In China, “cloud computing” means something a lot different than it does in the United States. Because of cultural, regulatory and linguistic issues, private clouds are the hot topic while public cloud services (e.g., Amazon Web Services or any of the myriad SaaS startups in the United States) have little to no presence. This situation can make it tough for U.S. IT companies to make a strong cloud play in China, leaving the door open for Chinese startups to define the technologies that will sate Chinese companies’ immense appetite for cloud computing and shape the country’s nascent cloud ecosystem.
In December, I spent 11 days in Beijing, speaking at conferences and meeting lots of people. Across two whole days at different locations — coffee shop/co-working space Garage Cafe and startup investor/adviser/office provider Cloud Valley (see disclosure) — I met with about a dozen startups doing everything from social media marketing on Weibo to building solid-state drives. Here are seven of the cloud computing companies I met, all trying to do some progressive things. They don’t necessarily look like what you’d expect to come out of Silicon Valley, but their chances for success probably don’t depend on meeting American expectations.
EEPlat is fighting an uphill battle to bring Platform as a Service to China, so, Chief Marketing Officer Simon Liu told me, the company is taking a prudent approach. With the dearth of viable public clouds, there aren’t too many startups building next-generation web applications, meaning EEPlat’s most-likely customers are large businesses and independent software vendors that want to build their own applications. So, rather than trying to become the Heroku of China, for example, EEPlat is more focused on enabling applications like what you might see on Force.com.
At least EEPlat has some good partners in place to help it spread the word of PaaS throughout the country. It’s present on Huawei’s application marketplace, which is part of Huawei’s cloud computing platform. And it’s part of IBM’s SmartCamp program that provides startups with support, services and, perhaps most importantly, inroads into some IBM accounts. These types of connections could be critical, Liu said, because doing business in China is often about who you know as much as what you do — so having friends like IBM who know how to sell software to Chinese enterprises is a big help.
Memblaze wants to displace Fusion-io as the server-side flash king in China, although it has a long way to go. The company makes its own flash devices that plug into a server’s PCI slot and can boost performance for demanding applications. Marketing director Zhibo Tang told me Memblaze has been around for a year and a half and has raised $3 million from Infinity Equity in Israel as well as a Chinese investor. It has attracted a handful of customers (and has some big Chinese names among the dozens testing it out), and sold about 100 units since it began selling in June.
That’s a long way from being a publicly held company like Fusion-io, to be sure, but Tang thinks Memblaze has what it takes to grow. For one, he said, the company does device-based computing, which doesn’t add extra stress to the application server like a host-based flash appliance does. Additionally, Memblaze has developed its own intellectual property, and so is in a good position to shape its device as the market demands rather than relying on third-party chipmakers such as LSI.
SkyCloud is a systems integrator that wants to be the go-to company when it comes to cloud computing and big data in China. It has been around for several years and has a successful business — several hundred million yuan (about one-sixth that in U.S. dollars) a year, according to Managing Director Fubo Zhang — building cloud infrastructure for its customers from the servers right up to the cloud operating system, which it calls SkyForm. Now, it’s getting into the big data space as well with some major consulting deals.
According VP and big data practice leader Truman Lei, there’s a lot of appetite for Hadoop, machine learning and other popular big data technologies and methods, but there isn’t always someone to help companies build those systems. After all, large U.S. vendors doing business in China are largely interested in selling high-margin legacy solutions, and smaller big-data specialists such as Cloudera don’t have a presence in the country at all. (Interestingly, however, Intel has a systems integration business in China and actually provides its own Hadoop distribution there.) SkyCloud is trying to fill that educational and commercial-support void, but it’s also brainstorming ideas for a country-wide data marketplace that could spur an era of big data applications in China.
A joint venture between China Broadband Capital, SuperMicro and the Beijing government, SuperCloud wants to be the server manufacturer that gets Chinese companies on board with webscale hardware. According to VP of Business Development and Product Marketing Eric Dong, it has already made some big strides; it’s growing about 50 percent a year and is already a supplier to China’s big four internet companies — Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Sina. These companies are huge, but while they’re interested in low-power and commodity webscale infrastructure, they’re not concerned enough with technological innovation to build their own servers like Google and Facebook do.
And that’s where SuperCloud thinks it can make its mark. By keeping up to date on the latest and greatest in low-power innovations, Dong thinks SuperCloud can fulfill these companies’ (as well more-traditional companies’) desire for webscale gear from a commercial vendor. Of course, it still faces competition from larger webscale providers such as Dell, Huawei and Lenovo, although Dong said IBM and HP are still primarily pushing expensive legacy servers to Chinese companies.
If Apache CloudStack isn’t able to steal OpenStack’s thunder in the United States, it might be able to do so in China — thanks to TCloud. The company, a Trend Micro subsidiary, has been around for three years consulting around CloudStack (it was a Cloud.com and Citrix partner even before the Apache move) and building enterprise-class distributions of the private-cloud software to serve the Chinese market. TCloud VP Hanzhao Gao told me his company has more than 30 customers in production with private clouds, and around 100 doing proofs of concept. The CloudStack China group TCloud heads has more than 600 members just six months in, and Gao hopes it can hit 5,000; there’s already a CloudStack APAC conference in the works for 2013.
TCloud is also selling its own Hadoop distribution (with a little help from Hortonworks), although Gao acknowledged that’s a slower-growing business than cloud computing. Companies are certainly interested in Hadoop, but whereas cloud computing is all about infrastructure, Hadoop requires a use case. With that in mind, he noted, T-Cloud is working with at least one major mobile-phone provider to develop domain expertise that it can use to help develop those use cases for the telco industry.
When I sat down with WiWide Founder and CEO Jerry Zhang, he couldn’t stop referencing Cisco’s recent $1.2 billion acquisition of Meraki in November. He’s understandably confident that Meraki’s success bodes well for his company: The four-year-old WiWide, which provides Wi-Fi hotspots for public places, is currently present in more than 6,000 locations throughout China and serves more than 15 million unique visitors a month. Its customers include household-name American transplants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, dozens of Chinese and international chains, and Shanghai’s largest airport.
Like Meraki, WiWide makes its own routers and gear, and provides a cloud-based management console so customers can manage their Wi-Fi networks. It makes its money on advertising — including some big-name clients such as BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz — and even shares some of the revenue with its hotspot customers. Zhang said WiWide does track some user behavior and could incorporate targeted ads, but its present advertisers are just concerned with getting their brands in front of as many potential consumers as ready.
Founded by former Yahoo researcher and engineer Hongyu Yao, YoYo Systems has built a distributed data-storage and processing platform called Cloudware that is designed around speed. Comprised of three components — Bitsflow for application development, DataCell for storage and NetVM for resource management — Yao says data access in YoYo is like “dealing with one single machine, from the application’s point of view.” Although it can handle unstructured data and supports the Hadoop Distributed File System, Yao said YoYo’s primary use case is streaming, structured data data –and lots of it.
YoYo’s early customers, which include major Chinese telcos, government agencies, retailers and internet gaming companies, already rely on it for some pretty critical applications. Hoolai, maker of the popular 3 Kingdoms web game, uses a 250-node YoYo system to manage data for tens of millions of daily active users and more than 100 million registered users. A large Chinese telco is building an Amazon S3-like cloud-storage service based on YoYo’s software, and Yao said one of China’s largest provinces uses YoYo to capture and analyze the tens of billions of records it collects monthly from video cameras capturing highway traffic.
Disclosure: China Broadband Capital, an investment firm and parent company of Cloud Valley, and IDG Capital paid for my airfare and lodging. I presented at the Cloud Valley World conference and the IDG-Accel Big Data Conference.