Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., during the company’s Ignite Spotlight event in Seoul on Nov. 15, 2022.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Google has for years been playing catch-up in the cloud infrastructure market, where it’s seen in the industry as a distant third in the U.S., behind Amazon and Microsoft. The challenge for investors is that the three companies don’t report cloud infrastructure metrics in a way that makes them easily comparable.
However, an internal estimate assembled by Google employees, based on a leaked Microsoft document and some extrapolation of other market statistics, suggests Google believes it’s closer to second place than analysts think.
Google’s document estimates that Microsoft generated under $29 billion in Azure consumption revenue in the latest fiscal year, which ended June 30, reflecting the value of cloud infrastructure services used by clients. That’s several billion dollars less than what Wall Street analysts had forecast. Bank of America was the most bullish, predicting Azure would pull in $37.5 billion in fiscal 2022. Cowen predicted revenue of $33.9 billion and UBS said $32.3 billion.
The document from Google has Azure ending the 2022 fiscal year with an operating loss of almost $3 billion, down from a loss of more than $5 billion the prior year. It claims that Azure’s sales and marketing costs approached $10 billion, accounting for 34% of consumption revenue. Microsoft said sales and marketing costs for the whole company equaled 11% of revenue over the same period.
One analyst dismissed Google’s bottom-line tally.
“There’s no way it’s that big of a loss,” said Derrick Wood, an analyst at Cowen who has the equivalent of a buy rating on Microsoft stock. His research shows Azure boasting an operating margin above 30%, compared with Google’s estimate of a -10% margin.
Cloud represents one of the most high-stakes battles in technology, as the biggest and most well-capitalized U.S. tech companies try to win lucrative deals from large enterprises and government agencies, which are increasingly pushing critical computing and storage needs out of their own data centers.
Google and Microsoft have been investing heavily to keep Amazon Web Services from dominating the market the e-commerce company pioneered in 2006. But the companies aren’t completely forthcoming about their results.
Microsoft provides year-over-year growth for Azure and other cloud services but doesn’t give a dollar figure, nor does it specify how much of the growth comes just from Azure. The Azure and other cloud services metric also includes, among other things, enterprise mobility and security, or EMS, tools that can be sold separately.
Google parent Alphabet, meanwhile, doesn’t tell investors how much revenue or operating income the Google Cloud Platform, or GCP, generates. It only discloses those figures for what it calls Google Cloud, which includes subscriptions to Google Workspace collaboration software, as well as GCP, a direct Azure rival.
Amazon reports both revenue and operating income for AWS, giving investors the cleanest picture of its cloud business among the three companies. AWS recorded an operating margin of 26% in the third quarter, while Google’s cloud group reported an operating margin of -10%.
Microsoft has never laid out gross profit or operating profit for the Azure division. CEO Satya Nadella said in 2019 that customer adoption of “higher-level services” beyond raw computing and storage resources can lead to “good margins long term.”
According to data from Gartner, AWS controlled 39% of the global cloud infrastructure market in 2021, followed by Microsoft at 21%, China’s Alibaba at 9.5% and Google at 7.1%.
Representatives for Google and Microsoft declined to comment for this story.
According to Google’s document, the analysis follows an Insider article, which cited a leaked Microsoft presentation that included Azure consumption revenue, or ACR, for its U.S. enterprise business in the past few years. Google said in its document that the leaked presentation allowed for a more accurate modeling of the business, and Google’s calculations suggest that ACR is the main source of revenue for Azure and other cloud services.
Google made a series of assumptions based on the leaked ACR information. It approximated ACR in foreign countries based on Microsoft’s disclosure that around 51% of revenue came from the U.S. in fiscal 2022. Google then added in revenue from other customer segments, such as public sector and regulated industries, based on market data from Gartner and other sources.
To determine operating expenses, Google assumed that 65,000 people are dedicated to or work mainly on Azure, referring to an Insider report that said Microsoft’s Cloud and Artificial Intelligence organization had over 60,000 employees.
If Google is right, Microsoft’s ACR would be about 40% the size of Amazon’s AWS business and 27% larger than Google’s cloud business.
“Analysts include revenue allocations from EMS and Power BI, both of which are highly profitable SaaS businesses with estimated gross margins above 80%,” Google’s document says. “For a realistic analysis of Azure’s profitability these allocations have to be removed.”
Google concluded that Microsoft’s ACR growth slowed from 61% in the 2020 fiscal year to about 50% in the 2022 fiscal year. That’s faster growth than the figure Microsoft provides for all of Azure and other cloud services, which went from 56% expansion to 45% over the same period.
Google projected that Azure’s gross profit, or the revenue left after accounting for the cost of goods sold, expanded from below 29% in fiscal 2019 to almost 63% in fiscal 2022. Microsoft CFO Amy Hood has said hardware and software efficiencies helped the company widen Azure’s gross margin.
At those levels, cloud would be less profitable than Microsoft’s Windows and Office software franchises. Microsoft’s total gross margin in the 2022 fiscal year was about 68%.
None of the three U.S. market leaders announces gross margins for their cloud groups.
Cowen expects the broader Azure and other cloud services group to account for 27% of Microsoft’s revenue in the current 2023 fiscal year. He says Microsoft could clarify things by providing a more granular breakdown.
“To have a more specific disclosure on that would be helpful,” Wood said.