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《经济学人》:中国云端服务市场或将赶超美国

全球科技巨头中哪一家拥有增长速度最快的云计算能力?很多人可能会猜是亚马逊或谷歌,毕竟它们运营着全球最大的数据中心网络,但正确的答案其实是阿里巴巴。2016年,这家中国电子商务巨头的云计算业务增长了126%,达到了令人瞠目结舌的6.75亿美元,而更令人咋舌的是,这种增长势头一时还看不到放缓的迹象。阿里云的总裁胡晓明(Simon Hu)表示,希望在2019年之前,其公司的这项业务能“赶上或超越”亚马逊网络服务公司。

亚马逊网络服务公司2017年度的收入据估计将达到170亿美元左右。但是阿里巴巴的云业务(在中国被称为“阿里云”)的发展前景看起来广阔,而且展现出勃勃生机,强劲的发展势头大有后来居上之势。从整体来看,中国的云计算行业发展极为迅速。而比这种迅速的发展速度更吸引观察者们眼球的是,在很多重要方面,中国的云服务企业与其西方同行所显示出的诸多差异。

其实就所使用的技术而言,中国的云计算提供商倒不是那么不同。事实上,西方的科技公司已经发布了许多开放源代码软件的必要代码,使得其东方同行们在技术层面上更容易上手和进一步操作。为许多中国公司建立起云业务的易捷思达公司的首席执行官陈喜伦表示:“这就使我们站在了同一条起跑线上。”

不同之处在于这项技术是怎么被应用的。在西方,这些云计算服务公司的第一批客户都是初创的企业,慢慢发展到后来,才逐渐有大型公司光顾。在中国,云计算产生于淘宝(阿里巴巴的电子商务市场)以及第二大网络公司腾讯提供的在线游戏等消费者服务。故而加特纳研究公司的Evan Zeng得出结论,认为许多云服务还没有为应用于复杂的主流企业做好准备。

然而毋庸置疑的一点是,云服务拥有非常广阔的发展和应用前景。在西方,几乎所有的公司都拥有复杂的内部信息技术系统,而这些公司一时间对其固有的系统都难以割舍。而在中国,大部分公司的信息技术系统都乏善可陈,缺乏基本的配套设施。一家规模较小但发展迅疾的云服务提供商——UCloud的创始人兼首席执行官季昕华表示,“比起西方同行们来,中国的这些公司可以一步到位,直接进入云时代。”

另一个不同之处在于监管。在西方,像政府机构和金融公司这样的组织往往与其他客户共享数据中心,而在中国,产业与产业之间有单独的“产业云”。例如,银行业就被鼓励使用科技金融(CIB FinTec)等服务,该业务是从兴业银行中分拆出来独立提供云服务的,因为它符合最新的监管精神,用它的老板陈冲的话说,就是使监管变得更加“方便”。

西方市场上演着亚马逊、微软以及谷歌的“三国演义”,不过中国市场最终鹿死谁手仍不得而知。如图所示,阿里巴巴、电信以及腾讯排在榜单的前三位,但最终的胜负如何还有待观察。通信设备制造商华为野心勃勃,是绝不甘屈居于第五位的,正在摩拳擦掌想要更进一步。而体量较小的玩家比如前文提到的UCloud,没准将来什么时候会弯道超车。

不管哪家公司在今后在国内最终拔得头筹,中国和西方的云服务提供商在未来也必有一战——不在本土,而是在像在欧洲和印度这样的地方。亚马逊网络服务公司及其主要竞争对手一直积极在海外建立数据中心,包括在中国。但是阿里巴巴和腾讯当然不会袖手旁观,它们也在谋篇布局,准备迎头赶上。例如,阿里巴巴在国外经营十几家计算机工厂,而近期还将在印度孟买附近再开一家新的。阿里的胡晓明表示:“我们时刻盯着亚马逊,摩拳擦掌严阵以待,一刻也不放松。”

表面看来,西方在云计算领域应该能够保持相对领先的优势,因为它们的规模仍然要大得多,而且具备技术上的优势,例如在处理大量人工智能服务的数据的专用芯片上,中国就稍逊一筹。而且不愿意使用中国技术的人越来越多——这种情况不仅仅出现在美国。但来自中国的竞争对手并不是一无所长,它们的优势也足够明显,因为它们的背后是广阔的中国国内市场,依托这样一个的市场,凭谁也无法小觑。同时在中国市场上,外国竞争对手要想取得进展似乎是困难重重,尤其是来自监管方面的阻碍——法律规定了外国云计算服务公司要想经营本地的数据中心,必须同一家中国公司合作,这就为外国公司的业务开展增加了复杂性,隐性地将其置于不利境地。更重要的是,中国企业位于其他国家的很多子公司更有可能会优先选择本国云计算提供商。

