Four Years Of Hardship: Amazon’s Grand Game In China

摘要: Whether it’s the foreign giant that aims for control, Zhongwei city in west China that seeks transformation, or the cloud base that is in need of advance technology, every one of them has their own thirst and ambitions, shown by their game.

(Chinese Version)

Rumor has it that Amazon is about to be acquired due to its e-commerce failure. The AWS service this article talks about is also one of Amazon’s main businesses. To implement its AWS service in China, Amazon had spent four years making tons of efforts in the Chinese market. The making of Amazon’s data center that empowers cloud computing service in China has resulted in a grand game between Amazon, Chinese regulators, Ningxia province’s government, and third party partners.

After four years of efforts, on September 7th 2016, Amazon’s cloud computing service AWS, short for Amazon Web Services, was announced to be available in the Chinese market. This earliest cloud computing service provider has set its 10th data base in Zhongwei city, Ningxia province, China. Starting from July, containers carrying about 35,000 servers have been shipped from Beijing to Zhongwei. If anything goes according to plan, Amazon’s AWS will start provide services to the Chinese market at the end of this year.

Amazon’s plan for AWS to enter China can date back to 2012, which is mainly centered on the negotiation with the government and operators, as well as the site selection. Amazon ultimately picked Zhongwei as the base, a city boasting a population of 1.12 million with a GDP per capita of ¥21,604, 1,260km away from Beijing. This new-born city in west China only has a history of 12 years.

“For most people, it’s quite a mystery why Amazon would choose to go to Zhongwei,” GartnerGroup’s chief analyst told Caijing.

Surrounded by gobi and desert, Zhongwei is situated at the geometric center of China by the yellow river. It’s in fact the best location in terms of optical network in the country. The area has a mild climate and its annual average temperature is around 8.8℃, which means the cost for cooling the data center is lower.

Zhongwei has 12 wind power stations, 38 photovoltaic stations and the lowest on-grid price in the country——¥0.36 per kilowatt hour, which presents a most direct interest to the power consuming giant AWS. According to New York Times estimate, the Internet data centers around the globe consume a total power of 30 million kilowatt, which is the power supply of about 30 million-kilowatt nuclear power units.

One of Amazon’s slogans is achieve something impossible. Founded in 1995, Amazon is valued at $360.5 billion and the largest online retailor(NASDAQ:AMZN). This online retail giant is trying to find ways to boost efficiency and spread out the cost. With the support of Zhongwei city government, Amazon was able to get a space where they can build a data center, and supporting policies on taxation, bandwidth, and utilities. Eventually, it was a success of something more.

The local government wants to make Zhongwei the Chinese Phoenix. Phoenix is an American cloud computing power hub. In the past two decades, Phoenix city has been focusing its electricity power and network resources on developing the cloud computing industry, which enabled this small town in the desert to grow to the sixth largest city in the U.S. As if to show the determination, the government of Zhongwei city named the base as the Zhongguancun Cloud Base In West China and renovated the whole place. The local government has improved the surrounding environment in the desert, transferred the tomb field, built roads and even cracked down rocks and planted trees there.

At present, three giant data centers covering an area of 30,000 square meters stand at the site, which is only 10% of Amazon’s plan for Zhongwei. In accordance with the local government’s blueprint, more data bases of other globally renowned companies will enter this area.

Cloud computing is a revolutionary technology in the history of IT, and it possesses great economic potential. According to the Cloud Computing White Paper 2016, released by CAICT, the market scale of the cloud computing industry had reached ¥37.8 billion in 2015 in China, showing a progressive growth of 31.7%. It’s estimated that the scale will hit ¥49.34 billion in 2016.

“The cloud computing sector brought about a benefit of over ¥350 billion to upstream and downstream industries,” Huang Yejing the deputy director at the development and policy department of Ministry of Industry and Information technology said.

It’s has been a bumpy ride for the deserted region to transform into a high-tech cloud base. The main challenge for Amazon AWS in the last four years is how to maximize its control under the restricting policies.

