China’s Huawei Technologies is gearing up to take on its U.S. and Chinese competitors in cloud computing as it unveiled what it claims is the world’s fastest AI computing chipset center and pledged $1.5 billion to recruit software developers for its computing systems.
The new venture by the China’s largest technology company will compete with U.S. companies Amazon and Google, and China’s Alibaba and Tencent, and comes amid rising scrutiny by Washington that could see Huawei lose access to U.S. technology and code.
Although Huawei is the world’s biggest telecom equipment maker and the second-largest smartphone maker, it is a newcomer to cloud computing, a business that it entered just two years ago.
Ken Hu, Huawei’s rotating chairman, also unveiled on Wednesday at an annual conference what he claimed to be the world’s fastest AI training cluster, the Atlas 900, which combines the power of thousands of its Ascend processors.
“Such powerful AI training systems could not only help tackle complicated problems such as astronomy and space research but also help China build supercomputers,” Hu said. Beijing has prioritized space exploration and supercomputers as China jostles with the U.S. to become the world’s next tech superpower.
Cloud computing — which uses a network of remote servers to store, manage and process data, rather than a local server or PC — is central to developing future advanced technologies such as remote surgery and autonomous driving that require processing and analyzing massive amounts of data.
Hu said Huawei would spend another USD 1.5 billion over the next five years to expand the company’s base of developers to 5 million from 1.4 million now. The ramp-up in spending, which follows USD 1 billion pledged in 2015, comes after a series of sanctions by the Trump administration on the sale of U.S. technology to Huawei.
Washington has accused Huawei of abetting Chinese espionage, and the sanctions could see Huawei lose access to Google software that it has used on its phones.
Huawei owns an established data center server hardware business that competes with HP, Dell and Lenovo Group, and which ranks fifth globally, with some 6% of global market share by shipment in 2018. However, its cloud computing service, which runs on servers, is still relatively small.
In China, Huawei’s cloud computing market share was around 5.2% for the first quarter of 2019, according to IDC data, while Alibaba Group Holding, Tencent Holdings, China Telecom, and Amazon Web Service accounted for 43%, 12.3%, 7.3%, and 7.2%, respectively.
At a global level, Amazon, Microsoft and Google control more than 56% of the cloud market, according to 2018 figures from research agency Canalys. Alibaba, China’s top cloud service provider, had a 4.2% market share.
In addition, Huawei’s data center servers and cloud computing service business are both in China, which analysts said would limit their overseas appeal despite the company’s global ambitions.
“We don’t think Huawei [will be able to] expand its server and cloud computing services overseas so easily as those are areas that some government agencies view with … security concern,” said Remus Hsu, a tech analyst at Taipei-based market intelligence & consulting institute. “But Huawei will [be able to] grow its market share in the domestic Chinese market.”
Huawei’s server business has already suffered from Washington’s ban. In the first half of this year, revenue from its server-related business revenue fell 24% compared to a year ago. Its data center servers also rely on central processing units by U.S. companies Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.
But Huawei is pressing ahead with plans to develop its own Kunpeng server processor chips and pair them with its Ascend AI chipset lineups to reduce reliance on overseas chipmakers. In January, it announced that its first Kunpeng 920 server chip would eventually replace Intel chips.
“We are very aggressively expanding our Kunpeng ecosystem and we’ve seen deployment in many cities across China in Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing,” Hu said. “One of our key focus in our spending for the developers’ program is to boost our own Kunpeng data center server ecosystem.” But Hu did not specify by what time it will fully replace its own data center with its own server chips.