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The technology behind Alibaba’s Global Shopping Festival

The Festival requires unprecedented robust and intelligent IT infrastructure to ensure everything from browsing, order, payment and logistics running securely and smoothly

The Alibaba Group conducts an annual shopping festival online on November 11. The festival was formerly called ‘singles day’ and is now renamed to 11.11 (Nov 11). This year, Alibaba generated a record RMB213.5 billion (US$30.8 billion) of gross merchandise volume (GMV) from the 11.11 festival — an increase of 27% compared to 2017. Alibaba Group successfully leveraged its innovative technologies in cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) during the 2018 11.11 Global Shopping Festival (“Festival”). The Festival is also a super project that requires unprecedented robust and intelligent IT infrastructure to ensure everything from browsing, order, payment and logistics running securely and smoothly.

Technology plays a critical role in the success of the world’s largest online sales event. From improved shopping experiences for buyers and cost-effective marketing for merchants to processing a high volume of transactions and handling cross-border shipments, Alibaba’s technology is the magic behind the scenes.

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Alibaba Cloud’s datacenter in Zhangbei, one of the largest green datacenters in China, was officially operating to support the Festival for the first time. Through green technologies including wind-cooling, liquid immersion cooling and co-location, the datacenter can save energy consumption as much as 70% compared to traditional ones
Alibaba Cloud’s datacenter in Zhangbei, one of the largest green datacenters in China, was officially operating to support the Festival for the first time. Through green technologies including wind-cooling, liquid immersion cooling and co-location, the datacenter can save energy consumption as much as 70% compared to traditional ones. IMAGE CREDIT: Alibaba Group

Below are the statistics that showcases the scale and strength of Alibaba’s technology infrastructure supporting the Festival:

  • Over 200 global IDC (Internet Data Centers) provided the IT infrastructure support for the Festival;
  • Intelligent customer service robots handled 98% of customer inquiries, including inquiries from customers in 9 different languages including Chinese, English, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Bahasa Indonesian. Over 800,000 merchants on Tmall deployed intelligent  customer service robots during the Festival;
  • Alibaba’s AI translation tool supports translation of texts in 21 languages to facilitate dialogue between buyers and sellers during the Festival. The tool was used in Lazada for the first time to provide instant translation from English to Thai, Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesian and vice-versa in the online chat room;
  • Alibaba Wood, an AI video-editing tool, helped merchants create over 1 million short videos (a 20-second product promotional video made within 1 minute) for the Festival;
  • Alipay’s blockchain technology enabled the traceability of 150 million imported products from over 100 countries on Tmall’s platform, including diamonds, infant formula, beauty and healthcare products, liquor, rice and honey.
  • With 700 automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, Cainiao’s new smart warehouse, the largest robotic smart warehouse in China, has been in use for this year’s Festival. The operating efficiency of this entire warehouse is 50% higher than traditional ones.
  • Alibaba Cloud’s datacenter in Zhangbei, one of the largest green datacenters in China, was officially operating to support the Festival for the first time. Through green technologies including wind-cooling, liquid immersion cooling and co-location, the datacenter can save energy consumption as much as 70% compared to traditional ones;
  • Alibaba Cloud’s elastic computing capability has contained more than 10 million CPU cores during the Festival, which is equivalent to the capacity of 10 large datacenters, a new record set for pulse computing.
Immersion Cooling Technology
Immersion Cooling Technology. IMAGE CREDIT: Alibaba Group

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Alibaba Group Generated RMB213.5 Billion (US$30.8 Billion) of GMV During the 2018 11.11 Global Shopping Festival

 

The Festival requires unprecedented robust and intelligent IT infrastructure to ensure everything from browsing, order, payment and logistics running securely and smoothly

To make the world’s largest online sales event intelligent, sustainable and secure, Alibaba has been relentlessly devoted to technology breakthroughs over the past decade. Here’s a recap of the major milestones over the past 10 years:

  • 2009: Distributed computing architecture was redesigned to handle large volume of data processing needs;
  • 2010: Capacity planning platform was introduced for intelligent resources allocation;
  • 2011: Oceanbase, a self-developed distributed database, was introduced to process transaction data;
  • 2012:  Alibaba Cloud started to support Double 11 Festival;
  • 2013: Alibaba Cloud implemented multiple stress tests prior to Festival to improve on system performance;
  • 2014: Alibaba Cloud successfully tested disaster recovery system for the Festival to enhance network stability;
  • 2015: Visual image search “Pailitao” was introduced to enhance personal recommendation experience;
  • 2016: Direct outdoor air-cooling system was introduced to IDC to support the Festival;
  • 2017: Large-scale colocation technology were introduced to enhance system utilization;
  • 2018: Alibaba Cloud’s Aspara 2.0 was introduced to support even larger volume of transaction.

VIDEO SOURCE: Alibaba Group

 

Technology: Working at full power behind the scenes

Technology plays a critical role in the success of the world’s largest online sales event. From improved shopping experiences for buyers and cost-effective marketing for merchants to processing a high volume of transactions and handling cross-border shipments, Alibaba’s technology is the magic behind the scenes.

AI FOR BUYERS

Smart Touch: Smart Touch which was developed by Tsinghua University and Alibaba Joint Research Lab for Natural Interaction Experience is a mobile-based technology to assist people who are visually-impaired and it will be available for customers during this year’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival. Users will just need to download the app and attach a special sheet to their phones. The application can understand different mobile user interfaces through AI and intelligent human-machine-interaction (HMI) technology to provide the relevant audio and haptic interactions. For Alibaba’s retail platforms, Smart Touch through speech interaction can help visually-impaired consumers learn about each product and the haptic buttons on the special sheet will enable them to navigate the mobile interface much easier. In addition, there is an ear touch feature which allows shoppers to extract information from their screens by using ear movements, helping to protect their privacy when they use their phones in public spaces. This technology will redefine mobile phone interaction for visually impaired people and is expected to officially launch early next year.

Machine Translation: To ensure global shoppers get the most enjoyment out of the Alibaba Global Shopping Festival, Alibaba DAMO Academy, the global research initiative by Alibaba, has developed an AI translation tool to remove potential language barriers between sellers and buyers. The online chat room tool, recently launched on Lazada, provides instant translation from English to Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and vice-versa. The tool will also provide support for AliExpress, Alibaba’s global online retail platform that links buyers and sellers conversing in English, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Arabic and Turkish. The AI tool leverages the Self- Attention model of Neural Machine Translation (NMT), a network system to train large scale linguistic data and this is the first time it has been applied in such a scale in the e-commerce sector. Looking ahead, this AI translation tool will provide valuable support for instant language translation to help facilitate global trade in the near future.

AI FOR SELLERS

AI video editing: Alibaba Wood, an AI video-editing tool created for brands to produce short videos about their products, will be available to some merchants during the Alibaba Global Shopping Festival. The editing tool can determine key content from text, images and video to generate, in less than one minute, a 20 second promotional video. Alibaba Wood was co-developed by Alibaba Natural Human Computer Interaction Lab, Alibaba Cloud and Zhejiang University’s IDEA Lab. The editing tool combines information visualization, keyword extract, visual computing and data analysis. The visuals in the short videos are matched with the rhythm and flow of background music selected by an algorithm that is designed to arouse certain human emotions. The tool is expected to help small merchants to significantly reduce promotional costs in preparation for the world’s biggest online sale.

AI stocking: AI robots will assist with product assortment and recommendations, sales forecasting, pricing strategy, C2B manufacturing and inventory management during this year’s Global Shopping Festival.

  • Product selection according to diverse criteria: AI robots can select products to sell according to certain categories and functions. The technology uses algorithms to help companies optimize category structures and product combinations based on product features, sales targets and market variations.
  • Sales volume prediction engine: This technology, through machine learning, can predict a product’s future sales volume in the weeks or even months ahead by setting various parameters. This is designed to help reduce storage costs and increase inventory turnover.
  • Real-time price adjustment: Prices are automatically adjusted in real-time using reinforced and machine learning and will help balance cost and gross profit margins, as well as increasing the conversion rate. Sales profit is maximized by automatically lowering prices for slow-selling items.
  • Production set-up: This technology can predict sales volumes several weeks in advance by analyzing sales and industry big data. It also assists merchants by providing predictions for ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems to inform production, material and replenishment plans. Intelligent inventory management: The inventory distribution engine of Alibaba’s supply chain is able to provide an optimized inventory management strategy, based on its overall analysis of inventory turnover, hit-shelf rate, logistics costs and sales experience.

