Beyond being mind-blowing to people like myself who come from the traditionally asset-light-to-the-point-of-no-assets-beyond-a-couple-laptops software business, the vast sums being spent to move dirt, pour concrete, bend metal, and sling electrons also help us handicap the race for the trillion dollar cloud "jackpot".
CAPEX is not sufficient to win the cloud, but it is surely necessary. Not only is massive CAPEX outlay a prerequisite to offer cloud services globally at scale, but also a strong indicator of on-going success. Customer adoption and utilization necessitate further CAPEX spending.
And there are significant economies of scale operating at hyper-scale. You get efficiencies of operation, specify your own highly-optimized and cost-reduced servers and network equipment, get exclusivity on the latest CPUs (and probably soon will just design your own) and increasingly run a private global fiber network so you don't have to pay telco retail (where there is no Moore's Law). It is an unprecedented level of vertical integration.
And these accumulated CAPEX expenditures, given their sheer scale and the time required to translate balance sheet cash into a global footprint of fully operational and interconnected datacenters, constitute a significant competitive moat. This cumulative investment is a proxy for the size of those moats.
This post examines when the hyper-scale players had their "cloud inflection point", i.e. when they began to devote CAPEX to their cloud, as well as the magnitudes of their cumulative and on-going CAPEX investment. From this analysis we get a sense of just how big a check new entrants will have to write if they want to play this game seriously.
Unhelpfully for our task, the cloud players don't break out their cloud-specific CAPEX. It requires some work, speculation and reading tedious financial documents to glimpse the portion dedicated to cloud as opposed to other investments. Every company at this scale makes non-trivial investments on mundane things like office buildings and other facilities. But each also has CAPEX unique to their businesses. Amazon spends big on warehouses and the robots scurrying around inside. Google has (or at least had) investments in self-driving cars, a veritable air force of flying objects (balloons, drones, satellites), retail fiber networks and one still hopes the odd space elevator that all require some degree of CAPEX. All three companies build hardware products for which they may invest in manufacturing tooling which their outsourced manufacturing partners then operate.
Our analysis begins in 2001, as this is the first year for which we have Google CAPEX numbers (a whopping $13 million). We start with the investment section of the cash flow statements in their publicly reported financials. For Amazon and Microsoft we combine the Plant and Equipment line on the cash flow statement with their separately, contentiously and somewhat ambiguously reported capital leases (equipment that is financed and is paid for over time instead of up front, which maps very well to servers that have a limited useful life and are generating revenue over that time, plus we live in a zero interest rate world so why not). While bean counters and finance wonks can argue about the accounting impact of these leases, in real terms they constitute even more CAPEX. Including the capital leases makes the CAPEX numbers significantly higher. In 2016, Amazon did $5.7 billion in capital leases on top of $6.7 billion in CAPEX. We find an extra almost $1.1 billion in CAPEX for Microsoft in 2016 when we check their couch cushions for capital leases. Google does not appear to be using capital leases to fund their infrastructure. The Microsoft numbers have also been mapped from their July to June fiscal year to the calendar year, which the other two companies use as their fiscal year, for a true annual comparison.