How Alibaba leveraged AI during 11.11 Shopping Festival in 2020
Published 12 January 2021
Hangzhou is known as “Paradise on Earth”, Home of Silk”, “Tea Capital”, “Town of Fish and Rice”, amongst others. Of late, Hangzhou has achieved global fame as the headquarters of Alibaba Group, a tech giant, which is competing with the likes of Microsoft, Amazon and Google. With sobriquets the city has earned over 5000 years or more, it is now is ushering in a new tech-fuelled revolution, with Alibaba’s help.
The technology grandiose can be seen from Alibaba’s annual 11-day festival from November 1 to 11 last year, when the tech major has its annual global shopping festival. Despite China’s standoff with the US in the background, which has had some ripple effect on Chinese companies, Alibaba rolled out some cutting-edge technologies in its annual shopping festival.
Alibaba’s real-time computing platform, powered by Apache Flink, processed data streams totaling 4 billion items per second during peak time, a 60 per cent surge when compared to 2.5 billion last year. Additionally, MaxCompute, Alibaba’s proprietary data warehousing platform, handled up to 1.7 exabytes of data a day during the festival, which is the equivalent of processing 230 high-res photos of each of the 7 billion people in the world. Keeping in mind the kind of scalability and high performance required, no downtime was reported throughout this year’s extended festival period, Alibaba said.
“We were very proud to support 800 million consumers and 250,000 brands during the world’s largest shopping festival,” said Li Cheng, Chief Technology Officer of Alibaba Group. “From the robust digital infrastructure supporting zero downtime operation, to cloud-native offerings for developers’ efficiencies and consumer-facing applications for creating some of smoothest engagement experiences, Alibaba’s technologies have once again passed the toughest tests with flying colors.”
In the year of a pandemic, revenue numbers continued to be strong. This year’s sales generated $74.1 billion in Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) during the shopping festival. This, Alibaba continued to reiterate, was due to its Cloud infrastructure upgrades. For example, after midnight on November 11, just 26 seconds after shopping began, peak orders hit 583,000 per second – 1,400 times peak volume at the festival’s debut 12 years ago on November 11, 2009.
The tech giant also leveraged cloud-native databases, including PolarDB, AnalyticDB and Lindorm, Alibaba Cloud enabled 11.11 to run smoothly even during peak periods. PolarDB set a new record with 140 million queries per second during peak time at 11.11, a 60% increase from last year, it said. AnalyticDB, Alibaba Cloud’s self-developed cloud native data warehouse, processed up to 7.7 trillion lines of real-time data, equaling 15 times the data contained in the UK Web Archive at the British Library. In addition, PolarDB-X and AnalyticDB helped China Post to deal with more than 100 million orders during 11.11, with about 100,000 China Post users checking their parcels’ real-time status online.
Also, this year, ‘Livestreaming’ took center stage, which saw thousands of livestreams broadcast on Taobao Live. Leveraging Alibaba Cloud’s narrow-bandwidth and high-definition video solutions, such as its Real-time Streaming (RTS) technology to reduce latency to less than one second (approximately 75% lower than the industry average), the smooth livestreaming experience with dynamic interactions is also proven to be effective in boosting sales, said Alibaba.
By leveraging Alibaba DAMO Academy’s (DAMO) latest multi-module technology – including Natural Language Processing (NLP), image recognition, Text-to-Speech (TTS) and cloud rendering – Taobao Live launched its virtual anchor service for merchants. Virtual anchors can explain product details, respond to some inquiries and even play games with the audience during livestreaming sessions, while the human anchors are on break resting (usually from midnight to early morning).
AliExpress, Alibaba’s global retail marketplace, unveiled the world’s first real-time livestreaming translation feature on an e-commerce platform powered by DAMO’s speech model, supporting simultaneous translation from Chinese to English, Russian, Spanish and French. During the shopping festival, over 70% of the AliExpress merchants leveraged this translation capability, which can also reduce inaudibility in noisy livestreaming environments and even understand accented speech. Eight million global viewers watched over 9,000 livestreams on AliExpress during the festival.
Virtual tours with 3D visuals were available on Taobao to sell big-ticket items like houses and furniture. Underpinned by machine learning technologies like Graph Neural Networks (GNN), Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN), 3D shape analysis and knowledge graphs, Alibaba offered a 3D modeling design platform for brands, reducing the time for model creation from three hours to 10 seconds. Merchants leveraged the technology to create over 100,000 showrooms with virtual 3D products that was experienced by 60 million consumers during the festival.
Alibaba Cloud also supported one of the world’s largest container clusters, enabling the upscaling to one million containers in an hour. The optimal elasticity and scheduling capacity enabled by the cutting-edge cloud-native technologies led to an 80% reduction of computing resources for every 10,000 transactions conducted compared to four years ago.
Digital infrastructure with hyper-scale data centers made 11.11 greener
Alibaba used state-of-the-art green technologies – including liquid cooling and wind energy – at its five hyper-scale data centers to ensure the most environmentally-friendly operation during 11.11. For instance, the hyperscale data center in Hangzhou has one of the world’s largest server clusters submerged in a specialised liquid coolant, which quickly chills the IT hardware. This reduces energy consumption by over 70%, while its Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) approaches the ideal target of 1.0. Compared to traditional data centers, the Hangzhou hyperscale data center can save up to 70 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, which is sufficient to power over 16,000 households in the United Kingdom in a year].
Core systems on cloud-native technologies
In 2019’s annual festival, Alibaba Group migrated 100% of its core systems onto Alibaba Cloud, the world’s third largest cloud service provider. The global technology leader continued to push and challenge the technological limits with its cloud-native innovation, which has yielded double the efficiency of scalable application delivery.Compare these numbers to what retailers in the US and Europe did and one can gauge the wide chasm when it comes to tech.
Perhaps, retailers in the west could look towards the East going forward.