Journalist at Caijing observed that Amazon’s AWS serves have been transferred to the cloud base in west China, but are still in test-outs, restricting the public from entering it the base. However, Caijing’s journalist had learned from many professionals in the cloud industry that it’s still uncertain how exactly Amazon will make its first step into the market.

Amazon is working with the A-share listed company SINNET(300383.SZ) on operation. But due to the infrastructure problems in Ningxia, there isn’t a set plan for the operation model and strategic partners yet for Amazon’s AWS.

“Every successful business model will learn a hard lesson when first entering the Chinese market. The pain they will suffer is probably the most serious on they will have in the world, as the local competition is incredible harsh and the special regulations and policies here,” a senior industry insider at a data center operation company told Caijing. “It’s something really hard to overcome.”

“It’s adventurous,” Zhongwei city’s mayor Wan Xinheng told Caijing, in reviewing the development in the past two years. “It made us in tears a few times. It’s just really hard to kickstart something in the west.”

A triangle relationship

Whether it’s the foreign giant that aims for control, Zhongwei city in west China that seeks transformation, or the cloud base that is in need of advance technology, every one of them has their own thirst and ambitions, shown by their game.

AWS was originally rolled out in 2006. But it wasn’t until six years later that AWS started to enter the Chinese market. Joe Minarik from AWS’s global strategic development came to China alone and negotiated with the three operators and many major data centers, in hopes of getting the lowest price for bandwidth for Amazon’s cloud business in China. An industry insider from the telecom operation sector told us that they were eager to find the lowest price, but nobody really cared for them.

The year of 2012 was the eve of the booming age of cloud computing in the Chinese market. In the very same year, general manage of Alibaba’ cloud business Chen Jinpei stated in a public speech that 2012 would be the year for the Chinese cloud computing industry to test the waters and Alibaba would start some feasible solutions. Aliyun now enjoys the largest share of the public cloud market, making it the biggest rival for AWS.

As a cost-centric company, Amazon spent lots of time and energy in filtering partners and finding the proper cooperation. A cloud service provider that Amazon had talked to before told Caijing that at that time Amazon gave every potential partners a list, which contained several hundreds of technological indexes and asked them to mark which ones they could achieve. It seemed Amazon wanted to find the right partners that fit their global standard through this approach.

The ability to maximize efficiency and lower the cost through finding the right partners is the key to Amazon’s success. However, as for entering the Chinese market, it didn’t work since they missed the best time point. Amazon’s global rival Microsoft already entered the Chinese market one year earlier than the company. Microsoft also achieved commercialization one year and a half before Amazon. The turning point was late 2013, when Amazon met Zhongwei’s mayor Wan Xinheng.

Wan Xinheng is the biggest contributor to Zhongwei’s transformation towards a cloud backed city. The 43-year-old mayor is actually the youngest mayor in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. He was the deputy director at Economic and Information Commission Beijing and was appointed as the deputy mayor of Zhongwei in 2013. In February 2015, the NPC commission voted him to be the mayor of Zhongwei.

Ever since he had been appointed to Zhongwei, Wan Xinheng has been making efforts to allow Amazon to set its base in the city. A little know fact is that Wan Xinheng graduated from Peking University with a Bachelor in computer science. It’s said that he has had close connection with many Internet entrepreneurs such as Liu Qiangdong, Zhou Hongwei, and Leijun etc.

“We hope to make a miracle with Zhongwei in the desert. We want to prove to the country that the west also has the potential to thrive,” Wan Xinheng told Caijing. In the past two years, this mayor worked like an entrepreneur. He often had phone meetings with Amazon’s HQ in Seattle in the middle of the night. To push the development of the project he also went to Beijing for many times.

On December 18th 2013, Amazon signed a four-party framework agreement with Beijing City Government, Ningxia government and the West Cloud Valley of CBC Capital. The four parties announced to jointly establish Ningxia Zhongguancunn Tech Park, and the West Cloud Valley will be the constructor.

On the same day, multiple cloud providers in China lowered their charge. Aliyun for example, lowered the charge of its whole line, among which the charge for ECS was lowered by 30% and the charge for OSS was lowered by 50%. It’s apparent that local cloud providers are panicking over Amazon’s entry.

