Cloud computing is the centerpiece of the world’s technical response to the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the leading public cloud providers were standout business successes in this most unusual of years. As businesses everywhere managed to keep the lights on by having personnel work from their homes, all of the principal cloud providers substantially grew their revenues and continued to deliver innovations at a blistering pace.

With the novel coronavirus pandemic still hammering the global economy, here are my predictions for the enterprise cloud computing market in 2021.

Cloud computing will be central to the postpandemic new normal

In the sad and fraught year now coming to a close, cloud services were a godsend for keeping the economy and our lives from grinding to a halt.

In 2021 and beyond, everybody will continue to rely thoroughly on clouds (as well as on streaming, remote collaboration, smart sensors, and other cloud-reliant digital technologies) to emerge from a pandemic that is still grinding down on us remorselessly. Enterprise technology professionals will adjust their cloud strategies with one eye on COVID-19 trends and the other on their digital transformation initiatives. The tech vendors who stand to gain the most are those such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft that provide full, cloud-to-edge ecosystems that enable seamless new normal lifestyles.

Public clouds will grow even more dominant

In the past year, public clouds rode the pandemic to faster growth. According to IDC, enterprise cloud spending, both public and private, increased 34.4 percent from a year previous, while non-cloud IT spending declined by eight percent.

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In 2021 leading public cloud platforms—especially Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform—will cement their dominance in the cloud market and expand their sway across many sectors of the global economy. AWS will retain its leading market share, though Microsoft, Google, and Alibaba will continue to close the gap. Revenue growth will remain explosive through mid-decade, according to Deloitte’s projections, never dipping below 30 percent annually. Global cloud spending will grow seven times faster than overall IT spending through this period. IDC forecasts that worldwide spending on public cloud services and infrastructure will nearly double, to around $500 billion, by 2023.

Enterprises will mitigate cloud lock-in through hybrid and multicloud strategies

In the past year, public clouds’ deepening dominance compelled traditional enterprise computing companies to set their strategic focus on hybrid and multiclouds. In 2021, enterprises will grow more uneasy with their reliance on the top tier providers. IT professionals will seek out hybrid and multicloud tools to reduce their risks of being locked in to specific providers. This is already a mainstream tactic considering that, per Flexera estimates, 93 percent of enterprises have a multicloud strategy and 87 percent have a hybrid cloud strategy.

Going forward the growing maturity of hybrid/multicloud offerings from AWS, Microsoft, and Google will tempt enterprise cloud managers into increasing their spending with these providers. At the same time, private-cloud stalwarts IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Cisco, Dell EMC, VMware, and others will continue to beef up their hybrid/multicloud integrations with the dominant public cloud services in order to defend their enterprise IT market shares.

Nevertheless this space is now a war of attrition. Hybrid-cloud appliances such as AWS Outposts and Google Anthos won’t significantly boost those vendors’ shares in their core public cloud market segments.

Platform as a service will grow in public cloud revenue share

In this year’s rapid shift to work-from-home arrangements, SaaS providers such as Oracle, SAP, and Salesforce provided an essential platform for continue business as usual in spite of the disruptions.

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As remote work remains a mainstream approach, SaaS providers of all sorts will be poised for runaway growth. In 2021 Gartner projects SaaS will remain the largest cloud market segment by revenues, growing to $117.7 billion by year end. However, PaaS-based application services will grow even faster, driven by enterprise customers’ increasing emphasis on cloud-native, containerized, and serverless cloud platforms.

One of the biggest PaaS growth segments in 2021 will be multicloud serverless offerings from Vendia, Microsoft, Red Hat, and others. These solutions and associated low-code platforms will be essential ingredients in more enterprises’ application modernization, digital transformation, and business continuity strategies.

Intelligent edge will become the principal cloud on-ramp

In the year gone by, the rapid shift of most economic sectors to remote work triggered a boom in mobile devices, AI (artificial intelligence)-powered automation, autonomous robotics, and industrial IoT (Internet of Things) platforms.

In 2021 public cloud providers will shift an increasing share of their workloads to intelligent-edge platforms to deliver the low latencies required by these applications. By this time next year, approximately 90 percent of industrial enterprises will use edge computing, according to Frost & Sullivan projections. As 5G is rolled out worldwide during the coming years, demand for cloud-to-edge applications will skyrocket. More of these workloads will involve edge-based, AI-driven processing of smart sensor data and Tiny ML (machine learning) workloads.

In the coming year, IBM/Red Hat, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Microsoft will invest deeply in the strategic 5G/edge/AI platforms that they launched in 2020. Nvidia will leverage its Arm acquisition to deepen its portfolio of solutions to automate delivery of AI apps to cloud-to-edge and hybrid-cloud environments. This trend will also drive demand for software-defined wide area networks to the benefit of VMware, Cisco, Juniper, Arista, and other vendors in this segment.

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Under regulatory siege, Big Tech will emphasize open partner ecosystems

In the year now ending, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and other Big Tech companies found themselves fending off lawsuits, regulatory actions, and legislative pressure to be broken up. In 2021, these and other dominant cloud providers will slow down strategic acquisitions, which they’ve been accused of using to stop rivals in their tracks, while ramping up and boasting of their open partner ecosystems. Increasingly the big cloud providers will position themselves as back-end fulfillment agents within partner-led enterprise deals. They will downplay efforts to use their multicloud and hybrid cloud solutions as a lever to migrate enterprise workloads from legacy, on-premises platforms.

Augmented reality will help train the employees needed to support cloud growth.

Here is one last cloud-computing prediction, pertaining more to cloud professionals’ working lives than to the market for cloud services. As enterprises retool their cloud management processes, they will adopt a growing range of augmented reality tools to deliver training and guidance to cloud technical staff working from home.

Like all businesses, cloud companies and their customers will need to ensure that their personnel are safe, healthy, and productive in distanced work environments. Innovative approaches such as augmented reality are the only way that Amazon can hope to deliver on its recently announced plan to train 29 million people worldwide to work in cloud computing. Even in normal times, Amazon would find it impractical to train this many people in person.

Beyond keeping people safe, the cloud computing industry’s biggest challenge in 2021 will be to find, train, and equip enough skilled people to support customers’ digital transformation initiatives.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.