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One Business Winner Amid Coronavirus Lockdowns: the Cloud

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03/27/2020 | 12:07pm EDT

By Aaron Tilley

Cloud-computing providers are emerging as among the few corporate winners in the coronavirus pandemic as office and store closures across the U.S. have pushed more activity online.

The remote data storage and processing services provided by Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp., Google and others have become the essential link for many people to remain connected with work and families, or just to unwind.

The hardware and software infrastructure those tech giants and others provide, commonly referred to as the cloud, underpins the operation of businesses that have become particularly popular during the virus outbreak, such as workplace-collaboration software provider Slack Technologies Inc., streaming video service company Netflix Inc. and online videogame maker Epic Games Inc.

Demand has been so strong that Microsoft has told some customers its Azure cloud is running up against limits in parts of Australia.

"Due to increased usage of Azure, some regions have limited capacity," the software giant said, adding it had, in some instances, placed restrictions on new cloud-based resources, according to a customer notice seen by The Wall Street Journal.

A Microsoft spokesman said the company was "actively monitoring performance and usage trends" to support customers and growth demands. "At the same time," he said, "these are unprecedented times and we're also taking proactive steps to plan for these high-usage periods."

"If we think of the cloud as utility, it's hard to imagine any other public utility that could sustain a 50% increase in utilization -- whether that's electric or water or sewage system -- and not fall over," Matthew Prince, chief executive of cloud-services provider Cloudflare Inc. said in an interview. "The fact that the cloud is holding up as well as it has is one of the real bright spots of this crisis."

The migration to the cloud has been happening for about a decade as companies have opted to forego costly investments into in-house IT infrastructure and instead rent processing hardware and software from the likes of Amazon or Microsoft, paying as they go for storage and data processing features. The trends have made cloud-computing one of the most contested battlefields among business IT providers.

"If you look at Amazon or Azure and how much infrastructure usage increased over the past two weeks, it would probably blow your mind how much capacity they've had to spin up to keep the world operating," said Dave McJannet, HashiCorp Inc., which provides tools for both cloud and traditional servers. "Moments like this accelerate the move to the cloud."

In a message to rally employees, Andy Jassy, head of the Amazon's Amazon Web Services cloud division, urged them to "think about all of the AWS customers carrying extra load right now because of all of the people at home."

An Amazon spokesman declined to discuss use rates of it service, but said "we have taken measures to prepare and we are confident we will be able to meet customer demands for capacity in response to COVID-19."

Brad Schick, chief executive of Seattle-based Skytap Inc., which works with companies to move existing IT systems to the cloud, has seen a 20% jump in use of its services in the past month. "A lot of the growth is driven by increased usage of the cloud to deal with the coronavirus."

For many companies, one of the attractions of cloud services is they can quickly rent more processing horsepower and storage when it is needed, but can scale back during less busy periods. That flexibility also is helping drive cloud-uptake during the coronavirus outbreak, said Nikesh Parekh, CEO and cofounder of Seattle-based Suplari Inc., which helps companies manage their spending with outside vendors such as cloud services.

"We are starting to see CFOs worry about their cash positions and looking for ways to reduce spending in a world where revenue is going to decline dramatically over the next quarter or two," he said. "That will accelerate the move from traditional suppliers to the cloud."

Even cloud-service providers, though, are expected to feel the impact from the wider downturn in global growth. Many of them serve companies such as airlines and hotel operators that have been hit hard by the outbreak and have been cutting costs, which could include slashing spending on cloud services in coming weeks and months, said Corey Quinn, a cloud-computing economist at the Duckbill Group, a firm that helps customers lower their Amazon cloud bills.

Still, some startups selling software tools that run on the major cloud platforms are seeing a noticeable increase in interest in their products. Qumulo Inc., which sells software to help users manage the data they store across different cloud-providers, saw a surge in demand as customers sent employees to work from home in recent weeks, its CEO, Bill Richter, said.

Qumulo, he said, offers a similar file-management system to handle data on in-house servers but, amid the health crisis, 90% of new and existing customers are asking for the cloud version -- traditionally, it was more of an even split. Some of the biggest users, he said, are media and entertainment-services providers that shifted to remote working while still having to edit large files stored in the cloud.

--Dana Mattioli contributed to this article.

Write to Aaron Tilley at aaron.tilley@wsj.com


Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
ALPHABET INC. 1.08% 1433.52 Delayed Quote.7.03%
AMAZON.COM, INC. 1.72% 2442.37 Delayed Quote.29.94%
MICROSOFT CORPORATION 1.02% 183.25 Delayed Quote.15.03%
SLACK TECHNOLOGIES, INC. 7.71% 35.05 Delayed Quote.55.92%
WORLD CO., LTD. -3.03% 1567 End-of-day quote.-41.77%
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Financials (USD)
Sales 2020 345 B - -
Net income 2020 9 540 M - -
Net cash 2020 45 263 M - -
P/E ratio 2020 128x
Yield 2020 -
Capitalization 1 218 B 1 218 B -
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EV / Sales 2020 3,40x
Nbr of Employees 798 000
Free-Float 81,1%
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