Long-time readers of Interconnected know I write a lot about the cloud computing industry. I like to dig deep into the cloud, not just because of my own existing expertise and experience in the industry, but also of its fascinating territorial and geopolitical implications. Even though the cloud powers everything digital, its elements are very physical.
The cloud is effectively the Internet. Where the cloud goes is where the Internet goes (or perhaps vice-versa). To illustrate this phenomenon, I’ve written many posts about the cloud regions and data center locations of all the major public cloud providers, i.e. Alibaba Cloud, AWS, Azure, GCP, IBM Cloud, Oracle Cloud, Tencent Cloud, and two tech companies that do not have a public cloud business (but probably should), i.e. Facebook and Dropbox.
With Hong Kong’s new national security law now in effect, the cloud is shifting underneath our feet -- further away from China and closer to Southeast Asia. The shift is both symbolized and realized by Google and Facebook’s consideration to reconfigure the end point of the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) from Hong Kong to Singapore, as reported by the Financial Times.
TL;DR on PLCN
For context, here’s the topline summary of the PLCN in plain terms:
- It’s jointly developed by Google, Facebook, and a company called Pacific Light Data Communication;
- The network is an advanced set of fiber optic cables, thus very fast;
- The cable’s original plan goes from Hong Kong, through Taiwan and the Phillipines to the U.S. It would be the first submarine cable directly connecting Hong Kong and Los Angeles;
- There are six fiber cables in total (imagine a six-lane highway); one is owned and operated by Google, one is owned and operated by Facebook, the other four are owned and operated by Pacific Light Data Communication, presumably to be shared by other cloud or data center vendors who want to access this network capacity;
- Part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s concern with the PLCN has to do with the ownership of Pacific Light Data Communication, which is a subsidiary of the Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group Co. Ltd, the fourth largest provider of telecommunications services in China;
- In April 2020, the Federal Communications Commission granted Google a temporary, six-month authorization to commercially operate the part of the PLCN connecting Taiwan and the U.S.; this is the only authorization granted to any PLCN operator so far to my knowledge.
Hong Kong -> Singapore
This potential shift of the PLCN from Hong Kong to Singapore actually represents a continuity of, not a departure from, how cloud data centers are currently architected in the APAC region. Of the major public cloud vendors that I’ve written about, these are the ones that already have their own data centers in both Hong Kong and Singapore:
- Alibaba Cloud
- IBM Cloud
- Tencent Cloud
Oracle Cloud, the notable exception, has plans to build data centers in Singapore though not in Hong Kong. Furthermore, Facebook’s lone data center presence in APAC is also in Singapore, not Hong Kong. Thus, Singapore is no stranger to cloud data centers; it is already a prime location, digitally connecting Southeast Asia with the rest of the world.
Sometimes, the Singapore data center is used as the primary location to serve users in Asia with better performance. Other times, it is used as the secondary location to backup user data, which is what TikTok is apparently doing with its American users’ data.
This cross-region backup setup to support disaster recovery is not without technical merit. Whether you are a bank, where losing your users’ data means losing their business, or a social media, where your users’ data is your business, having an extra copy of all the data in a location far away from where your core users are is a good idea. While the key tradeoff is latency (or speed, in plain terms), due to the physical distance between the locations, high-speed fiber cable networks like the PLCN can alleviate that problem.
The key issue that regulators are trying to address is preventing data spying by governments they deem unfriendly. But interestingly, all the public cloud vendors I listed above have cables connecting their Hong Kong and Singapore data centers. And that makes sense from a business perspective, because if you are going to pour billions of dollars building data centers around the world, you want them all interconnected to maximize their usage. So you can’t regulate away the interconnectivity; you can only regulate who and how this interconnectivity will be operated.
A Fast-Growing Southeast Asia
Shifting the PLCN’s Asia endpoint from Hong Kong to Singapore will no doubt benefit Southeast Asia’s Internet economy, which is already growing fast. The leading companies are all big customers of the major cloud providers too; “cloud-native”, if you will. The four that I’ll highlight in this vein are Gojek, Grab, Shopee, and Tokopedia.
