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How Alibaba Cloud plans to win over APAC enterprises

The Chinese cloud supplier is counting on data analytics, industry-specific offerings and its knowledge of the China market to gain a foothold in the Asia-Pacific region

Amid growing rivalry among cloud suppliers, Chinese cloud computing bigwig Alibaba Cloud would rather focus on its strengths and customer needs rather than what competitors are up to, according to the company’s international chief product officer Henry Zhang.

Based in Seattle, Washington, Zhang said Alibaba Cloud spends more time looking at what its customers are demanding from a cloud service and how it can support their growing businesses through its technology. That includes supporting businesses that are only in beginning stages of moving on-premise infrastructure to the cloud where services to support virtual machines and containers are key.

“We can also help them lift-and-shift, or quickly develop cloud-native applications,” Zhang told Computer Weekly on the sidelines of the Alibaba Cloud Summit in Singapore last week. “For those who are born in the cloud and build a lot of innovative applications, we provide them with services in the PaaS [platform-as-a-service] layer, from databases and Kubernetes to data analytics.”

Data analytics, in particular, retail analytics, appears to be a key edge for Alibaba Cloud, which supplies the infrastructure and platform services that power Alibaba Group’s sprawling business spanning e-commerce, logistics and financial services. “That’s a core capability that every retailer needs to have in order to drive their business,” Zhang said.

A key aspect of retail analytics is the ability to leverage data about online and offline behaviours of consumers to improve the overall shopping experience and drive sales. Zhang said Alibaba Cloud offers modular products to help retailers do that on its platform, which its partners can also build upon to deliver new services.

An example of this is Alibaba’s partnership with Intel last year to develop an edge computing platform aimed at making it easier for enterprises to perform compute intensive tasks, such as training artificial intelligence (AI) models, at the edge of a network.

At the heart of the platform is Alibaba’s Link IoT Edge server, which not only applies and trains AI models at the edge of a network using data collected from sensors and devices, but also connects to Alibaba Cloud to crunch heavier workloads.

Gaining a foothold in the enterprise

Supplying the technology that enterprises need and focusing on key industries like retail, however, is just part of Alibaba Cloud’s strategy to crack the international market.

In a cloud marketplace where nearly every cloud supplier is delivering similar services, Alibaba has been touting its experience in operating in the cut-throat business environment in China to gain a foothold in the enterprise.

It recently launched its global China Gateway Programme in Singapore to help companies in the city-state capture growth opportunities in China, by connecting them to Chinese companies and consumers via the Alibaba ecosystem and though an in-depth immersion programme on doing business in China.

Zhang said: “We’ve been the gateway for many multinational companies to grow their business in China and Asia and there’s a lot we can offer as well in terms of linking them with our partners and our familiarity with doing business in China.

“It’s not just an Alibaba Cloud play – it’s an Alibaba strategy to enable more international companies to grow their business in China,” he said.

That entails delivering core products such as databases for enabling transactions, searches as well as gleaning insights on customer behaviour, Zhang said, noting that Alibaba Cloud’s PolarDB, for example, can scale up to 100TB in storage and handle millions of transactions per second.

“Enterprises can use one of our largest instances with 88 virtual cores and 710GB of memory, so from a database perspective, it’s pretty massive,” he said.

It’s not just an Alibaba Cloud play – it’s an Alibaba strategy to enable more international companies to grow their business in China.
Henry Zhang, Alibaba Cloud

Earlier this year, Alibaba Cloud also unveiled a data lake analytics offering that lets businesses explore unstructured, heterogeneous data sets on-demand – by querying petabytes of data using serverless functions and standard SQL queries.

“Once they feel like this is something valuable for the long term, they can pipe the data into downstream data services like a data warehouse,” Zhang said.

Acknowledging the importance and growing traction of hybrid cloud, Zhang said Alibaba Cloud offers migration services to move databases and virtual machines back and forth between cloud and on-premise infrastructure, along with data migration capabilities.

“We also have a storage gateway where local storage can be used as a cache for most frequently accessed data while the rest of the data can be stored in the cloud,” he said.

Tim Sheedy, principal analyst at analyst firm Ecosystm, noted that the variety of services being launched by Alibaba Cloud shows the company is looking to solve the problems its customers face in becoming digital businesses.

“Alibaba’s legacy in retail, and the fact that many retailers already use its platform, positions the company well to move further into the retail space across ASEAN and the rest of Asia.” he said.

“It will hope to benefit from the growth that e-commerce providers are witnessing across the region,” Sheedy said. “This, however, is a highly competitive market – and in some parts of the region, Alibaba comes to the market many years after its competitors have established themselves.”

Read more about cloud in APAC

Alibaba Cloud was recently named first in the Asia-Pacific market share for IaaS (infrastructure as a service) and IUS (infrastructure utility services) in two consecutive years by Gartner in its latest report on the region’s IT services market.

The Chinese cloud supplier has been aggressively expanding its footprint across the region, starting with its international headquarters in Singapore that it opened in 2015.

It currently operates 15 availability zones in Asia-Pacific outside China, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Japan. The company set up its second datacentre in Jakarta this year in in an effort to meet “strong customer demand” for its services in Indonesia.

Sreenath Kandarpah, head of services at IDC ASEAN, said the emergence of Alibaba Cloud in Indonesia will create competition that will drive other local players to raise their game.

“To stay competitive in the market, local service providers should re-evaluate their approach towards enterprises by creating an attractive pricing and add-on services as well as be committed to help the country to achieve its digitalisation efforts and boost the national digital economy,” he added.

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