The four-party framework agreement marks the AWS’s entry into China. However, in reality the agreement only means AWS is willing to enter. The negotiation on the details took more than a year to finish. The negotiation covered areas such as the network framework, P95 charging, budget for infrastructure construction, and attracting talents etc. In March 2015, the final agreement was signed and Amazon’s data center in Zhongwei started to undergo construction. And it’s like 15 months after the signing of the four-party framework.

According to Wan Xinheng, Amazon was extremely picky about the site selection. The site selection alone took Amazon one year. Amazon has 282 standards for site selection, including reports on earthquake, air condition, landform, and land planning conditions etc. Only the site that fits all the standards will be approved by Amazon.

A source told Caijing: “There are several goals Amazon wants to achieve when choosing a site for a big center: lower the operation cost; acquire a reliable infrastructure; and lower the cost for power and bandwidth.”

For most cloud providers, it usually takes 6 – 8 years to build a cloud base and make it work. They need to endure a long period of loss, and therefore they will lower the cost in the early phase as much as possible. An insider at Amazon revealed that Amazon estimated an 8-year period of loss in China with its cloud business.

Several insiders from the third parties that have worked with Amazon on this project said to Caijing that Amazon is the strictest and most controlling collaborator they have met. “They stick to their principles and make no compromises. They use pressure to reinforce their concept.”

“They have voiced out their conditions on the cost to the government, such as the power fee must be the lowest in the country. Other conditions on the network charge and discounts etc. are also included in the agreement.” At last, Zhongwei decided to give them a direct price instead of subsidizing, lowering the already cheap ¥0.43-¥0.45 per kilowatt hour to ¥0.36.

The cheap power fee and the natural climate of Ningxia alone help Amazon save almost ¥100 million every year. As for the bandwidth charge that troubled Amazon a lot, it was fixed by the local government. The local government actually represented Amazon to talk to the telecom operators to get a better price. It’s estimated that the cost for bandwidth will be ¥500 million per year for 100,000 servers. And Amazon wanted Ningxia to save 10% - 20% for them.

For telecom operators, upgrading Zhongwei’s network won’t have return immediately. But from the government’s perspective, it wished to have Amazon there so they telecom operators would lower their charge themselves. However, Amazon stuck to the agreement, saying a deal is a deal, and that the company wouldn’t enter Zhongwei unless all the conditions had been fulfilled. The dilemma lasted for one year.

Wan Xinheng told TMTpost that it took him one year to communicate with the regulators and China Telecom and China Unicom. Eventually the high-ups made the agreement happen. Then China Telecom and China Unicom together built a cloud computing information highway, through which it only takes 9 milliseconds for the data from Zhongwei to get to Beijing. In this process, the government of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Zhongwei government provided a subsidy of ¥190 million on network alone.

“We don’t have any five-star hotel here but we have a six-star government here,” Wan Xinheng told Caijing. To push the development of this project, the government even reformed its administrative approval system that existed for decades, and reduced to protocols from 229 to 80. The government also canceled the charge for approval procedures, reducing the approval time from 15 work days to 3.

Besides strict and cautious, the Chinese collaborators also got the impression that Amazon has a complicated communication and decision making procedure.

“AWS is a typical example of central decision making. Everything is decided by the HQ in Seattle. So the branch in Beijing and the HQ Seattle had meetings everyday,” a collaborator told Caijing, believing that at least for AWS, there is no localized branch.

After one year of negotiation, Amazon’s data center finally began construction in March 2015. It’s completed in seven months, which was incredibly fast. The amazing construction is attributed to Amazon’s partner and data center construction side Ningxia Cloud Valley.

Ningxia Cloud Valley was funded to build by Beijing Cloud Valley and Zhongwei city government in October 2013. The company aims to become a leading cloud computing data center builder and operation service provider worldwide. Its board chairman is CBC Capital’s board chairman and founder of AsianInFo and China Netcom Tian Suning. Tian has been pushing to drive China’s cloud computing industry forward in the past year years. He had stated for many times in public speeches that cloud computing will be the a core drive for Chinese’s new economy.

