Alibaba Cloud takes its first real steps in the Benelux, not only by starting a collaboration with the Xebia Group, but also by appointing a Dutchman as the first Most Valuable Professional (MVP) of the Benelux. That MVP is Léon Rodenburg, who takes the opportunity to combine his passion for software development with that for China.
An MVP is someone who organizes events, shares knowledge, stimulates the community, writes content, holds presentations and provides training for Alibaba Cloud. But you do not become an MVP just like that, says Rodenburg. To become one, you need to contribute to the Chinese cloud provider’s community first.
“Last year, I started Alibaba Cloud Meetup Amsterdam, which I organize three or four times a year,” he says. “I also write blog posts and place them at Xebia.”
Meanwhile, Alibaba Cloud entered negotiations for a collaboration with Xebia Group, where Rodenburg works as a consultant. Rodenburg was included in these negotiations because of his extensive knowledge about China. “The people of Alibaba Cloud told me to nominate myself for MVP and indicate everything I had done,” says Rodenburg.
A nomination, however, does not guarantee an appointment. Alibaba first makes a selection through a review process. “In June, during my vacation in France, they told me that I had been selected.”
The ‘China guy’
Rodenburg is Alibaba Cloud’s first MVP in the Benelux region, a position that unites the two things he is most passionate about: software development and China. The consultant did not only study IT, but Chinese as well. “I also lived in China for two years and can read and write Mandarin.” This is why Rodenburg is called the ‘China guy’ within Xebia Group.
The reason Rodenburg enrolled for Chinese aside from his IT bachelor was an overseas internship. “During my IT training, I did a six-month internship in China, where I worked with Chinese professionals, but the communication did not go very well. That was mainly due to the fact that they spoke little English and my Chinese was almost nonexistent.”
But Rodenburg did have an interest in the country and culture, partly because of his IT background. “Over there, for instance, it is completely normal to pay with your cellphone already. They have been doing that for almost ten years and do not understand why it is so difficult here.” That interest and the language barrier were important reasons to study Chinese.
Reference companies wanted!
Rodenburg still keeps track of how the Chinese market develops and how people here look at technology from that country. Many Dutch companies are reserved when it comes to Chinese technology, including that of Alibaba Cloud. “I think that has to do with the language and culture barrier, but also with the fact that few organizations work with this technology,” he explains.
“Some large enterprises do use Alibaba Cloud, but they do not really make that public. As a result, there is no reference for people to say: ‘They have done it. If it is safe enough for them, we can use it too.’ We are still waiting for that.” Chinese cloud providers do not often make the shortlist, not even at companies intending to host applications in China. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Azure may have regions in China but, according to Rodenburg, that is a strange construction.
“Chinese law does not allow foreign companies to offer cloud solutions on Chinese territory. To get round this problem, Azure and AWS work with Chinese parties that own a datacenter in the country.
Services are sold under the flag of AWS, but in reality, you are working with an unknown Chinese entity.” This can be a good solution for companies, but many organizations are reluctant to do business with a party unknown to them. “Doing business with a Chinese provider would be a very good choice for those companies. And Alibaba Cloud is the biggest.”
Why Alibaba Cloud?
A Chinese provider can offer various opportunities for organizations intending to host services in China. For instance, Alibaba Cloud can be used to get round the Great Firewall of China. “They have their own backbone that you can use to make a connection with China without the authorities filtering your internet traffic. This means that you could make a stable connection to China from, say, Frankfurt, which is nearly impossible through the public internet.”
That faster route is a great advantage over American competitors, who have to go through the Great Firewall. “Alibaba can bypass it because you need a certain license to host something under a domain name in China. One condition for obtaining that license is that you can demonstrate your ability to take content offline quickly in case it is against Chinese regulations. That makes it irrelevant for the Chinese authorities if data comes from Europe. If it is sensitive data, you are not allowed to publish it anyway,” explains Rodenburg. “It is much more difficult for AWS to accomplish this, as they can hardly make sure that you have all those licenses. That is all a lot more delicate.”
Sidestepping the Great Firewall means reducing the latency as well. “Nobody knows exactly how it works, but I think packages are inspected there to check what is going on. That adds to the latency. Moreover, some packages just fall out or are blocked. Those packages have to be sent again, which also increases the latency.”
Chinese companies are being nitpicked at because of concerns about espionage by the Chinese government through products and services of those companies. Huawei, for instance, is banned from various 5G networks because of such concerns. It is understandable that companies have similar concerns about Alibaba Cloud. But Rodenburg is not sure if this is necessary.
International clients do not do business with Alibaba Cloud’s Chinese branch, but with the one in Singapore. “Besides, they were tested by multiple independent parties in Europe and were granted the same certification as AWS and Azure and Google. These certifications are for making payments and processing privacy-sensitive information, and are required for storing patient information in the US,” he explains.
Chinese law still applies to Alibaba Cloud, as the company is based in China. “Chinese law stipulates, for instance, that a company of a certain size must have a certain number of Communist Party members in its management. But does that mean that all data is fed directly to the Chinese government for espionage purposes? I do not think that Alibaba can afford to let that happen. If that ever leaked out, it would be the end of them, both in China and elsewhere,” says Rodenburg. “I am not saying that it does not happen, but I am not saying that it does happen either.”
The privileges of Chinese companies
Despite this, Rodenburg understands that companies are concerned. However, there are certain things that those companies could do to protect themselves. “For instance, they could work with a multicloud strategy,” he says. “If you are on AWS, for example, and you want to make your application available in China, you can work exclusively with AWS in Europe and do everything on Alibaba Cloud in China. That would allow you to synchronize key data points – such as products or services you offer – but keep European information out of China.”
However, Alibaba Cloud is not the best option for every Dutch company. “I think it would be overkill to use the cloud in China if you intend to sell products to private customers only, because you could also use existing platforms in China for that purpose. There is no need to host your own website for that, because such websites are hardly used there.”
Rodenburg sees opportunities mainly for companies that want to host B2B applications in China, and for companies with offices in both China and Europe. “There are companies, for example, that have customers in China and offer services through a B2B platform. They can serve their Chinese customers better if the transactions are made through China. If not, it is possible that a customer making a transaction of millions of euros has to wait for 90 seconds before anything happens. They might even get an error message and panic. For that reason, it is much more convenient to have transactions made through China, which will guarantee that the money reaches its intended destination.”
But first of all, according to Rodenburg, companies need to familiarize themselves with Alibaba Cloud and its possibilities. “If companies at least consider Alibaba and become aware that it does things that may be interesting for their business, I will be a happy MVP.”