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Google engineering legend Urs Hölzle explains how it teamed up with AMD for new, more powerful cloud tech that’s helping Twitter and Snap handle massive amounts of data

  • Google’s first VP of engineering, Urs Hölzle, gave Insider a rare interview on new cloud technology.
  • Faster, cheaper virtual machines will help Google catch competitors AWS and Microsoft, experts say. 
  • “We now clearly have the fastest” tech, and it will be interesting to see rivals react, Hölzle said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On Thursday, Google is announcing a new family of high-performance, AMD-powered virtual machines – the software that runs programs and stores data in the cloud – that it pledges are significantly faster and cheaper for the internet’s biggest companies who need to “scale out” their growing cloud infrastructure. 

Urs Hölzle, Google employee Number 8 and its first VP of engineering, helped make search part of modern life by building Google so it could scale. Hölzle rarely gives interviews, but he told Insider that Google’s new cloud technology announced Thursday “leapfrogs any of the competitive offerings on any cloud today both in terms of performance and in terms of cost.”

To drive home the point, Hölzle specified that the new tech surpasses competitors “including AWS” – market leader Amazon Web Services

Google recruited two household names to try out the new so-called “Tau VMs,” with Twitter and Snap, the parent of Snapchat. “We are excited by initial tests that show potential for double-digit performance improvement,” Nick Tornow, a platform lead at Twitter who tried the technology said in a testimonial provided by Google. Snap said much the same thing.

The Tau VMs are optimized for cheap performance at a vast scale of basic functions, like sorting Twitter’s post feed, or running a search on Snapchat, for instance. Google says the new VMs, which will become available in Q3 on Google Cloud, are 56% faster than the competition, and 42% cheaper than competing products that achieve comparable results.

Google worked on the new VMs with AMD, the 52-year-old semiconductor firm in Silicon Valley, putting its third-generation EPYC processors to work. AMD senior VP Forrest Norrod, who led the project, said “This kind of price improvement drops immediately to the bottom line.”  

“We now clearly have the fastest VM of any cloud,” Hölzle said. “It will be interesting to see how the other clouds respond.” 

Google trails its competitors in the cloud wars considerably. Market analysis company Canalys estimated April 2021 market share to be 32% for AWS, 19% for Microsoft, and just 7% for Google. But Google Cloud is growing rapidly, bringing in $4.02 billion in revenue in Q1 2021, versus the $3.99 billion in revenue expected by analysts. That’s compared to $3.83 billion in revenue during Q4 2020, the first time Google broke out its cloud business’ performance separately.

The new Tau VMs could help Google keep up the momentum, experts say.

“Google is making a step forward,” Holger Mueller, a principal analyst at Constellation Research familiar with the technology, told Insider. “Differentiating itself from its key competitors at AWS and Microsoft.” Mueller says AWS and Microsoft will have to match Google’s advancement – and the search giant adds a little market share with each new improvement it makes. 

“I do think it will get a lot of attention,” Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, told Insider of the new tech. “While I don’t think this singular action alone drives market share, overall, Google Cloud is getting more competitive with AWS and Azure.”

Hölzle has seen many changes in tech in his 22 years with Google. He is widely credited with making office dogs a mainstay of tech campuses. He says he hasn’t seen such “a huge leap” in price and performance in tech in the past five years.

“We’re all competing with each other, Hölzle said of Google, AWS and Microsoft. “This is a race that never ends.” 

Asked if the VMs for big internet companies might be a fit for AWS parent Amazon, too, Hölzle replied, “We’ll make them an attractive offer.” 

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