As is now the norm for the earnings reports of many IT giants, Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report, IBM (IBM) - Get Report and SAP's (SAP) - Get Report second-quarter reports included gaudy cloud revenue growth figures.
But while some of the numbers were legitimately impressive, it's important to keep an eye on the companies' broader financial performance to see how much cloud adoption is actually benefiting their top and bottom lines.
Microsoft, for example, reported 102% annual revenue growth for its Azure cloud infrastructure and app platform. But unlike Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report for its Amazon Web Services (AWS) unit, Microsoft doesn't share Azure's quarterly revenue and operating profit figures. Further clouding matters (pardon the pun) is that Microsoft is known to bundle Azure usage rights within contracts that also cover traditional enterprise software licenses.
Meanwhile, Microsoft reported a more modest growth rate of 5% for its "server products and cloud services" segment, which covers both Azure and server software going into corporate data centers. That figure is admittedly depressed in the near-term by the fact a company's migration from server software licenses, which are paid up-front, to cloud subscriptions pushes out Microsoft's revenue recognition. But it nonetheless shows that a healthy chunk of Azure's growth is coming at the expense of older software businesses.
Investors cheered Microsoft's overall results on Wednesday, sending it higher by more than 6% and close to an all-time high.
IBM, for its part, reported its cloud services businesses (referred to as "cloud-as-a-service") grew their annual revenue run rate by 49% annually to $6.7 billion, thanks to both organic growth and M&A. But it's hard to overlook that Big Blue's Technology Services & Cloud Platforms segment saw revenue drop 0.5%, to $8.9 billion, due to declining on-premise services demand.
IBM also reported its total "cloud revenue" rose 30%, to $11.6 billion. But IBM's definition of cloud revenue is so broad -- it includes not only services, but also servers, software and anything else used by a company to make a cloud deployment -- that the figure is all but useless. Thirty percent "cloud" growth doesn't mask that IBM's hardware segment revenue fell 23.2% in the second quarter, or that its Cognitive Solutions software segment saw 3.5% growth.
For SAP's report, much attention has been given to how the German software giant's cloud subscription and support revenue rose 30%, to $721 million, and its new cloud bookings grew 28%, to $255 million. But SAP's traditional software license and support business saw revenue rise just 4%, to $3.64 billion, and its total revenue grew 5%, to $5.24 billion.
Moreover, a shift from on-premise to cloud revenue streams is pressuring the margins of many firms, as hosting cloud apps and services brings with it expenses that don't exist with regular software sales. While Microsoft's revenue rose 2% in the June quarter, the company's cost of revenue rose 7%, with cloud and search ad expense growth more than offsetting the impact of plunging phone sales. Meanwhile, IBM's gross margin fell 190 basis points in the second quarter to 49%.
None of that is to say those companies don't have cloud-related accomplishments that investors should applaud. Microsoft has turned Azure into the clear No. 2 player -- behind AWS -- among public cloud service providers, and with the company having made decent inroads with non-Microsoft developers, Azure should be additive to revenue growth even after accounting for the cannibalization of traditional software sales. So should Office 365, judging by the numbers Microsoft just provided for its Office franchise in general.
Still, it's quite important not to view cloud growth figures in a vacuum. Doing so could easily make a company seeing little or no growth look like something very different.