Wan Xinheng noticed Tian Suning’s ambition so he brought him into the project with Amazon. A source at the Zhongwei city government told Caijing that the Cloud Valley promised AWS to build a data center with the lowest cost even in the world when negotiating, and that Cloud Valley would sell the property right to AWS. At the same time, AWS chose West Cloud Valley as its local partner in Zhongwei.

Caijing learned that Tian Suning had invested in a lot of personal asset and efforts in the construction of the data centers, successfully building three data centers in just seven months from scratch. After the first phase construction was completed, the Cloud Valley’s cost actually already exceeded the budget decided in the meeting with Amazon, and therefore Tian himself paid for that gap.

As for Cloud Valley and Tian Suning, loss doesn’t really matter in this one project. What matters more is the opportunity to learn Amazon’s advanced cloud computing technologies and data center building technologies through the cooperation.

“Cloud computing is essential to China’s next-gen IT. We need to make innovations on our own, but also need to cooperate with international heavyweights, so as to build the next-gen Chinese ecosystem,” Tian Suning told Caijing.

That’s also what Zhongwei wants to achieve. Zhongwei aims to appeal to other Chinese enterprises through Amazon. At the same time, the reduced cost for land, taxation, utilities and bandwidth etc. resulted from the cooperation with Amazon will also benefit other Chinese enterprises. Zhongwei hopes to become the Chinese Phoenix city through this.

The main character in this story, Amazon, made no compromises and wanted to have everything under control. More importantly, the Chinese market is very important for AWS. Amazon’s cloud computing business amassed $2.886 billion in 2016 Q2, a year-on-year growth of 58.2%; the operation revenue hit $718 million, a year-on-year growth of 135.4%. Amazon’s total profit was $1.3 billion, which means AWS contributed almost 55% of the company’s operation profit, far more than the e-commerce business and other lines combined.

In 2013, AWS’s senior deputy president Andy Jassy once stated that many seniors at Amazon believed that AWS would be Amazon’s biggest business in the future.

“Cloud is a crucial part in the rise of the west. It’s not something easy to do,” an insider said. However, all these changed suddenly as policies were adjusted.

The changed policies

The government wants use Amazon to stir up the market. The government wants to tell the public what cloud services are good, and what standards are good, so as to force Chinese enterprises to learn more. Meanwhile, the government will also keep Amazon at bay.

Everything changed on December 28th 2015. MIIT released its Telecom Business Categorization List 2015, which started to take effect on March 1st 2016. The new categorization list includes cloud computing infrastructure into IDC (Internet data center) business, which makes it valued added telecom business, the area the the central government supervises strictly.

That said, foreign capitals such as Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure can only act as technology providers instead of running an actual business in China. They are also restricted from accessing to clients’ data as well. The business operators must be licensed domestic companies such as SINNET, Cloud Valley, and 21VIANET.

The change of policies killed AWS’s original plan.

While the construction in Zhongwei was in motion, AWS also had been probing into the Chinese market since 2014. AWS provided Chinese enterprises with limited preview of service, which is an original product developed by AWS that’s still in test-out phase.

Initially, Amazon only had two partners on limited preview service, which are SINNET and China Net Center. The two provide IDC and ISP service for AWS respectively.

Amazon has already stressed that the company won’t be limited to just one partner as there are endless potential partners. That said, Amazon never intends to partner with one Chinese company permanently to achieve commercialization.

When there are still many uncertainties in policy change, the industry believes that the possible cooperation model Microsoft and SINNET will have is Microsoft provides software and technological support while SINNET manage the front-end operation. In this way the two parties will share a common interest.

Amazon is trying to use a more flexible but also more dangerous way to cut cloud service into three parts, which are powered by Amazon itself, SINNET, and China Net Center.

An insider close to SINNET told Caijing that AWS doesn’t want clients’ data, software and servers to fall on the hands of third parties since AWS believes they are the core drives that make the company competitive.

