Tear down the wall: Docker’s ticket to China may be aboard the Alibaba Cloud

China may not have Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp Messenger, Instagram, or even YouTube, but they sure have Docker! Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss, recently made a high-profile push to get his company’s services unblocked, “showering praise” on top Chinese officials. The push seems to have fallen on deaf ears as there has been no show of interest by Chinese officials in Facebook and instead have recently blocked messages though Facebook-owned app WhatsApp as well due to a political issue in the country. Meanwhile, Docker’s ticket to China may be on a first-class seat on the country’s biggest cloud provider: the Alibaba Cloud.

Breaching the great wall

Alibaba Cloud

China had previously blocked messaging app Telegram because it became popular among human rights lawyers. With a country whose censorship system is often referred to as “The Great Firewall,” how do you get in? The answer is “in containers,” and that’s exactly what Docker is all set to do. On June 9, Docker launched a Docker Public Registry in China, which is a cloud-based repository that provides users with free access to popular community-generated content, including official Docker images. Earlier in October last year, Docker had already announced its commercial partnership with Alibaba Cloud, the Chinese rival to AWS.

If Docker has adoption on its side, the Chinese e-commerce giant has money. It held a record-breaking $25 billion IPO in 2014 and in recent news, co-founder Jack Ma’s net worth went up by $2.8 billion in one night. Ma, a former English teacher, is now the richest person in Asia and 14th richest in the world, with a net worth of $41.8 billion. He was recently quoted describing to the world how his company had become effectively the world’s 22nd largest economy after Argentina.

Welcoming the third-largest Docker community

What he probably failed to mention is that the company effectively has the backing of the second-largest economy in the world as well. When Docker’s CEO Steve Singh and COO Scott Johnston said “it’s a really huge market” in an interview with GeekWire, could this be the market they were talking about? Docker’s ticket to China is definitely on the company’s mind: Docker’s chief marketing officer David Messina was quoted as talking about “deepening roots in Asian markets” since there are a whole lot of enterprises looking to containerize their applications. In an official press release, Docker said its Chinese container community was already the third largest in the world despite the lack of local services.

Alibaba Cloud
Wikimedia

That alone is a testament to the innovative spirit within the Chinese developer community. Imagine how much more progress they would make with the right tools and resources, and what a valuable addition they would be to the global open source community.

Docker Hub on Alibaba Cloud

Everyone’s interested in accelerating hybrid cloud deployment and building microservices, and the Chinese are no different. If you think about it, the only way you’re going to enter the Chinese market is if you have something that can help them make more money. As far as YouTube and Facebook go, this is a country with five channels on TV that all begin with the symbol of a big red star. Entertainment via social media is definitely not a priority, while making more money definitely is.

With a Docker registry in China, local access is expected to accelerate, and response rates of container-based applications are projected to go up seven times. The registry itself, which has been core element of Docker since its 1.0 release, now has a mirror sitting on Alibaba Cloud. The folks at Alibaba were actively looking for an easy solution to deploy Docker on Alibaba cloud according to Sicheng Yu, vice president of the Alibaba Group. Without the constraints of a budget, who better to get than Docker itself for this job, and that’s exactly what it did.

The new visionary

The partnership also means Alibaba Cloud will be reselling Docker’s Enterprise Edition platform in the Chinese market that includes a container runtime, multitenant container orchestration and security and management features. The platform will be also be integrated with Alibaba’s cloud stack which was previously launched as the first Chinese container application platform to support Docker. This stack is being specially designed to target hybrid cloud deployments, according to Tang Hong, chief architect of Alibaba Cloud. Also part of the agreement is that Alibaba Cloud will actively promote the Commercially Supported (CS) Docker Engine and resell Docker Datacenter to its enterprise customers while providing Level 1 and 2 support for Docker CS.

Alibaba has definitely added its name to the list of big cloud providers, so much so that when someone like the Singh mentions AWS, Azure and top cloud providers, he makes sure to include Alibaba on that list. There are still only two companies in the “leaders” quadrant of Gartner’s Infrastructure, but interestingly enough, there are more “visionaries.” Making its appearance for the first time as a “visionary” is Alibaba Cloud, and a June 2016 survey done by Alibaba themselves showed that more than 80 percent of their users are either already using containers or want to start. Partnering with Docker is definitely going to make it a lot easier for Chinese organizations to not only containerize their applications, but also move forward toward microservice architecture and high performance.

Sowing seeds in Asia

As mentioned before, China has the world’s third-largest Docker community in spite of the lack of services, and Alibaba counts 765,000 paying customers as of the last quarter. It’s also spreading its tentacles across Asia, which effectively counts for almost half the world’s population. Since just last year Alibaba acquired a controlling share in Lazada, the largest online shopping site in a region of more than 600 million consumers. In India, Alibaba has acquired a stake in Paytm, a popular mobile wallet app as well as a stake in Amazon rival Snapdeal. While most people agree that Alibaba is the clear cloud leader in China, it isn’t the only one, and there are many more like Cloud Global, another big cloud provider in China. The market is still relatively young compared to the United States, and there is still massive potential to move enterprises to the cloud since only a small segment is investing in the cloud right now.

Messina was quoted saying, “The relationship with Alibaba Cloud is unique from Docker’s other strategic partnerships in that it is expressly structured and explicitly focused on driving and accelerating the production adoption of Docker in an explicit geography, China.” Now we all know that the people in Beijing want nothing more than foreign investment, but it has never been clear just how much control or profit they are willing to share. History has taught us that China plays by its own rules, and it isn’t uncommon for them to go back on commitments or open and close markets as they please.

The China factor

Alibaba Cloud
Flickr / Crabchick

The political situation is another factor with a major election coming up, and while they seem committed to this new partnership, we all know anything can happen. Today we have Mark Zuckerberg desperately trying to unban his company’s services, tomorrow it could be Docker’s Steve Singh trying to do the same thing. China is known to make its own versions of everything and then stop imports; they have their own MiGs, their own F16s, and even their own AK47s. In a country that’s even banned Winnie the Pooh over an Internet joke, what’s stopping them from putting up a great wall to cancel Docker’s ticket to China by making their own Docker?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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