How Alibaba leveraged AI during 11.11 Shopping Festival in 2020

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.

Tech ahoy!

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.

Tencent aims for tech domination with US$70bn ‘new infrastructure’ investment

Tencent, China’s tech giant, revealed it will invest US$70 billion in ‘new infrastructure’ over the next five years in the race for tech domination.

The world’s largest online gaming company plans to spend on cloud computing, big data centers and cybersecurity to compete with the likes of Alibaba Cloud and Amazon.

Tencent joins China’s ‘new infrastructure’ strategy to boost economy

Tencent’s announcement on Tuesday follows China’s ‘new infrastructure’ initiative to leverage on the country’s boom in demand for cloud services and upgrade digital infrastructures to enable growth.

The Senior Executive Vice President of Tencent, Dowson Tong, was quoted by Guangming Daily as saying: “Expediting the ‘new infrastructure’ strategy will help further cement virus containment success.”

China’s economy shrank by 6.8% in the first three months of 2020, ending almost 50 years of consistent growth.

Reuters reported Tencent’s investment will look to expand into business services, as consumer internet growth slows and companies shift number-crunching from their own computers to the cloud.

The WeChat creator’s shares grew by 2.5% after the investment announcement. This growth comes after Tencent saw a slower revenue increase of 22% in their FinTech and Business Services, including Tencent Cloud, in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 39% in Q4 2019.

Mr. Ma Huateng, the Chairman and CEO of Tencent, said: “So far, our businesses have proved resilient and cashflow-generative, enabling us to increase our investment to fulfill our mission of ‘Tech for Good’.”

Tencent’s online gaming revenue grew by 31% year-on-year to US$5.2 billion, and this may increase even more with Tencent’s move into cloud gaming.

Tencent takes on Alibaba Cloud

Tencent had 18% of China’s cloud market in the fourth quarter of 2019, grew by 111% globally and ranked as the third largest Infrastructure-as-a-service provider in Asia Pacific last year.

Tencent also became the first company with more than one million servers in China, the country with the second largest cloud market.

Alibaba Cloud commanded 46.4% of the Chinese market, making it not only the largest in China, but also the rest of Asia Pacific.

In a webcast, Daniel Zhang, Chairman and CEO of Alibaba Group, identified that the Software-as-a-Service market and wider ecosystem is more mature in the United States compared to countries like China where a developer ecosystem ‘is just starting to get going’.

The data intelligence backbone of Alibaba Group achieved a revenue growth of 58% year-over-year to US$1.7 billion in the first quarter of 2020.

Alibaba Cloud recently announced a US$30 million SME cloud adoption program along with US$28 billion worth of data center investments covering 21 regions, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to support digital transformation in a post-pandemic world.

Mr Zhang predicted the pandemic will further accelerate digital transformation of enterprises with industries like public sectors choosing to move to the cloud, despite concluding the fiscal year with a quarter impacted by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tencent also expected to see accelerated cloud services and enterprise software adoption from offline industries and public sectors over the longer term.

Tencent’s US$70 billion investment will also focus on key sectors, including artificial intelligence, 5G networks, blockchain and Internet of Things operating systems.

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