ChinAI #120: Singles Day and the Making of Alibaba Cloud

Plus, how Dingtalk opened up Alibaba Cloud's imagination

Greetings from a world where…

frubbles flourish

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Feature Translation: Alibaba Cloud’s Difficult “Peak”

Context: This past week was Singles Day (11/11), the world’s largest online shopping day, when unmarried people treat themselves to presents and gifts. Though the idea of Singles Day was conceived by some Chinese university students in the 1990s, Alibaba transformed it into a massive one-day shopping event. The lineage of Alibaba Cloud, China’s top cloud computing service and now Alibaba’s 2nd largest source of revenue, can be traced to preparations for the massive traffic to Alibaba’s e-commerce units (Taobao/Tmall) generated on this day. The feature translation, from Leiphone, uses Singles Day as a window to look at where Alibaba Cloud came from and where it’s going.

Key Takeaways:

  • Some stats to give a sense of the scale we’re dealing with here: In 2019, Singles Day peak traffic = 544,000 transactions/second, with 100% of Ali’s core systems on the cloud; In 2020, peak traffic = 583,000 transactions/second, and Ali has gone completely cloud native. Singles Day gives Alibaba Cloud the world’s record traffic peak each year.

  • Singles Day used to be Ali’s Mount Everest: The network traffic they would get each year would “force” technological breakthroughs (similar to how big challenges like NASA’s X-Prize incentivize innovations).

  • Article also gives a window into Alibaba’s top 10 cutting-edge technologies for this year’s Singles Day, which includes: Xiaomanlv (logistics robot for last-mile deliveries), real-time live translation, virtual anchors (for livestreams), Ali voice robot, industrial vision, operation and maintenance robots, full cloud native, cognitive intelligence engine, liquid cooling for data centers — note all the AI connections in this list.

  • Middleware (2015) and Cloud Native (2019) are two strategic evolutions in Alibaba’s history: From the “De-IOE” (IBM,Oracle, and EMC) initiative in 2010, to the Feitian “moon landing project” in 2013 (first attempt at a cloud operating system), to the establishment of the DAMO academy in 2017, Alibaba likes to continually re-brand and revolutionize. I’ve covered these two topics in ChinAI #114.

The article delves into the integration of Alibaba Cloud and DingTalk:

  • Developed in 2014, DingTalk is Alibaba’s Slack-like enterprise chat platform. The star product of Alibaba’s business-facing services, DingTalk boasts more than 300 million users, 15 million organizational clients, and more than 200,000 developers. Annual transaction volume of software developers on DingTalk increased by more than 800%.

  • Why is the integration of Cloud and DingTalk so important? Let’s look at the global “3A competition” (Alibaba, AWS, Azure) in cloud computing. Microsoft Azure and its Office-related products are deeply integrated. The same is true with Amazon (AWS) and Slack. Now, think about Alibaba’s position: 13 of Alibaba Cloud’s 15 million organizational users are small and medium enterprisesSMEs (Recall, last week’s issue on the difficulties with digital intelligentization in China’s SMEs). Enter DingTalk, which has “opened up a broad path for Alibaba Cloud to enter traditional industries.” Alibaba Cloud’s Mt. Everest is no longer handling all the traffic on Singles Day — it’s about building the digital infrastructure for all these businesses across all types of industries.

  • A confession: I honestly had never heard of DingTalk before this issue, even though it’s named after me (joking). More like Ding talks too much, am I rite? But I think it’s a nice example of how much there is to learn for even people who are known as “experts” on China’s tech scene. When I think about which articles and voices to amplify in the Four to Forward section, the number one thing I’m looking for is people who know how much they don’t know.

FULL TRANSLATION: Alibaba Cloud’s Difficult "Peak"

ChinAI (Four to Forward)

Must-read: The automatic culture of the world's favorite new social network

Kyle Chayka writes a "ekphrasis" of TikTok, an attempt to translate a piece of visual art (or the use of visual media in this case) into words. I was hooked after this paragraph: “Some of my favorite writing might fall into this vein. Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ narrates the Japanese encounter with Western technology like electric lights and porcelain toilets. Walter Benjamin’s 1936 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ shows how the rise of photography changed how people looked at visual art. By describing such experiences as exactly as possible, these essays become valuable artifacts in their own right, documenting historic shifts in human perception that happened as a result of tools we invented.

Should-read: China’s President Xi Jinping Personally Scuttled Jack Ma’s Ant IPO

A meticulously reported WSJ story by Jing Yang and Lingling Wei, packed with important context, on the behind-the-scenes developments surrounding the halt of Ant Financial’s IPO. One thing that stuck out for me is that even though the headline emphasizes Xi Jinping’s personal role, the actual reported facts show that Jack Ma’s October speech (which criticized Beijing’s efforts to control financial risks) made senior officials angry and triggered backlash from officials who had long called for tighter financial regulation. It’s not like Xi Jinping woke up one day and decided he wanted to crush some ants.

Should-read: Why Chinese tech giants struggle to make good B2B software

Lillian Li translates a fascinating mega Twitter thread from a product manager at Bytedance called Passluo, which breaks down the B2B software landscape in China, with a focus on why Chinese tech giants have had difficulty making the transition from consumer-oriented innovations to business-to-business verticals. Fitting in nicely with this week’s feature translation, Lillian translates:

Alicloud is the exception to the rule. But first of all, Alibaba has B2B genes from its early Alibaba marketplace days; second is that Jack Ma backed Wang Jian against a crowd of senior dissenters. It's a big strategic bet, and the cloud space is evolving quickly enough, but even with all this, Alicloud was still only 10% of Alibaba's e-commerce revenue in 2019. DingTalk is still in loss-making mode.

Lillian writes the “Chinese Characteristics” newsletter, which features longform analysis about tech in China from the perspective of a “sea turtle” (returnee) VC, sent out every Wednesday.

Should-read: Contact Tracing Gone Way Too Far in China — some cases of extreme privacy leaks (in Mandarin)

From the 雷斯林 WeChat account, some nasty personal info leaks of people who tested positive for Covid in Shanghai — included mobile phone number, home address, BMI index, parents’ address, info on their friends, girlfriend, and girlfriend’s friends. Author saw these leaks shared in at least 3 WeChat groups of more than 300 people. Based on a Zhihu thread with some additional context on 雷斯林, I chose not to do this as the feature translation this week, as it seems to be a bit of a click-baity account, but definitely something to watch for people interested in contact tracing and privacy in China.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

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Any suggestions or feedback? Let me know at or on Twitter at @jjding99

11.18.20 NOTE: This post was edited to adjust a translation error regarding the scale of transactions Alibaba Cloud could handle.