地缘政治因素扮演的角色也不容忽视。中国国家主席习近平提出了一项雄心勃勃的基础设施计划——“一带一路”倡议,这项业已上升为国家战略的倡议计划把中国同亚洲、欧洲以及非洲的其他地区连接起来。阿里巴巴对此表现出极高的姿态并展现出积极态度,颇具热情地将“云计算”服务视为“一带一路”倡议的一部分。胡晓明最近表示,正是“一带一路”计划给了他阿里巴巴可以超越亚马逊网络服务公司的信心。或许在未来有一天,我们会看到这项倡议会被更名为“一带一路一云”也说不定。

WHICH of the world’s tech giants boasts the fastest-growing computing cloud? Many would guess either Amazon or Google, which operate the world’s largest networks of data centres, but the correct answer is Alibaba. In 2016 the cloud-computing business of the Chinese e-commerce behemoth grew by 126%, to $675m. Growth is unlikely to slow soon. Simon Hu, president of Alibaba Cloud, wants it to “match or surpass” Amazon Web Services (AWS) by 2019.

That is a stretch: AWS is estimated to have generated revenues of about $17bn in 2017. But Alibaba’s cloud (known locally as Aliyun) is one of a thriving group: China’s cloud-computing industry as a whole is growing rapidly. Even more intriguing than its speedy expansion is the fact that China’s cloud is different to that of Western firms in important ways.

The technology that China’s cloud-computing providers use is not so dissimilar. Indeed, the fact that Western tech firms have released much of the necessary code as open-source software made it easier for them to get going. “That brought us to the same starting-line,” says Xilun Chen, the chief executive of EasyStack, which builds clouds for many Chinese firms.

What varies is how the technology is used—a result of the respective roots of cloud computing. In the West the first customers were startups and only later, bigger firms. In China the cloud grew out of consumer services, including Taobao, Alibaba’s e-commerce marketplace, and the online games offered by Tencent, the second-biggest online firm. As a result, many cloud services are not yet ready for complex, mainstream corporate applications, says Evan Zeng of Gartner, a research firm.

As these services develop, however, there is huge potential. In the West almost all firms have long had sophisticated inhouse information-technology systems, which many are hesitant to abandon. In contrast, the IT of most Chinese companies is underdeveloped. “They can jump directly to the cloud,” says Ji Xinhua, the founder and chief executive of UCloud, a smaller but fast-growing cloud provider.

Another divergence stems from regulation. Whereas in the West organisations such as government agencies and financial firms often share data centres with other customers, in China there are separate “industry clouds”. Banks, for instance, are encouraged to sign up for services provided by outfits such as CIB FinTech, a spin-off from China’s Industrial Bank, because it reflects the latest regulations and makes things “more convenient” for regulators, in the words of its boss, Chong Chen.

And whereas AWS, Microsoft and Google already rule the Western roost, the eventual cloud leaders in China are as yet unknown. Alibaba, China Telecom and Tencent are ahead (see chart), but that could change, says Mr Zeng. Huawei, a maker of telecoms gear, has ambitious plans. Smaller players, such as UCloud, may catch up.

Whichever firm ends up leading, Chinese and Western cloud providers are bound to run into each other—though not so much in their home countries as in such places as Europe and India. AWS and its main rivals have been busy building data centres abroad for some time, including in China. But Alibaba and Tencent are catching up. Alibaba, for example, operates a dozen computing plants abroad and will open another one this month in India, near Mumbai. “We have taken on Amazon on all fronts,” says Alibaba’s Mr Hu.

On the face of it, Western clouds should be able to stay ahead. They are still far bigger and have a technological edge, for instance in specialised chips to crunch reams of data for artificial-intelligence services. The reluctance to use Chinese technology is growing, and not just in America. But the Chinese competitors have some advantages of their own. They can rely on a huge home market in which foreign rivals are unlikely to make much headway, not least because of regulation. Laws force foreign cloud firms to have a Chinese-owned partner to operate local data centres. This adds complexity and puts them at a disadvantage. What is more, many subsidiaries of Chinese firms in other countries are likely to opt for a Chinese cloud.

And then there is geopolitics. Alibaba, in particular, will make a special effort, because it sees its cloud as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s ambitious infrastructure plan to connect his country with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa. Mr Hu recently said that it is this initiative which made him confident that his firm will be able to surpass AWS. Perhaps, one day, the plan will be renamed “One Belt, One Road, One Cloud”.


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