Alime Shop Assistant: Over 800,000 merchants across all product categories on Tmall will begin to deploy Alime Shop Assistant, an AI-powered customer service chatbot to handle customer inquiries 24/7 during Alibaba’s Global Shopping Festival this year. The chatbot can provide intelligent services including product recommendations based on buyers’ requests and previous shopping preferences, and update buyers on the status of their shipment and timely notifications on when their package will arrive.

The network operations centre powering Alibaba’s Computing Conference in Hangzhou, China, (September 2018). IMAGE CREDIT: Brian Pereira

INFRASTRUCTURE SUPPORT

DC Brain: An intelligent operating platform that aims to optimize the performance of Internet Data Centers (IDC) in areas including energy consumption, temperature, energy efficiency and reliability. Through machine learning, DC Brain can predict the electric consumption and Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of each IDC on a real-time basis, allocating computing task to each IDC accordingly to reduce energy consumption. Over 200 global IDCs will provide technology support for this year’s Alibaba Global Shopping Festival.

Hyper-scale green datacenter: Alibaba’s hyper-scale green datacenter located in Zhangbei, a city in northern China, will be officially operating to support this year’s Global Shopping Festival. Through technologies including wind-cooling, liquid immersion cooling and co-location, Zhangbei datacenter has become one of the largest green datacenters in China. Through wind cooling, it is expected that energy consumption can be reduced by as much as 59%. By applying liquid immersion cooling to server clusters, the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) was reduced to as low as the theoretical limit of 1.0.

LOGISTICS TECH

Global tracking system: During this year’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, Chinese consumers can use the Mobile Taobao app for shipment updates on the imported goods they have ordered on Tmall Global, Alibaba’s cross-border e-commerce platform.

Developed by Tmall Global, Alibaba Cloud and Cainiao, the global tracking system leverages IoT and blockchain technology to enable verification of products purchased by consumers through dual authentication and two-way encryption, while tracking the real-time location of items through LBS and GPS. The new system is the latest initiative by the Alibaba ecosystem to enhance consumer confidence and build a trusted environment for cross-border trade through end-to-end supply-chain transparency.

At the Computing Conference in Hangzhou, China (September 2018), we witnessed a demonstration of Cainiao’s new smart warehouse, the largest robotic smart warehouse. IMAGE CREDIT: Brian Pereira

Smart logistics: With 700 automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, Cainiao’s new smart warehouse, the largest robotic smart warehouse in China, will be geared up for the upcoming 11.11 Global Shopping Festival. The IoT technology used in the warehouse can automatically direct AGVs to drive, load and unload. The operating efficiency of this entire warehouse is 50% higher than traditional ones.

Cainiao also deploys “Sky Eye Program”, a cloud-based video-monitoring system that will be used by logistics partners for this year’s festival. Sky Eye taps cameras in logistics stations across the country, and by using a combination of computer vision technology and Cainiao’s algorithm, upgrades them into smart IoT devices to help companies that provide delivery services to identify idle resources and abnormalities in the logistics process. The system sends status updates to human operators in real-time and smooths out kinks in the system. According to our logistics partner Deppon, Sky Eye has improved its efficiency by 15% during its trial.

Brian was hosted by Alibaba for The Computing Conference 2018 in Hangzhou, China.

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Brian Pereira

Brian Pereira is an Indian journalist based in Mumbai. He has 25 years of technology journalism experience, and he's well known in the Indian IT industry. He is the former Editor of CHIP and InformationWeek magazines in India and has written technology articles for India's leading newspapers groups such as The Times of India and Indian Express Newspapers. Brian also writes on Aviation, startups and covers topics directed at small and medium businesses. He also has event experience and once put together the conference program for CeBIT and INTEROP events in India. Email: brian9p@gmail.com Twitter: @brian9p Linkedin: https://in.linkedin.com/in/pereirabrian

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