China's clouds have hyperscale parents and global ambition – but are they contenders for your apps?
Yes, especially for consumer-facing workloads. But don't expect a comfortable ride
The cloud is dominated by American companies. AWS, Microsoft, Google, IBM and Oracle all win more revenue than Alibaba, China's current leader.
But China's tech giant online retailers, entertainment companies and telcos are hyperscale operators in their own right, either to support hundreds of millions of customers at China Mobile or 1.16 billion WeChat users at Tencent. Other Chinese companies stretching into significant clouds for business users include Baidu, Huawei, JD, Ping An Technology and UniCloud. And like Amazon.com before them, they are looking to leverage their expertise and scale to offer cloud services for domestic and global consumption.
So should you take them for a spin?
For certain roles, yes, according to analysts The Register consulted.
Charlie Dai, principal analyst at Forrester, rates China's clouds as "competitive offerings for enterprise market and developers, especially for those who are targeting the Chinese market and/or their digital business ecosystem".
Gartner's senior director, Evan Zeng, agreed that they're a fine option to run apps in China for local customers, but also for the regions that China's clouds are targeting.
"Western companies see the US as a market first, then Europe," he said. "Chinese companies see China first, then South East Asia." But China's clouds don't enter markets just to offer cloud services, because they're not pure-play business clouds like their Western rivals. Instead, China's clouds tend to be small parts of wider consumer businesses and the services they offer to other users focus on consumer applications.
"If you look at the mainland China market I estimate that over 80 per cent of revenue in public cloud is consumer-facing workloads," Zeng told The Register. And when Chinese clouds expand, it's often to support their parent companies' consumer products.
"When they land, their consumer offerings like payments will push adoption of their clouds," Zeng said.
Chinese clouds are therefore a good option when building consumer-facing services in the markets China's web giants are targeting with their consumer services.
Following that expansion also means following Chinese clouds' growing ecosystem of consultants, which Forrester's Charlie Dai thinks is well-formed.
"They have built a wide range of channel ecosystem, including ISVs, resellers and different service partners from consulting to implementation," he said. "They are also leveraging their digital ecosystem, such as Alibaba's eCommerce and Alipay, Tencent's WePay and WeChat, Huawei's enterprise business partners, to acquire, serve and retain customers."
But Gartner's Zeng isn't so sure. He told The Register that while China's clouds have teamed with some of the world's biggest consultancies, he's aware of one "Big Four" practice that rates its confidence in a Chinese cloud partner well below its confidence for AWS. While the consultancy and its Chinese cloud partner still use each other's logo, the relationship is not substantial.
"Support outside of China is still an issue," Zeng said.
Another issue he raised is that plenty of big western vendors that sell through cloud marketplaces have little or no Chinese presence or channel. That means China's clouds don't offer them as an option, so users can't easily replicate stacks they assemble elsewhere for use in China.
"The lesser diversity of tooling providers and other ecosystem players will present an issue if enterprises move mission critical-workloads into Chinese clouds," he said.
Resilience is another area in which China's clouds may lack maturity.
"Leading Chinese public cloud platform providers have been strengthening their cloud services on both infrastructure and development layers rapidly," said Forrester's Dai. "Compared with global competitors, they still need improvements in many areas, such as the service granularity, experience consistency and runtime stability."
The other big question is whether working in a Chinese cloud sets you up to become collateral damage in a trade war.
"The trade frictions between US and China is causing unnecessary business uncertainty. Companies should strategically revisit their localization strategy for cloud adoption," said Dai.
That reassessment may need to include the fact that China's clouds are rapidly becoming the best way to use Western-sourced software behind the Great Firewall. Salesforce, VMware and SAP all have partnerships with Alibaba and other Chinese clouds are doing similar deals. Which means that your favorite suppliers could make Chinese clouds your easiest route to doing business behind the Great Firewall. If any of us are allowed in! ®