A senior from SINNET told Caijing that both SINNET and 21VIANET are just helping Amazon get invoices at core.

In the past few years, AWS has entered regions such as Singapore, Tokyo, Sydney, Seoul, Bombay, Ireland, and Frankfurt etc. But only in China, AWS adopted a limited preview service mode.

“It’s very difficult for Amazon to enter China since the company doesn’t adapt to the local market but operate under its global standard,” an insider that has been dealing with AWS and regulators for a long time said. “They used the past few years to negotiate with the government. They believed they could achieve that.”

A source who knows Azure well told Caijing that Microsoft is hoping to build a model that can adapt and evolve through time since that will give them an edge in the competition.

In this case, when Microsoft, Aliyun and KSyun etc. were trying to expand their cloud business in China, Amazon was stilling gaming with the government. Amazon’s partner China Net Center eventually quit the project one year after the cooperation started. An insider revealed that there are two reasons for the exit: working with AWS didn’t bring much return; secondly as a listed company it doesn’t want to take on too much risk from policy change.

However, the policy change in 2015 ruined all the efforts Amazon had made. In May 2016, Beijing Communications Administration sent a notice of adjustment to AWS, ordering the company to stop operating and to make adjustment. In August, AWS tried to sign an operation agreement with SINNET to enter Beijing. Amazon authorized SINNET to provide Amazon’s cloud service and technologies in Beijing and regions nearby until the adjustment order ended.

“AWS’s cooperation with SINNET is in fact a surrender to the Chinese market,” the source concluded.

It should be noted that AWS’s operation with SINNET could only cover Beijing and regions nearby. What truly makes AWS take off in China is actually its “big factory” in the west. But things are complicated in Zhongwei.

A source close to Zhongwei’s city government told Caijing that after the change of policy took place, Ningxia Cloud Valley had requested AWS to discuss about the feasibility of the cooperation model. However, AWS had been neglecting this topic and instead demanding Cloud Valley to make the property right transfer.

On the initial agreement, Cloud Valley promised Amazon to help build data centers for AWS. In exchange, AWS promised to make Cloud Valley the operation partner in Zhongwei. But at present, Amazon has finished making adjustments in line with the order but is still observing in Zhongwei.

An insider who had worked with Amazon before said that Amazon’s HQ always believed that the company only needs an agent in China instead of a partner.

“But can the Microsoft+21VIANET model really work?” Microsoft’s cloud business in China lacks far behind its global lines. It’s mainly due to the fact that this special cooperation model makes it hard to have a standard for technology and operation, which results in the lack of competitiveness when competing with local giants such as Aliyun.

The source also said that AWS still believes that the company should run its business in China with the global way as it has been proven their global model is the most efficient operation model. AWS’s attempts in the Chinese market are not at fault necessarily, but nobody can deny that the adjustment order did shake Amazon up and forced the company to learn how to deal with the Chinese government and companies.

Wan Xinheng told Caijing that Zhongwei will always stick to the law and regulations and supervise accordingly. After the new regulations came out, AWS started to bargain. “We would rather give up on the project. We need to follow Chinese regulations,” Wan Xinheng said.

A source close to the regulator told Caijing that AWS is in fact a sensitive company for the regulator: “On one hand, it’s in a special sector since it involves national information security; on the other the government also wants AWS to stir up the Chinese market to nurture more quality companies.”

“You can be more controlling or whatever when negotiating with partners. But when you are dealing with the government, you have to follow the rules,” the source added.

Tian Suning also told Caijing that currently it’s uncertain whether it’s appropriate to categorize cloud computing business as a value-added business of the telecom industry. Another cloud computing service provider told Caijing that the stability policies and regulations is of the most important for this emerging industry. At present, there is no clear details about how new policies will work. In fact, using IDC license to regulate cloud service is to regulate an emerging area with existing and old policies.

“If there’s still no clear details about supervision and policies, foreign companies such as Amazon will shrink their investment in China. That’s what Microsoft and Google did. And this industry will become every vulnerable,” he said.

