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June 25, 2018

Alibaba Cloud: Chinese Whale, European Minnow – but for How Long?

Alibaba Cloud is a relatively minor player in the European market, but with skills honed on colossal amounts of Chinese data and transactions, for how long?

By CBR Staff Writer

Alibaba Cloud is still massively outflanked by market leaders Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud in Europe, not even showing up in the EMEA region’s top five public cloud providers, according to analysis of Q1 figures by Synergy.

If Yeming Wang has his way, not for long.

As General Manager, Alibaba Cloud, EMEA, he is tasked with growing the company’s footprint across the region. Globally, he is starting from a sizeable base: Alibaba Cloud generated revenues of £1.6 billion in the last fiscal year; up 101 percent.

Alibaba Cloud

Alibaba Cloud’s EMEA General Manager, Yeming Wang

With market share of some 48 percent in China and an increasing foothold in the Middle East, the company is keen to bring a services offering honed on vast amounts of Chinese data to EMEA – opening a UK office in April 2016 and in November 2016 cutting the ribbon on its first European data centre, in Frankfurt.

At an interview in the company’s new offices just off Covent Garden, the Huawei veteran, who has a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics, told Computer Business Review that the market could expert rapid growth in Europe – and was keen to emphasise that the company is a “global leader” and not playing catch-up on any skillset.

Shopping, Anyone?

Last year the company facilitated a record-breaking  325,000 orders per second during China’s Single’s Day on November 11, handling unpredictable peak traffic spikes, without incident. This experience in retail is one of its USPs, Wang said.

“We are working across cloud native and digital transformation with a lot of verticals, including finance, manufacturing, media and retail. For each we have our flagship projects. We will have some names; probably later this week… In a very short time you will hear something about manufacturers and retailers in Europe.”

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He adds: “Technology-wise, we believe today Alibaba is already one of the leaders. Alibaba itself is the biggest application of Alibaba Cloud. We handle mission-critical transactions and analytics on a huge scale. These are real world applications across commerce and logistics; the big data capabilities and securities have to be there.”

(By way of context, Alibaba handles more transactions than Amazon and eBay combined).

Sorting, Sorted…

The company’s platform started off as an internal IT system in 2009, transforming into a “100 percent completely self-built OS that supports internal transactions for Alibaba Group.” Lessons learned across the conglomerate’s sprawling suite of offerings have paid off. Recognition includes becoming world champion in the CloudSort category of the 2016 Sort Benchmark competition.

(The company was part of a joint effort with Nanjing University and Databricks, which together architected the most efficient way to sort 100 TB of data, using only $144.22 USD worth of cloud resources. The joint “NADSort” team ran on 394 ecs.n1.large nodes on the AliCloud, each equipped with an Intel Haswell E5-2680 v3 processor, 8 GB of memory, and 4×135 GB SSD Cloud Disk. The previous record of nearly five dollars per terabyte, to sort 100 terabytes of data, was reduced by the team to $1.44 per terabyte).

It’s a capability being put to good use in-house: Alibaba is not just China’s (and the world’s) biggest e-commerce site, but a search engine, mobile payments offering and much, much more. As Wang tells Computer Business Review: “From Alibaba’s point of view, we have a very strong data platform. In the past, all the company’s hundreds of services and companies were siloed. Five years ago the company broke down those siloes and put a data platform on top of the existing architecture; this manages all the data flow, provides analytics, etc; again, on huge volumes.”

How Else Do Persuade European Customers? Big Footprint; Big Brain

What else is Wang telling European clients still enamoured of the Big Three?

“A lot of clients want to have a global service. Alibaba Cloud today is also the only provider who can manage one account to manage the whole global infrastructure. Neither AWS nor Azure can run seamlessly both outside of China and in China. This our advantage – helping global clients go to China; go to Asia. This is the first USP.”

We also have all the big data solutions – we call it ‘mass compute’. Based on this big data platform, we manage data connections, how to filter the data, how to analyse, how to output the data to the scientists and so on. So the whole process and platform is there…”

What of vendor lock-in fears? “Orchestration technologies like Docker have made it much easier to move and manage data. I don’t think it’s an issue.”

The company has set up a whole series of “brains” based on the data it crunches across its services. Its “ET Brain”, for example, is a proprietary AI programme powered by Alibaba Cloud’s large-scale computing engine Apsara, integrating machine learning, heterogeneous data analysis, and visual/speech recognition capabilities that can be inter-coordinated on-demand. Then there is Alibaba Cloud’s ET City Brain, ET Industrial Brain, ET Medical Brain, ET Environment Brain and ET Aviation Brain, all of which tweak these services by industry vertical.

City Brain, for example, is being used in Kuala Lumpur and a host of Chinese cities, where it is given control of traffic lights, monitors for crashes and optimises signal times, reducing traffic jams by 15 percent, the company says.

Giving Alibaba Cloud control of London’s traffic lights may be some way off, but meanwhile – given the focus on financial services – is there a UK data centre in the works?

Wang laughs: “We will let you know when the time is ready…”


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