Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

The Web's biggest spenders have mostly started splurging again.

I wrote six months ago that Google, Microsoft and Amazon -- among the world's biggest operators of Internet technologies and cloud-computing services -- had slowed or reversed their perky growth in spending on huge server farms and other capital projects. I didn't expect the breather to last -- and for the most part, it hasn't. 

Collectively, capital spending by those three giants and Facebook has risen 23 percent so far this year after a collective decline of 0.9 percent in 2015. Only Google's parent company Alphabet has bucked the capex-growth rebound.  

Pressing Play Again
Four big tech giants collectively pulled back on capital spending in 2015. So far this year, the capex pace has picked up again.
Source: Bloomberg and the companies
Note: "YTD 2016" figures are for the first quarter, except for Microsoft, whose data reflects the nine months ended March 31. Amazon's capex excludes $1.4 billion in 2012 spending on its headquarters.

The tech superpowers don't disclose exactly where their capital expenditures go, but it is clear that buying and maintaining their gigantic computing networks represent a big chunk of the overall bill. It costs a ton to run seven Web services with at least a billion monthly users, as Google does, or to power other companies' computer networks, as Amazon Web Services does.

Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook spent a combined $23 billion in 2015 on capital projects. During an investment flurry from 2011 to last year, the companies' combined capex nearly tripled.

Capital spending has become essential fuel in the Internet superpowers' war for consumers and for companies that rent computing horsepower. Even a fraction of a second delay in pushing out an ad on mobile phones, or in running a holiday retail sales forecast, is potentially lost business for the Web giants. That makes investments in computing networks an important area to watch in the jockeying for tech superiority.

Amazon's financial disclosures say a big chunk of the company's increased capital spending -- up 35 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier -- is for AWS, the fastest growing and most profitable part of the company.  

Microsoft has said it plans to spend more on capital projects, particularly for its expanding cloud-computing businesses including one that competes with Amazon. Last month, Microsoft's chief financial officer told analysts the company's 66 percent capex increase in the three months ended March 31 was due primarily to spending on data centers and computer servers. 

Yet the biggest of the Big Four, Alphabet, has retained its stingier ways from 2015. Spending on capital expenditures fell 17 percent in the first three months of this year compared with figures in the period a year earlier, following a 10 percent decline in 2015. 

Data Centers Aren't Cheap
Except for Google's parent company, tech giants have picked up their capital spending after a relative pause in 2015
Source: Bloomberg and the companies
Figures reflect changes in capital spending from a year earlier. YTD 2016 figures are for the first quarter, except for Microsoft, whose figures are for the nine months ended March 31.

Alphabet's capex decline largely reflects the work of Ruth Porat, the CFO imported from Wall Street last year. Porat essentially promised she would keep a lid on spending growth in at least some areas. In a conference call last month, Porat said that Alphabet still considered its sophisticated computing networks to be key assets but that the tech minions had figured out ways to squeeze more out of existing computing resources to "meet our growing Google requirements cost effectively." That's all music to investors' ears. 

Google Discipline
Ruth Porat, CFO of Google's parent company, has pledged to be more efficient with the company's spending
Source: Bloomberg

Parsimony at Alphabet is all relative. The company's $9.9 billion in capital expenditures for 2015 was nearly more than the combined capex spending of Microsoft and Amazon. And Alphabet will most likely need to pick up spending for a raft of new computing networks the company pledged to open for its growing cloud-computing operation that also competes with Amazon

I added Facebook into the calculation because the company has made the jump into the capex big leagues. The company said last week that it expected this year's bill for data center equipment and related costs to come in at the high end of a previous forecast of $4 billion to $4.5 billion. That means the 12-year-old company is on track to spend nearly as much on capital expenditures as 22-year-old Amazon did in 2015.

Hey, Big Spender
Three big Web and cloud-computing companies collectively spend more than $20 billion a year on computer data centers and other capital projects
Source: Bloomberg and the companies
Note: YTD 2016 capital expenditures are for the first quarter, except for Microsoft, whose capex number reflects the nine months ended March 31.

Every year, each dollar invested in computing networks goes a little further. But the Big Four all want to get even bigger in cloud computing, mobile advertising or data-hogging Web services such as live Web video. And that makes it inevitable that the capital spending bills will stay as outsized as the ambitions of the Web superpowers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. For Microsoft, each year's data reflects the company's fiscal year, which ends in June.

  2. I excluded from Amazon's 2012 capex total about $1.4 billion the company spent to purchase its corporate headquarters.

  3. Amazon's disclosed capital spending may understate the company's investments because it doesn't include investments under capital leases. 

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net