In cloud clash with Alibaba, underdog Tencent adopts more aggressive tactics

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For Chinese cloud services companies, the coronavirus outbreak has become a rainmaker, bringing in new business far and wide as firms shift work online and authorities develop apps and systems to help contain outbreaks and manage social restrictions.

For Tencent Holdings Ltd in particular, it has also become the perfect time to flex new muscles as it seeks to catch up with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, its arch-rival and the dominant player in the country’s cloud market by far.

Tencent began to display a new level of aggressiveness after positioning its cloud business as a major area of growth in September 2018, and that has only amped up amid the pandemic, employees say.

“The competition with Alibaba is so fierce right now, the sales teams are fighting them for every deal,” said a source in Tencent’s cloud division who was not authorised to speak on the matter and declined to be identified.

This year alone, Tencent has hired more than 3,000 employees for its cloud division. And as China went into lockdown and demand for corporate video bandwidth surged in February, it added 100,000 cloud servers in eight days to support a two-month old product, Tencent Conference – a feat the company says is unprecedented in Chinese cloud computing history.

It has expanded use of cloud servers designed in-house, pledged to speed up construction of a digital industry centre in Wuhan to handle cloud and smart city projects in central China and joined a central government initiative to support pandemic-hit small businesses with free cloud services. The social media and gaming behemoth also announced in May it will invest 500 billion yuan ($70 billion) over five years in technology infrastructure including cloud computing – just weeks after Alibaba said it would invest 200 billion yuan in its cloud infrastructure over three years. Poshu Yeung, vice president of Tencent’s international business group, notes huge interest in shifting further into the cloud from businesses and for online education. “We actually see more demands, requests coming in,” he told Reuters in an interview in April. “It’s a good wakening call for a lot of businesses.”

During the first quarter, China’s cloud infrastructure services market grew an impressive 67% from a year earlier to $3.9 billion, data from research firm Canalys shows. Alibaba commanded 44.5% of the market while Tencent, which started its cloud business in 2013, four years after Alibaba, had just 14%. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL] also had 14%.