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Snap has financially handcuffed itself to Google Cloud (Updated)

In doing so, it’s not in control over some key parts of its business and costs for the foreseeable future as its IPO approaches.

Chris Snyder / Twitter

The S-1 Registration Statement just issued by Snap is (as these documents usually are) highly illuminating into the inner workings of this business. While the company has managed to grab a massive user base, there are a number of red flags in the business that are sure to give potential investors pause, not the least of which is the current annual loss of more than $500 million.

However, there’s something even more remarkable hidden in that financial loss that would make me think twice about investing in this software business: The fact that Snap has handcuffed itself to Google Cloud and (in doing so) is not in control over some key parts of their business and costs for the foreseeable future.

In its disclosure, Snap has said that it is contractually obligated to “spend $2 billion with Google Cloud over the next five years and have built our software and computer systems to use computing, storage capabilities, bandwidth, and other services provided by Google.” Of the current losses at Snap, more than 80 percent of those funds go straight into Google’s pockets.

You might say, “So what? App makers use public cloud infrastructure all the time. They can always move to their own infrastructure to save costs as soon as they’re ready.” But it’s never that simple, is it? In the same filing, Snap states that it wrote its application to use some Google services “which do not have an alternative in the market.” Google now has the company in handcuffs, and there’s little Snap can do to change that without having to invest a tremendous amount of money to free itself.

Unfortunately, this story is nothing new. Historically, many companies became locked in to one or more hardware or software providers. Companies like Oracle were notorious for this in the ’90s and early aughts, luring customers in with platform plays and discounted enterprise licenses. But as soon as customers were locked in, they lost all choice, and are now tethered to incredibly expensive ongoing maintenance agreements and one-sided relationships.

The shift to open source software and cloud services was supposed to change all of that. Companies rushed to public cloud providers because they could easily tap infrastructure on demand and, because they used open source tools deployed on virtual machines, they assumed they would always be able to shift to another cloud provider or data center when they chose to.

But what no one told these companies is that every API at the public cloud providers is proprietary to those systems. So, most of the work a company does to aid with deployment or scaling tends to tie you to each public cloud provider’s platforms. Then developers were encouraged to use each cloud provider’s on-demand services and tools, also with their own proprietary APIs. Before you know it, your app is woven tightly into the proprietary tools each cloud provider offers; you are paying by the minute for services that you have no control over, and switching costs are now so high that you are tethered in perpetuity to these cloud providers. This is how Amazon Web Services is now a $12 billion annual run rate business, despite a rising swell of customers becoming increasingly frustrated with the company’s pricing and tactics.

Lock-in doesn’t just limit your freedom and choices when you choose to reduce costs or migrate your infrastructure, it also means that your fate is now tied inextricably to another company’s. That’s not a great position to be if what you sell is a traditional product or service. But if you are a software company (or a modern enterprise where digital is the primary channel for selling to or engaging with your customers), that kind of a choice is flat-out dangerous.

Snap’s S-1 notes: “Any significant disruption of or interference with our use of Google Cloud would negatively impact our operations and our business would be seriously harmed. If our users or partners are not able to access Snapchat through Google Cloud or encounter difficulties in doing so, we may lose users, partners, or advertising revenue.” Pure and simple, this is dependency and lock-in that any software company should be fearful of.

Snap is often compared to Facebook and Twitter, and it is certainly hoping for an IPO that rivals Facebook’s extraordinary valuation. So, how have these companies handled infrastructure?

Famously, both social networks have built out their own cloud infrastructure. Facebook has a number of data centers which operate as a single cloud, all running a host of open source tools (in contrast to the proprietary on-demand services of public cloud providers), and it has even open sourced its hardware designs. Twitter famously solved their early “Fail Whale” issues with scale by shifting their entire platform to Apache Mesos, and now has one of the most resilient and cost effective cloud infrastructures in the business.

Technology leaders like Apple, Netflix, Uber and others take a similar approach as these social media behemoths. Like every company, they are looking for the same sort of rich cloud capabilities we as users have grown to expect from companies like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure, but they have built platforms that let them do so on infrastructure of their choosing — from their own data centers, to co-located facilities around the world, or on Infrastructure-as-a-service virtual machines from the lowest-cost providers. These platforms let a company quickly and easily deploy and maintain whatever application they choose on top of a hybrid cloud infrastructure, and includes both cutting-edge tools that the public cloud providers are not ready for, as well as any unique tools each company chooses.

The way this is accomplished is with open source and commercial tools available to any enterprise; providing rich cloud services capability along with freedom of choice in your commercial relationships. Products from Docker, the Google-created project Kubernetes, and the container management and on-demand data services platform DC/OS from my company, Mesosphere, are just three examples of the tools that are increasingly being used by companies to bring the cloud back in-house. These platforms are all open source, are improving rapidly with both company and community backing, and both Docker and Mesosphere offer commercial support and services to ensure successful deployments by traditional businesses.

Don’t get handcuffed like Snap and so many others. As part of your move to the cloud, choose a software stack that lets you operate open source services on any infrastructure you want. That way you’ll always be in control of costs ... and your own destiny.

Update: Snap has responded to the public debate about their lock-in to Google's platform with an update to its S-1 filing. In it, Snap states, "We have also committed to spend $1 billion with Amazon Web Services over the next five years for redundant infrastructure support of our business operations. In the future, we may invest in building our own infrastructure to better serve our customers." The deal with Amazon starts with a commitment to spend $50 million per year in 2017, rising to $350 million per year from there.

What's most interesting to note is Snap’s inclusion of a statement that the company will investigate building its own infrastructure. The cost of building and operating datacenters is not insignificant (and there are other benefits to using the IaaS platforms from the public cloud vendors beyond simply cost), but there is a clear tipping point where incorporating your own servers into your cloud platform becomes vastly more cost effective than renting by the hour. It sounds like Snap is considering a move to a strategy similar to Netflix and others; developing systems that let it scale its applications across the infrastructure of their choosing, which opens the door to incorporating a mix of rented and owned servers. This news from Snap goes a long way to addressing the risks many investors saw with being tied solely to one cloud provider.

Mesosphere CMO Peter Guagenti has more than 20 years of experience in technology and marketing. Before joining Mesosphere, he helped scale two other successful open source companies: Acquia, which provides commercial support, services and cloud infrastructure for the popular open source web experience development tool Drupal; and NGINX, which powers more than half of the world’s most popular web applications. Guagenti has also worked for a host of other well-known brands during his time as an agency and consulting leader, including work for Google, Microsoft, Apple, SAP and eBay. Reach him @peterg021.

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