Snap, the creator of Snapchat among other things, announced their Q1 2020 earnings last week. Wall Street apparently liked it, and the stock popped around 30% the next day.
In my mind though, the true winner here isn’t Snap. It’s AWS and GCP. Cloud has become a fixed cost to many types of businesses, not a variable cost as cloud’s usage flexibility may suggest. That’s especially true for an ad-supported social network business like Snap.
Let’s look at how Snap uniquely drives so much cloud usage.
Compute, Network Transfer, Store, Compute Some More
Snap uses both AWS and GCP as its cloud infrastructure -- a multi-cloud setup. Snap’s system is also “not fully redundant on these two platforms”, according to its SEC filings. Put differently, AWS and GCP are each deployed differently for different workloads and use cases.
The nature of Snap’s “visual communications” products drive more intensive cloud resource usage than other types of technology companies, even other social networks. Because Snap’s primary mode of communication is visual snaps, its social network needs a ton of computing resources to render the snaps, network bandwidth to transfer or send those snaps, storage to keep user behavior data and probably metadata on those snaps, then more compute to update its social graph to generate new recommendations for users to follow or friend. And those are just the foundational workloads.
In its Q1 2020 earnings, Snap showed both notable user base growth (20% year over year) and higher average time spent on the network (more than 20%), matching the broad expectation that more people are engaging with digital entertainment during COVID-19. To just keep the lights on with this growth, Snap needs to spend a lot on cloud.
Snap is also a market leader in VR. As Jeremi Gorman, the Chief Business Officer, shared during the earnings call, “VR now accounts for over 50% of our overall revenue.” While we don’t know how profitable this VR revenue will be, or how widely VR will be adopted in general, we know for sure that serving up VR experiences consumes a lot of compute power and further adds to Snap’s cloud bills.
Self-Service Auction Advertisement
Then there are ads. Snap at the very least needs to store enough user data and metadata about their snaps to make any ads targeting functional, while letting the snaps and stories themselves disappear. This type of monetizable data is stored forever, because their value increases over time as more data accumulates along dimensions that marketers care about, e.g. demographics, interest groups, etc. They also need to be stored in a part of the company’s technical infrastructure that’s easily accessible, the so-called “hot storage”, which typically needs more expensive types of memory.
Layering on top of this “hot storage” is Snap’s self-service auction-based ad platform, which it has been building since 2016. Building such an ad platform is no easy technical feat. Maintaining and improving it over time is even more difficult and costly. The platform constantly needs new data, filters, targets, and bid optimizations to show and increase ROI for marketers. The entire system needs to be always available -- any downtime or outage directly costs Snap revenue and trust with customers. Behind all this work is more cloud usage.
Why do these observations matter?
Fixed, Not Variable, Cost
They show that the technical infrastructure cost is fixed for Snap and decoupled from any growth or contraction. This is markedly different from companies like Uber and Lyft, where fewer rides mean both less revenue and less cost. Similar variable cost dynamics exist for other two-sided marketplaces, delivery services, or e-commerce businesses. But for Snap, infrastructure cost will either stay constant or grow regardless of whether its user base, engagement level, or ad revenue grows or not.
In a scenario of a prolonged period of coronavirus shelter-in-place and economic stagnation, which looks increasingly likely, Snap’s prospect does not look as rosy as the 30% stock price pop would suggest. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for the cloud providers.
Snap has been aware of this dynamic for some time and has done its part to lock in multi-year deals with both AWS and GCP. Its agreement with AWS dictates a minimum spend of $1.1 billion USD on AWS services between January 2017 and December 2022. Its agreement with GCP is worth $2.0 billion USD over five years, starting also in January 2017, with at least $400 million USD spending per year. These long term agreements tend to have steep discounts, as much as 70%-80% off of “sticker price.” I would expect Snap to have received a discount of that proportion, given the timing of these agreements was a couple of months before Snap’s IPO in March 2017, when the company’s negotiation position was at its strongest.
Of course, Snap’s stock price has been on a rollercoaster ride since then, mostly for the worse. Snap’s SEC filings may paint a picture of falling infrastructure and computing costs after 2022, but chances are these costs will stay the same or rise when agreement reup time comes.
Theoretically, Snap could build its own cloud. The largest social networks in the world -- all of Facebook’s properties, Tencent’s WeChat, Bytedance’s TikTok and other apps -- all live on their own infrastructure. However, smaller social networks all use third-party cloud providers: Twitter on GCP, Pinterest on AWS, and Snap on both.
As I argued in my two-part analysis of Dropbox, building your own cloud only makes sense if you are big enough and growth is predictable enough that you can calculate the cost-benefit tradeoffs going forward many years. Dropbox reached that point in the U.S., so it built its own private cloud to save money and leave AWS. Dropbox has not reached that point in other markets, like the EU, Japan, and Australia, so it is using AWS in those regions to expand.
Without that predictability and stability (not to mention technical expertise), public cloud still provides the optionality you would want to cover a wide range of scenarios (like a global pandemic that forces millions of people to stay at home all day).
Snap’s user growth is nowhere near predictable. Snap’s revenue growth is nowhere near predictable. So regardless of what happens to its business, the only thing we know will grow is Snap’s dependence on AWS and GCP.
Chinese Version Below
Snap也是虚拟现实（VR）领域的领先者。正如首席业务官Jeremi Gorman在财报电话会议上所说的，“VR现在占我们总收入的50%以上。” 虽然我们不知道VR收入将有多大的利润，也不知道VR未来会不会被普遍大众接受。但我们可以确信的是，提供VR体验会消耗大量的计算资源，进一步增加Snap的云计算费用。
Snap的自助式拍卖广告平台（self-service auction-based ad platform）搭建在这些“热存储”之上。自2016年以来，Snap一直在构建这一平台。建立这种广告平台并非易事。而维护和改进它更加困难和昂贵。平台不断需要新的数据、过滤、目标和拍卖出价优化，以显示和增加广告客户的投资回报率。整个系统必须高可用，任何服务中断都会让Snap直接损失收入和客户的信任。所有这些工作的背后都是更多的云。