A Phoenix dream

“All the terms and conditions Zhongwei has got for Amazon are mutual benefits, which upcoming Chinese companies will also enjoy in the future.”

“For Amazon, the most important thing is to have fully control over its cloud business. In that sense, they want to be able to control their business in China,” an insider said. Given the fact that Amazon is going to enter the Chinese market through the infrastructure in Ningxia, the next step is to figure out how to enter the market and potential partners.

As a matter of fact, Amazon has SINNET as the partner to cover Beijing and nearby regions, but it remains unknown whether SINNET of Ningxia Cloud Valley will be in charge of covering the whole country.

“Before the change of tide Amazon could just choose to team up with Ningxia Cloud Valley according to the deal. But after the policy change, Amazon would like to have a more obedient partner,” the insider added.

SINNET’s general manager Yang Yuhang stated on August 1st 2016 that under the strict policy control of the Chinese government, having two running bodies in China would eventually cause Amazon some troubles.

Tian Suning didn’t comment on this.

Several industry insiders that Caijing had interviewed stated that AWS was supposed to provide services in October this year, but now the plan has been put off. On that matter, AWS’s reply to Caijing was “no reply”.

On August 1st, Yang Yuhang told analysts that Amazon’s AWS hasn’t got any target for the Chinese market yet, and it might take one year of operation for the company to actually come out with a plan.

After two years of development, the construction of AWS’s three super large data centers in Zhongwei has come to an end. One center (A3) is located at West Cloud Valley while the other two are set in the Southeast (D) and west side (B3), which showcases Amazon’s unique operation model.

Conventional data center base is just a point, while Amazon deployed three points in one region connected through fiber optic, each center is about 32km or even 42km from each other. The three centers form a triangle that includes Zhongwei inside. The three data centers share the same structure, and are designed for scatter storage, mutual backups, and parallel computing. They are the new generation data centers designed for cloud computing specifically.

According to statistics from Zhongwei government, the investment in AWS’s data centers is ¥15 billion with a building period of five years, and the buildings cover an area of 300,000 square meters with 400,000 servers. In 2015, ¥1.5 billion had been invested in the project and 35,000 servers were introduced. It also states that in five years Amazon and its accessory projects will generate 773 to 1,553 jobs and brings a profit of $800 million to $1.5 billion.

Cybernaut’s senior partner and the board chairman of Yuchengyunchuang told Caijing that early as in 2010, Cybernaut had already been looking for a large-scale data center with low cost to invest in to lower the cost for Chinese cloud computing infrastrucuture. However, it wasn’t until 2013 AWS announced to set in Zhongwei and poured in mass amount of money and staff in the data base that Cybernaut finally found a way.

“Amazon is bringing the mindset of scientific decision-making on cloud computing infrastructures and construction to Chinese enterprises,” Yang Shenghao said.

He believes that in the past the we have a rather raw construction mindset for Chinese cloud data centers as most data centers are just small rooms stuffed with severs in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. As for American data centers, the layout and population density are not something they will consider. The proper site selection, lowering the cost and scale are the key.

According to Yang Shenghao, the bandwidth matter, which had always been discussed for a long time, was fixed in April 2016 and 360 has finished network testing. “The conditions that Amazon has been fighting for are mutual. The company wants the best treatment.”

“The introduction of AWS to the Chinese market is significant. It provides an opportunity for international companies to learn more about China, and also allows local companies to learn from international companies,” Tian Suning told Caijing. “It’s also a great opportunity for Chinese regulators to improve the regulations and rules to bring about a clear and detailed system.”

“In the past few years, foreign investment has been shrinking in China. Meanwhile, national information security also becomes more important than ever. Emphasizing on cyber security in fields such as data and basic infrastructure is a cautious move. But the regulators should also think about how to differentiate and categorize foreign companies,” a source close to regulators said to Caijing.

For Amazon, it takes efforts to make up the gap between its innovative lines and policies. However, if it failed to grasp a share of the rising Chinese cloud market, then the company would suffer so much more than just losing a few data centers at the desert.

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[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @Song Wei, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]

Translated by Garrett Lee (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.

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