole exception to industry enemy-naming is Amazon. At last year’s meeting it cited a couple of specific products from IBM and Oracle. But with revenue expected to hit $ 11 billion this year, it is the undisputed cloud leader. For Amazon, naming anyone else would be like anointing them.

But what fun is competition when you have nothing to beat? Amazon’s designated foe is all of the past, and the 95 percent of old-style corporate computing it still has to take to the cloud. The IBM and Oracle products it named were from that old world.

“In the next five years, we’ll see the vast majority of enterprises doing what our forward-looking enterprise customers are doing now,” said Ariel Kelman, the vice president of worldwide marketing at Amazon Web Services. He named Intuit and Netflix among these pioneers.

Since Amazon owns the transformation, it figures, the enemy is a failure to transform.

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