Alibaba taps middleware, big data as cloud differentiators

Chinese e-commerce giant wants to stand out from its cloud competitors with "internet-ready middleware" offerings developed from its own experience handling massive online transactions.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Alibaba Group's cloud unit is looking to stand out from its cloud competitors with big data and middleware offerings, which it says fill the current gap for elasticity.

The Chinese e-commerce giant set up its cloud business in September 2009, but opened its first facility outside its domestic market only in March 2015, pledging to invest US$1 billion and edge out US rival, Amazon, in four years.

Today, it operates data centres in 14 locations--with eight outside of China, including Singapore, Japan, Australia, Germany, and Dubai. It has 2.3 million customers globally, which include 651,000 paying customers.

For the quarter ended September 30, 2016, Alibaba Cloud reported a 130 percent year-on-year increase in revenue to 1.49 billion yuan (US$224 million).

No timeframe was given on when the US$1 billion investment would be spent, but an announcement definitely would be made if the company should decide to increase this amount, said Ethan Yu, Alibaba Cloud's global general manager and vice president of Alibaba Group. He said it still was exploring possible locations, if necessary, to expand its data centre network.

In fact, this year, it would be looking to build out its network, channel partner ecosystem, and increase brand awareness, Yu said in an interview with ZDNet. These also might include plans to build more availability zones in countries which it already had operations, so customers in these markets could have secondary sites to support their disaster recovery plans, he added.

With presence in several markets and data centres already established in the Asian region, he said plans for new locations were likely to be in Europe.

Asked if it was closer to its goal of surpassing Amazon, he declined to provide a projection on when this would happen, but said the Chinese vendor was "very ambitious" about its growth, which had been clocking triple-digit rates.

He also was unable to provide a breakdown of its cloud customer base by geographies, noting only that cloud consumption of its international clientele was growing faster than that of its mainland China customers.

Yu did reveal that, in addition to big data and security, Alibaba would be pushing its middleware offerings--called Aliware--as a key differentiator in the cloud space this year.

Pointing to China's recent Singles Day online shopping festival, he said its cloud platform supported a record 175,000 transactions per second, at peak. He noted that this would not have been possible without its middleware, which were designed to provide the flexibility and enable its platform to scale out.

These capabilities, he said, were lacking in traditional middleware that were built to scale up, rather than out, and to run on-premise.

"For internet companies such as Alibaba itself, especially in the e-commerce space, we need more elasticity to handle [sporadic spikes in] traffic," Yu said. "Transactions sometimes come in short [bursts], not long, so very often you want a scaling-out mechanism and you want to do that in a much cheaper way, using commodity boxes. This is missing in the IT world today."

The vendor's aim here was to develop "internet-ready middleware" that would offer the elasticity and ability to scale out, he said.

Big data support for Singapore's contactless card operator, university research

As part of its initiatives to drive developments in big data, Alibaba Cloud on Monday said it would provide US$500,000 in credits for students and researchers at the University of Singapore (NUS), to use its cloud platform and data centres for research and academic purposes. In addition, the vendor would offer hands-on lessons to guide them on how to use its cloud platform.

It also signed an agreement with NUS to drive the university's data science curriculum as well as EZ-Link, which operated Singapore's contactless e-payment cards, to trial a data analytics project.

The three organisations would collaborate on tapping data to roll out "ready-to-implement" applications that Singaporeans and local businesses could adopt. Specifically, they had begun analysing usage patterns across the various EZ-Link card programmes, service touch-points, and customer groups. The objective here would be use real-time data insights to enhance customer experience and roll out better services.

Behaviour patterns on how EZ-Link cards were commonly topped up, for instance, could lead to better ways to carry out this function and reduce the need to use cash to top up the card's stored value.

Yu added that the initiative could offer deeper insights to help merchants, enabling them to better leverage customer data to promote their goods and services to customers located in the vicinity of their store location.

EZ-Link CEO Nicholas Lee said the partnership aimed to use data analytics to explore next-generation technologies for a cashless society and facilitate an era where customers were served based on their behaviour, interests, and requirements.

Alibaba Cloud and NUS also would identify opportunities for joint research projects and data sharing as well as collaborate in the areas of cloud computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, quantum computing, and interactive digital media.

Yu said students and researchers would have up to two years to consume the cloud credits, which amount would be reviewed if a top-up was required, and use in any way they deemed necessary to support their projects.

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