Gojek: One of the two Super Apps in Southeast Asia that has over 20 services, from ride-hailing and food delivery, to payment and ticket purchasing. It started in Indonesia in 2009, but didn’t launch its native mobile app until 2015, which also coincided with the start of its use of GCP. To satisfy the hypergrowth of Gojek, GCP’s anchor customer in Southeast Asia, it’s no surprise that Google is prioritizing its data center expansion plan in Indonesia. It launched a new Jarkata region in June. The Gojek team has an active engineering blog and stays on the bleed edge of new cloud technologies, like Kubernetes and various cloud-native databases.
Grab: The other Super App of Southeast Asia that also started as a ride-hailing service, much like Gojek, and now does everything from food delivery, to payment, to consumer financial services. Its cloud usage began on AWS, but in 2018 switched its preferred cloud vendor to Azure after taking a strategic investment from Microsoft. To be clear, this move does not necessarily mean Grab is all-in on Azure; what's more likely is that Grab now has a multi-cloud setup with both AWS and Azure. “Preferred” doesn’t mean “exclusive”.
Shopee: A large e-commerce platform that started in Singapore in 2015. It has since expanded to five other Southeast Asian countries and also has a beachhead in Brazil. Shopee’s parent company, SEA Group, IPO’ed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2017. Tencent made a major $1.4 billion USD strategic investment in SEA Group in March 2019. Shopee uses Tencent Cloud as its cloud infrastructure provider, though its adoption happened before Tencent’s strategic investment in SEA Group.
Tokopedia: Another large e-commerce platform. It was born in Indonesia and its service is only available in Indonesia for now. Interestingly, its infrastructure is already on two different cloud platforms -- first on Alibaba Cloud, then on GCP. Alibaba is the first major public cloud vendor to have active data centers in Jakarta, until Google’s came online in June as noted above. AWS has also announced its plan to build a Jakarta region, which may come online next year. (Alibaba is also an early investor of Tokopedia, so its early adoption of Alibaba Cloud isn’t surprising.)
Decoupling or Entanglement?
The simplistic reaction to the PLCN reconfiguration issue would be just another sign of more decoupling between China and the rest of the world. But as I’ve laid out in the post, there is more entanglement than meets the eye between the major cloud vendors, the tech companies who use them, and the cables themselves that connect all the data centers together.
Assuming the PLCN is reconfigured, which appears likely given the reality that trust between the U.S. and China continues to find a new rock bottom almost everyday, the various business and technology entanglements between American, Chinese, and Southeast Asian companies and investors will not simply decouple and disappear. Singapore, specifically, and Southeast Asia, generally, may end up being winners from the PLCN issue. But that won’t stop Alibaba and Tencent from expanding their cloud platforms into the region as they’ve planned. Same goes for AWS, GCP, and Oracle.
This jockeying for business opportunities between American and Chinese tech giants may make Southeast Asia look like a proxy battleground for influence between the U.S. and China. However, with a population of roughly 750 million people, Southeast Asia is dynamic, young, and can grow into an economic and technological force of its own without needing to pick sides.
The bigger concern that the PLCN issue illuminates is the extreme lack of trust between governments when it comes to data access, governance, and sovereignty. The Justice Department can probably block this one particular fiber cable network from being constructed in Hong Kong. But many cables already exist that connect Hong Kong to other data centers in the region that connect to the U.S., just not directly but in a roundabout way. How far can these restrictions really go? Are they real technical solutions or more political posturing?
There’s no common international framework to evaluate which company or operator is trustworthy and why. This evaluation is currently left to domestic regulators of national governments, who have less knowledge, less perspective, and are subjected to domestic political pressure. That’s a much bigger problem than what reconfiguring a few fiber optic cables can solve.
Chinese Version Below
随着最近新的国家安全法在香港开始实施，云的布局正在我们脚下移动——更远离中国，更靠近东南亚。这一转变既是由英国《金融时报》所报道的，谷歌和Facebook把太平洋光缆网络（Pacific Light Cable Network，PLCN）的亚太终点从香港移到新加坡的这一考虑。
- 它是由谷歌、Facebook和一家名为Pacific Light Data Communication的公司联合开发的；
- 总共有六条光缆（好比是一条六车道的高速公路）；一条由谷歌拥有并运营，一条由Facebook拥有和运营，另外四条由Pacific Light Data Communication拥有和运营，应该是共享于其他需要该网络带宽的云厂商或数据中心；
- 美国司法部对PLCN担忧的终点是Pacific Light Data Communication的所有权。该公司是中国第四大电信服务提供商鹏博士电信媒体集团有限公司的子公司；