Jump start: Edward Tian poses in front of a sign for Beijing’s Cloud Valley, an incubator for startups in China’s cloud computing industry.
In a suburb of Beijing, 800 workers arrive each day to a glass-and-masonry office block and a shared mission: to create China’s version of the Internet cloud.
Known as Cloud Valley, the 7,000-square-meter technology campus is the creation of Edward Tian, a 48-year old entrepreneur credited with bringing broadband Internet to China in the 1990s. On the campus, millions in investments from Tian’s enterprises now fund engineers to wire-up servers into refrigerated shipping containers and all-night coding sessions by young programmers. These are components of what Tian hopes will become a complete supply chain for cloud computing—all of it Made in China.
China is home to the world’s largest population of Internet users, some 485 million, as well as its most-used micro-blogging service, the freewheeling and often-controversial Sina Weibo. Despite a boisterous Internet culture, however, the country has not been on the cutting edge of computer innovation. China assembles PCs and laptops that were designed elsewhere, and its use of web-based technology still lags badly. Government offices often require fax communications, and many small businesses do accounting, literally, out of a shoebox. With cloud computing, Tian believes he can help Chinese businesses, individual users, and government departments leapfrog into the 21st century—bypassing decades of legacy hardware and software.
Cloud computing allows data and applications to be stored not on individual personal computers but on remote servers. That can cut IT costs and give access to powerful software via smart phones and laptops. As important as such advances are in the West, Tian says, they are even more important to China. “With the cloud, you could have access to unlimited storage power with a very simple computer,” he says. “The cost of a computer could be like a book, maybe $100; all you’d really need is display. And this is fundamental for China, which is still a very poor country. To me, the goal of promoting cloud computing is to let every citizen—particularly those people in underdeveloped regions—afford computing access and information. My slogan is ‘The price of a book, the power of a supercomputer.’”
Tian’s ambitions dovetail with those of the Chinese government. In its most recent Five Year Plan, released in March, Beijing named information technology as one of seven strategic “emerging industries” targeted for investment totaling $600 billion (others include clean energy and advanced manufacturing). Cloud computing was placed under control of the newly created Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
“Government is a big advocate because they recognize the strategic importance of cloud,” says Panha Chheng, senior director of strategy for iSoftStone, an IT services company headquartered in Beijing. “Since cloud is still relatively new, it is still possible for China to be an early adopter and then stay at the forefront.”
Tian has a long history in China’s Internet scene. In the early 1990s, as a graduate student at Texas Tech University, he cofounded a company, AsiaInfo Holdings, to bring Internet technology to China. In 1999, the Chinese government asked Tian to take the helm at the newly created China Netcom Group, with the goal of building the country’s broadband network. Today, he is a business heavyweight who sits on the boards of Lenovo and MasterCard International and whose Rolodex includes many of Silicon Valley’s elite.