There are few options in the cloud that are really worth investing time in. Amazon (AWS) is clearly important as the market leader, and Google Cloud (GCP) offers a variety of very interesting technology. Microsoft (Azure) has some remarkable technology, especially for Windows-oriented shops. After that, options are much smaller scale: there are big names like IBM (BlueMix) to much newer startups (such as Digital Ocean). None of them are very distinct. However, if we’re willing to take a slightly less western-centric approach, there is another: AliCloud.
AliCloud is the cloud arm of the retail giant Alibaba. It is interesting that the largest cloud providers are essentially shops battling it out, but here we are. Alibaba are huge in the east, but it’s almost certain you have bought something from them before – a lot of generic electronics is drop-shipped from AliExpress sellers, for example.
Most people in tech have heard of Alibaba, and many people outside of tech also. Even so, it’s worth emphasising both their massive scale and their ability to compete with the big names like Amazon and Google.
In Europe, they have less presence than the others – most of their DCs are in the Pacific region – and many of their users are more interested in their ability to host over there. If you need an ICP to trade online in China, they’re the obvious place to go.
However, they are strengthening in Europe. There is a single DC right now, Frankfurt, but they’ve been scouting for a second location. And while there is currently only one EU location, the pricing is keen and the functionality available is much more sophisticated than they seem to advertise.
Someone coming from AWS, GCP or many of the other providers is going to feel at home in the AliCloud control panel. Virtually all the services you would expect are there; elastic compute, object storage, software-defined networking, etc. The sizing is very similar, the functionality very similar – it’s highly compatible.
While it’s true that many of the services and products available are infrastructural in nature, it’s not entirely the case. Data analysis and visualisation tools are available; in fact, big data is one of the strong points of the service.
It’s much more interesting to talk about how the services differ at AliCloud. To an extent, it begins even at pricing: while there is no “Free Tier” at AliCloud, some of the services are free (like basic DNS), and most of them are priced on usage. Fixed-price services like compute reservations are framed as “subscriptions”, even.
There are interesting tools that I haven’t seen elsewhere, too. The data transfer tooling, for example, allows you to migrate (in real-time) data from one system to another. There’s obvious practical application to this.
The SAP HANA database system is also available with AliCloud, as is NetWeaver. It feels a little bit antithetical to your usual cloud deployment, but there it is – an interesting mix of technologies.
There are a few things that you would expect to see now that aren’t (yet) present in AliCloud. Off the top of my head:
- some form of managed Kubernetes. True, there is a managed container service similar to AWS ECS (not quite as sophisticated as Fargate, but definitely interesting), but k8s is now the industry standard.
- some type of Function-as-a-Service. I doubt this will be long coming, I’ve seen some discussion of it already – but it doesn’t appear to actually exist yet.
- AliCloud claim they cannot support SELinux. This is a bit weird – I can’t think why a guest OS feature should cause a problem – but there it is. People rarely enable this in other services, so I doubt I can claim this is a huge issue, but it does make me wonder why it’s a problem.
There’s a lot to talk about on AliCloud, and I’m going to blog about it a bit more in the coming months.