Alibaba muscles in on Amazon's turf with new US data centre

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Alibaba muscles in on Amazon's turf with new US data centre
Jack Ma, chief executive of Alibaba.

Chinese cloud business starts building in Silicon Valley.

Alibaba is today launching a cloud computing hub in Silicon Valley, the e-commerce giant's first outside of China, underscoring its global ambitions in the face of stiff and entrenched competition.

The new California data centre marks the Chinese company's latest expansion onto American soil, and into a hotly contested US market now dominated by Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

Alibaba's Aliyun cloud division intends the new data centre to cater initially to Chinese companies with operations in the United States, including retail, internet and gaming firms.

It will later target US businesses seeking a presence in both countries, according to Ethan Yu, a vice president at Alibaba who runs the international cloud business.

"This is a very strategic move for us," Yu said, declining to say how much Alibaba invested in the data centre or disclose its location for security reasons. "International expansion is actually a company strategy in the coming few years.

"Eventually we may expand to other regions, for example the East Coast or middle part of the US, if our customers have the demand for that."

Aliyun, which has been likened to a budding version of Amazon Web Services, began as part of the company's in-house technical infrastructure.

It has since expanded to lease processing and storage space for small and medium online businesses in China.

While Alibaba dominates e-commerce in China, Aliyun, also known as Alibaba Cloud Computing, holds about a 23 percent market share in its home market. It faces both Chinese and foreign competitors, from carriers like China Telecom to Microsoft and Amazon.

Its existing data centres span the Chinese cities of Hangzhou, Qingdao, Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Alibaba is kicking off its US cloud business as American corporations and politicians are protesting what they see as Beijing's efforts to curb foreign technology at home.

Chinese government controls have limited foreign competition and disrupted many online services, including Google and Amazon Web Services', according to censorship watchdogs.

This week, US President Barack Obama sharply criticised Chinese regulations that subject overseas companies to arduous measures regarding data management.

First things first

A more immediate concern may be how Alibaba intends to vie with the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Google, which are slashing prices on cloud services to try and sustain double digit growth.

They're battling over a public cloud services market that could grow into an US$100 billion (A$128 billion) industry by 2017, according to analysts IDC.

US customers are not expected to be bothered by the service's Chinese ownership if pricing is competitive. 

Alibaba has big plans for Aliyun, which now accounts for about one percent of its revenue but supports its core e-commerce operation and will also play a pivotal role in the long run.

The e-tailer sees cloud computing as key to its plans to aggregate and analyse the vast quantities of data it collects, including on consumer behaviour. 

The company also needs to find ways to sustain so-far stunning growth.

Cloud computing and infrastructure was the company's fastest-growing business segment in the December quarter, increasing sales 85 percent to US$58 million.

Alibaba now derives the vast majority of its revenue from China. In recent months it has made headway in emerging markets from Russia to Brazil, but the company has taken a cautious, calculated approach to the US market.

The northern California data node would serve internal Alibaba businesses, like AliExpress, its online B2C platform for buyers outside of China, as well as external public cloud clients, Yu said. 

He declined to disclose details about potential clients. But cash-strapped startups generally rely heavily on cloud service providers to power their services.

Alibaba has invested in several US firms including messaging app Tango, online retailers, and Shoprunner, but it's unclear if they would avail themselves of Aliyun's services.

Ahead of today’s launch, Aliyun ran an invitation-only trial period for customers in China with international expansion plans, he said. The company began selling US cloud services on Tuesday.

"Gradually we will start to attract international customers," Yu said. "There are actually lots of US customers, US enterprises who look forward to setting up lots of data centres in China to serve their Chinese-based customers.

"I do see there is big demand for US customers who look for balanced presence of their IT infrastructure across the world, including China."

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