When talking to CIOs about their public cloud plans, the conversation often features a discussion about the merits of using Amazon Web Services (AWS) over Microsoft Azure, or vice versa.
The breadth of services AWS is able to offer, along with the rate at which it rolls out new services, is part of its appeal, but the fact that so many enterprises now rely on its infrastructure to host their workloads and applications instils confidence in CIOs that the Amazon cloud is the way to go.
The growth of the Microsoft public cloud, meanwhile, is being driven by long-term users of the Redmond giant's on-premises tech upgrading and migrating workloads to Azure, so they can either go all-in on the platform or adopt a hybrid cloud strategy.
It is not uncommon for the Google Cloud Platform to get a mention too, particularly in enterprises that may be looking to expand their use of the search giant's off-premises offerings beyond its G-Suite of online business productivity services.
On the face of it, the public cloud market appears to be something of a three-horse race, but a fourth challenger is fast emerging, in the form of Chinese service provider Alibaba Cloud.
According to Gartner's September 2017 global infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) market tracker, Alibaba Cloud outperformed AWS, Microsoft, and Google in revenue growth terms over the course of 2016, having increased by 126.5% from $298m to $675m.
The report also pegs Alibaba Cloud as being the third largest public cloud provider, with about 3% market share. Microsoft, incidentally, is in second place with 7.1%, AWS is the global market leader with 44.2%, leaving Google in fourth place.
In the company's native China, Alibaba Cloud is the public cloud market leader, with 47.6% market share, and – over the past couple of years – it has set its sights on replicating this success overseas by going head-to-head with AWS, Microsoft, and Google.
Convincing CIOs outside of China, who may be unfamiliar with the brand, to choose Alibaba Cloud over its competitors' offerings is one area Gartner flagged in June 2017 as being a potential sticking point for its plans for globalization.
As the Gartner Magic Quadrant analysis of global IaaS market states, Alibaba Cloud has "very little" to differentiate it from the other runners and riders in the public cloud space.
The document states: "Alibaba's [international offering] launched in mid-2016. It has a limited track record, and does not have the full capabilities or performance of the China offering.
"It has rapidly expanded its offerings to markets outside of China in the past 18 months, but the firm does not have substantial mind share with buyers in those markets, as it is still building the required local talent, industry expertise and go-to-market capabilities."
In the light of all this, the Gartner report concludes that Alibaba Cloud faces "substantial challenges that it must overcome before it can translate its success in China to markets outside of its home territory".
One way it has sought to do this is by tapping into the demand for locally hosted cloud services, having outlined its commitment in March 2016 to build its first datacenter outside of China.
This paved the way for the company to open a European facility in Germany during November 2016. It has since expanded the number of datacenter regions it operates to incorporate 12 locations across the globe, including Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.
Alibaba Cloud Europe general manager Yeming Wang said that a second European datacenter could be in the offing for the company some time in 2018.
"We are quite aggressive in certain ways to deploy our datacenters globally, and last year [alone] we launched several datacenters across Asia-Pacific, Indonesia and Malaysia. This year we are considering a datacenter in Europe, but it may be too early to say."
As well as trying to court overseas enterprises, the company is also looking to give its Chinese customers a helping hand with their international expansion plans with the promise of local access to its cloud products in whatever territory they want to operate in.
"That is one of our biggest group of clients: Chinese customers who [want to] come to the UK. The biggest advantage they have is they are able to maintain a single user interface [wherever they are in the world], and we can serve up services to them from China, and from Europe too."
Incidentally, this is a concept the British Medical Journal (BMJ) is putting to use in reverse. The healthcare publisher is using Alibaba's public cloud services to aid the delivery of its online learning resources to healthcare professionals in China.
BMJ chief digital officer Sharon Cooper said teaming up with Alibaba Cloud means these resources can be served up directly to users from mainland China, in keeping with the country's internet regulations.
"The Chinese market is hugely attractive to almost any organization, but specifically for us is the massive increase in healthcare provision that is being seen in the number of hospitals, the number of doctors that need to be trained and the changes to the way healthcare is being delivered."
"You also have to follow a whole other set of regulations and guidelines to do business in China, and for us it was about trying to work out how we can maximize and utilize what we can deliver there without having to invest massively in building our own infrastructure."
In terms of its technology offering, Alibaba Cloud's services portfolio has some similarities with what AWS has to offer, with its own takes on cloud-based object and block storage, as well as elastic compute services, container-based offerings and its own content delivery network, to name a few.
These services have been keenly adopted by government organizations, as well as enterprises operating in the retail, financial services and logistics industries, which Alibaba Cloud claims has given it a deep understanding of the cloud needs of these sectors.
As such, it plans to draw on the experience gained from working with customers in these verticals to target overseas customers operating in similar areas, using its burgeoning portfolio of big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) services as an attraction, said Wang.
To this end, Alibaba Cloud used the Mobile World Congress in February 2018 to introduce new additions to its AI portfolio, including image search tools, its business-focused Intelligent Services Robot chatbot technology and big data application management offering, Dataphin.
It also debuted its Bare Metal Elastic Compute Service instances that can be grouped together to create super-computing clusters, as part of its efforts to make deeper inroads into the high-performance computing and research market.
This has already seen Alibaba Cloud partner with the Met Office in the UK and the two firms embark on a big data-related hackathon.
During the event, participants were tasked with using Met Office weather data to create an algorithm that would help plot a safe route for some unmanned balloons across the Earth.
Alibaba Cloud has also decided to pit itself against Microsoft's hybrid cloud-enabling Azure Stack offering by providing its own take on the technology, with the international launch of its Apsara Stack product.
The technology is already used by more than 120 enterprise customers in the company's native China, it is claimed, and an international version is in the offing that will allow European users of its tech to access and run Alibaba Cloud services in their own private datacenters.
Derek Wang, Chief Cloud Architect at Alibaba Cloud International, mentioned that the fact that the company is offering users access to artificial intelligence-infused cloud services within their own datacenters is a significant point of competitive difference for the firm.
"We understand that a lot of enterprises in Europe are conservative about adopting public cloud, so we launched a new private cloud [to cater to that], so users can also use AI and datacenter intelligence services in their own [facilities], and that makes us different from Amazon, Microsoft and Google."
Whether or not that proposition will be enough to win over European CIOs remains to be seen, but it is fair to say that Alibaba Cloud is not giving up without a fight.
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