A Cloud with Chinese Characteristics

Software as a Service
Software as a Service (Photo credit: Jeff Kubina)

In the Hutong
Doctor, Doctor, Gimme some news
0917 hrs.

In addition to the matter of whether China remains a suitable regional headquarters for international firms, the recent government-imposed internet clotting also points to major changes that are taking place in the global topography of the Internet. Despite the long-treasured hope of Internet Libertarians that the ‘net would remain unified and self-governing, Bill Bishop’s prognostications of an internet fragmenting along national lines is looking increasingly likely.

Earlier this year I moderated a panel on the Cloud in China at the 2012 Roundtable on Intellectual Property Rights Protection convened by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. There were representative of both foreign and Chinese entities on the panel, and while the focus was on the Cloud and its role in either helping or exacerbating the problem of copyright piracy, a few interesting bits came out that are relevant to the recent blockage.

First, the panel understood that there are two Clouds: one for China, and one for everyone else. The reason is not technical, but regulatory: the government has built a policy framework  that hampers access to Cloud-based services based offshore to the point where they are not viable alternatives to local storage. You don’t see very many ChromeBooks in China (I haven’t seen even one,) I can’t get workable access to Amazon Prime Videos, and downloading a movie from iTunes takes 16-20 hours – on a good day.

Second, that international firms seeking to offer software as a service (SAAS) in China must either base their offerings onshore or not bother. As the Google affair made clear to all, however, data based onshore remains particularly vulnerable to local compromise. Why do the cops need to bother with hackers when they can just show up at the door of the server farm and demand access?

Third, all of the panel participants noted a growing willingness on the part of Chinese businesses and consumers to pay for SAAS and Cloud services. There is an irony in that for the foreign SAAS providers, but there is an insight as well. Government policies that restrict access to foreign SAAS providers are functionally protecting local Chinese companies who want to get into the game.

What we face, then, is the development of a parallel Cloud sector in China that will mirror the SAAS business outside of the PRC. That sector will likely consist of two elements: local companies (i.e., Baidu, Tencent, Sina, and service-specific start-ups) that will provide Cloud/SAAS offerings; and international firms who find ways to address the challenges of latency and government access restriction, usually by setting up a subsidiary in China with localized offerings (i.e., Evernote.)

For the international providers, this means figuring out how to operate two separate services while still offering the advantages of a global service to customers in China. This adds yet another degree of operational complexity to an already challenging market.

Yet for the local Chinese SAAS/Cloud service companies, it means a doubling of their home court advantage. Not only are they arguably better suited to offer more culturally relevant Cloud services than their foreign counterparts, they will also be playing inside of an electronic fence built for them (inadvertently or or otherwise) by government policy. Long term, though, this will make the effort to compete overseas more difficult.

Whether the meiosis of the Internet continues beyond the split twixt China and the rest of the world is unclear, but for the SAAS industry, the world now has at least two separate internets, and it needs separate clouds to go with it. Long term, the SAAS and cloud companies that succeed will be those who can thrive in an internet with increasingly high walls.

The Business of China is NOT Business

In the Hutong
Bandwidth-starved
0842 hrs.

Last week I had a chance to talk with Carlos Tejada at The Wall Street Journal about how Google services have become all-but-inaccessible for users in many parts of China, and how this all seems to have gotten worse over the last several weeks. What is worse, access to virtual private networks (VPNs,) most of which require offshore payment to access and upon which many business are dependent, has been all but severed.

The Hobbled Headquarters

I made the point to Carlos that there are a growing number of businesses who depend on cloud access – not just foreign firms, but organizations based in China who actively collaborate with groups overseas to conduct research and development as well as commerce. To these companies, access constriction is a man-made disaster that is in some aspects worse than a natural one: at least with natural disasters, even one like Superstorm Sandy, there are ways to fix or work around problems of data disruption. With access constriction like this imposed by an unaccountable, unseen human entity, there is no telling when it will end, and the work-arounds are cut off as well.

The longer this goes, the more it will force businesses to re-examine the wisdom of locating headquarters or back-office operations in China:

“If China insists in the medium and long term of creating another Great Firewall between the China cloud and the rest of the world, China will be an increasingly untenable place to do business.”

Anyone who wants to do business in China is well-advised to have a presence here. But China has long made it a goal to get foreign companies to locate their Asia-Pacific headquarters in places like Shanghai and Beijing rather than, say, Hong Kong and Singapore. How many companies are likely to consider that option with a sword of Damocles hovering over their links to data and the outside world?

A Lesson in Chinese Political Economy

There is a wider issue here than just the risk and inconvenience of having to do international business through an increasingly impermeable data force-field. The past two weeks have been a rude reminder that the government and the Party place social stability and continued Party control far above commerce; that they see commerce as serving the interests of the government and the Party rather than the other way around; and that the implicit conflict between the interests of the Party and the interests of business (especially SMBs and foreign-invested businesses) are more fundamental and closer to the surface than we might wish to think.

Let us not kid ourselves, then, and suggest that when you scratch a Chinese official you will find a capitalist not far under his Communist skin. There will ever be opportunists in positions of power, but in the end all business in China remains subject to the whim of the central government’s leadership. Thirty-five years after Deng Xiaoping declared China’s reforming and opening to the outside world, political risk for every company operating in the PRC remains as real and immediate as ever.

And it shouldn’t take an internet outage to remind us of that fact.

 

Shipyards Will Get Their Naval Salvation

In the Hutong
Cowering from the chill
0845 hrs.

I wrote in June that the current downturn in the worldwide market for large ships would hit Chinese shipyards especially hard, constituting as they do some 20% of global shipbuilding capacity. The shipyards had little to fear, I noted: if for no other reason than the sheer number of people employed at China’s shipyards (and memory of the Gdansk shipyards as the birthplace of Lech Walesa‘s Solidarity movement, an event that presaged the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe), the central government would do anything they could to keep the yards operating, orders or not. Yet rather than simply pay for the production of more surplus tonnage that nobody would want, or for make-work or no work, the government would instead get the yards to re-tool to produce naval vessels – if not warships and landing vessels, then naval auxiliaries like replenishment ships, transports, and maritime patrol ships.

Sure enough, Hu Wenming, chairman of China’s second largest shipyard operator, China State Shipbuilding Corporation, was in Beijing during the just-wrapped 18th Party Congress lobbying to get orders for naval and “fishing” vessels. He is the first: expect the line of shipyard managers and owners to form behind him.

With China’s now-open goal of becoming a maritime power, the timing of the global shipbuilding downturn and stiff domestic competition means China can conduct its naval buildup at an accelerated pace AND at a lower cost that it might have otherwise. And the yards, instead of going bankrupt, will get contracts that will likely be more lucrative than orders for container ships, cruise liners, bulk carriers, and tankers. Who knows? Many may never go back.