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I’ve just been to China. Again.  It’s only been a few months since I was last there.

I was lucky enough to attend the 5th China Cloud Computing Conference at the China National Convention Center in Beijing. You probably have not heard of it, but it’s an impressive conference. It’s “the one” for the cloud computing industry. It was a unique view for me – more of an inside-out view of the industry. Everyone who’s anyone in China’s cloud industry was there.

First, the air was really hazy, but I don’t think the locals considered it that bad. The US consulate iPhone app said the particulates were in the very unhealthy range. Imagine looking across the street. Sure, you can see the building there, but the next one? Not so much. Look up. Can you see past the 10th floor? No, not really. The building disappears into the smog. That’s what it was like at the China National Convention Center, which is part of the same Olympics complex as the famous Birdcage stadium: http://www.cnccchina.com/en/Venues/Traffic.aspx

I had a fantastic chance to catch up with a university friend, who has been living in Beijing since the 90’s, and is now a venture capitalist. It’s amazing how almost 30 years can disappear and you pick up where you left off. He sure knows how to live. I was picked up in his private limo, whisked off to a very well-known restaurant across the city, where we had a private room and private waitress. We even had some exotic, special dishes that needed to be ordered at least a day in advance. Wow.  But we broke Chinese tradition and had imported beer in honor of our Canadian education.

Sizing up China’s cloud infrastructure
The most unusual meeting I attended was an invitation-only session – the Sino-American roundtable on cloud computing. There were just about 40 people in a room – half from the US, half from China. Mostly what I learned is that the cloud infrastructure in China is fragmented, and probably sub-scale. And it’s like that for a reason. It was difficult to understand at first, but I think I’ve made sense of it.

I started asking why to friends and consultants and got some interesting answers. Essentially different regional governments are trying to capture the cloud “industry” in their locality, so they promote activity, and they promote creation of new tools and infrastructure for that. Why reuse something that’s open source and works if you don’t have to and you can create high-tech jobs? (That’s sarcasm, by the way.) Many technologists I spoke with felt this will hold them back, and that they are probably 3-5 years behind the US. As well, each government-run industry specifies the datacenter and infrastructure needed to be a supplier or ecosystem partner with them, and each is different. The national train system has a different cloud infrastructure from the agriculture department, and from the shipping authority, etc… and if you do business with them – that is you are part of their ecosystem of vendors, then you use their infrastructure. It all spells fragmentation and sub-scale. In contrast, the Web 2.0 / social media companies seem to be doing just fine.

Baidu was also showing off its open rack. It’s an embodiment of the Scorpio V1 standard, which was jointly developed with Tencent, Alibaba and China Telecom. It views this as a first experiment, and is looking forward to V2, which will be a much more mature system.

I was also lucky to have personal meetings with general managers,chief architects and effective CTOs of the biggest cloud companies in China. What did I learn? They are all at an inflexion point. Many of the key technologists have experience at American Web 2.0 companies, so they’re able to evolve  quickly, leveraging their industry knowledge. They’re all working to build or grow their own datacenters, their own infrastructure. And they’re aggressively expanding products, not just users, so they’re getting a compound growth rate.

Here’s a little of what I learned. In general, there is a trend to try and simplify infrastructure, harmonize divergent platforms, and deploy more infrastructure by spending less on each unit. (In general, they don’t make as much per user as American companies, but they have more users). As a result they are more cost-focused than US companies. And they are starting to put more emphasis on operational simplicity in general. As one GM described it to me – “Yes, techs are inexpensive in China for maintainence, but more often than not they make mistakes that impact operations.” So we (LSI) will be focussing more on simplifying management and maintainence for them.

Baidu’s biggest Hadoop cluster is 20k nodes. I believe that’s as big as Yahoo’s – and it is the originator of Hadoop. Baidu has a unique use profile for flash – it’s not like the hyperscale datacenters in the US. But Baidu is starting to consume a lot. Like most other hyperscale datacenters, it is working on storage erasure coding across servers, racks and datacenters, and  it is trying to make a unified namespace across everything. One of its main interests is architecture at datacenter level, harmonizing the various platforms and looking for the optimum at the datacenter level. In general, Baidu is very proud of the advances it has made, and it has real confidence in its vision and route forward, and from what I heard, its architectural ambitions are big.

JD.com (which used to be 360buy.com) is the largest direct ecommerce company in China and (only) had about $10 billion (US) in revenue last year, with 100% CAGR growth. As the GM there said, its growth has to slow sometime, or in 5 years it’ll be the biggest company in the world. I think it is  the closest equivalent to Amazon there is out there, and they have similar ambitions. They are in the process of transforming to a self-built, self-managed datacenter infrastructure. It is a company I am going to keep my eyes on.

Tencent is expanding into some interesting new businesses. Sure, people know about the Tencent cloud services that the Chinese government will be using, but Tencent also has some interesting and unique cloud services coming. Let’s just say even I am interested in using them. And of course, while Tencent is already the largest Web 2.0 company in China, its new services promise to push it to new scale and new markets.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it …
And then there was press. I had a very enjoyable conversation with Yuan Shaolong, editor at WatchStor, that I think ran way over. Amazingly – we discovered we have the same favorite band, even half a world away from each other. The results are here, though I’m not sure if Google translate messed a few things up, or if there was some miscommunication, but in general, I think most of the basics are right: http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=zh-CN&u=http://tech.watchstor.com/storage-module-144394.htm&prev=/search%3Fq%3Drobert%2Bober%2BLSI%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26biw%3D1346%26bih%3D619

I just keep learning new things every time I go to China. I suspect it has as much to do with how quickly things are changing as new stuff to learn. So I expect it won’t be too long until I go to China, again…

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