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Google cloud chief has high-stakes plan to beat Amazon

On a clear afternoon in late April, Google's newly anointed cloud queen, Diane Greene, took a drive to Menlo Park's Sand Hill Road, home to Silicon Valley's most prominent financiers.

Famous for co-founding computing innovator VMware, Greene no longer has to hit up venture capitalists for money. Rather, five months into her new gig Greene took two hours out of her Tuesday to visit with a group of high-growth start-ups backed by Andreessen Horowitz.

Engineering heads and founders from companies including Slack, Pinterest, Mixpanel and Databricks gathered in a conference room at the luxurious Rosewood Sand Hill hotel for coffee, cookies and a lengthy discussion on the future of the cloud, according to multiple attendees, who asked not to be named because the event was private.

Marc Andreessen, the venture firm's co-founder, was there with his own set of questions. His fund invested in Greene's last company, Bebop, which Google bought for $380 million in November principally to hire Greene.

The meeting could have been awkward. Of the nine companies in attendance, all but one rely on Amazon Web Services, Google's main rival in cloud computing, the attendees said. The other uses IBM's SoftLayer.

But Greene, who was joined by Google's vice president of cloud platforms Brian Stevens, expects as much.

"Any company that went to the cloud over three years ago, they went to Amazon," Greene said in an interview earlier this month at the TiEcon Entrepreneurship Conference in Santa Clara, where she was a keynote speaker. "Back then it was still early days for us."

Greene declined to comment on the Andreessen meeting and was talking generally about Google's position in the market. A spokesperson for Andreessen also declined to comment and said only that the firm regularly hosts meetings for its portfolio companies.

Greene and the Google Cloud Platform face a steep climb in cloud infrastructure. Amazon and Microsoft have big head starts in capturing an ever-increasing amount of customers' computing and storage needs.

Google's progress under Greene will be a hot topic at the Google I/O developer conference from Wednesday through Friday, near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Here's the challenge: AWS is a decade old, generates $10 billion in annual revenue and has established a dominant position by managing Netflix's streaming service, building a cloud for the CIA and serving over 1 million customers. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Azure service gets to piggyback on the software maker's footprint in offices around the world and its massive enterprise sales force.

Greene can handle the market share problem. Even though Google commands only 4 percent of the industry's revenue, based on data from Synergy Research Group, the pie is quickly growing. According to Gartner, the cloud infrastructure market will climb 31 percent a year to $61.9 billion in 2020, up from $16.3 billion in 2015.

In Greene's corner is an engineering juggernaut like none other, a company in parent Alphabet stuffed with $75 billion in cash, a $10 billion annual capital expenditure budget and a vast network of highly sophisticated data centers.

Open source projects, big data tools, analytics software and artificial intelligence projects are on full display across the sprawling Silicon Valley campus.

Greene likes to geek out on subjects like Kubernetes, Google's open-source container technology unveiled in 2014 to help developers scale, deploy and tweak their applications across machines and clouds. It's GCP's fastest growing product.

"Customers love that we're so committed to open source and open APIs," Greene said. Application program interfaces, or APIs, are a way for companies to let outside developers easily access their technology.

Pushing back against Google's cloud momentum is a deep skepticism over whether a company that generates 90 percent of its revenue from placing ads in search results, YouTube videos and mobile apps, can win the hearts, minds and wallets of the enterprise.

Google, let's not forget, is built on giving stuff away to consumers in return for their personal data. Tracking users' whereabouts, behaviors and preferences enable the company to target you with relevant ads in search results and all over the web and...