From Alimama to Apsara, Alibaba Operates a Powerful Proprietary Cloud

Chinese tech giant’s pre-IPO filing describes distributed infrastructure for services ranging from raw cloud compute to powerful Big Data analytics engine.

Yevgeniy Sverdlik

June 17, 2014

3 Min Read
From Alimama to Apsara, Alibaba Operates a Powerful Proprietary Cloud
Alibaba headquarters in Hangshou, China. (Image: Alibaba)

Chinese e-commerce and cloud services giant Alibaba has developed an advanced proprietary technology stack to support its empire. The distributed system, living in data centers in China and Hong Kong, supports a multitude of cloud-based services, including rentable infrastructure resources and sophisticated Big Data analytics for marketers.

As it prepares for its blockbuster IPO on U.S. market, through which the company is expected to raise up to $20 billion, Alibaba has been filing papers with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission which reveal a few interesting details about its infrastructure stack.

Apsara: Alibaba’s cloud platform

The company’s cloud provides a distributed computing infrastructure to support its e-commerce ecosystem, serving its own platform, its affiliates and Alipay, the provider of online payment solution for Internet businesses Alibaba spun off in 2011. The services include cloud servers (called Elastic Computing Servers), storage, relational database and content delivery network, all on a pay-as-you-go basis, much like offerings you can find in service portfolios of its U.S. counterparts, such as Amazon Web Services or Google cloud.

The company says its primary cloud user base consists of mobile app developers, Internet gaming and online platforms, e-commerce and Internet finance firms and system integrators.

The cloud platform is called Apsara. It is built using the Alibaba’s own proprietary technology that enables massive scalability. “A single Apsara cluster can be scaled up to 5,000 servers with 100 petabyte storage capacity and 100,000 CPU cores,” the company wrote in the SEC documents.

Alibaba provides cloud infrastructure services through a subsidiary called Aliyun, which has been expanding data center capacity this year. As we reported in May, the company has recently launched a data center in Beijing and another one in Hong Kong.

Alimama: Big on Big Data

The technology stack includes sophisticated data-science capabilities, including deep learning, high-volume batch processing and multi-variable and multi-dimensional real-time analytics. These capabilities are used by Alibaba’s search and online marketing products, and by its small-and-medium-business loan operation for credit profiling and risk management.

Called Alimama, the deep-learning system uses proprietary algorithms to judge advertising quality provided by publishers and predict click-through and conversion rates for marketers. It runs on an Apsara cluster of servers that can analyze terabytes of data points and model tens of billions of ad impressions.

Alibaba’s distributed relational database management system, called OceanBase, can be scaled to hundreds of nodes. Also built on proprietary technology, it supports transaction processing on the company’s marketplaces.

Forced to censor own customers

While revelations of the past 12 months of the U.S. National Security Agency’s alleged backdoor electronic surveillance has U.S. service providers worried about adverse effects on their businesses, Chinese service providers have a whole different set of problems, required by the government to police its own customers by censoring their content.

In the documents, Alibaba revealed that Chinese law requires it to monitor all websites hosted on its servers for content the government may find inappropriate.

Alibaba is required to monitor “for items or content deemed to be socially destabilizing, obscene, superstitious or defamatory, as well as items, content or services that are illegal to sell online or otherwise in other jurisdictions in which we operate our marketplaces, and promptly take appropriate action with respect to such items, content or services.”

Needless to say, the vague definition of illegal content puts the company at constant risk of liability. “It may be difficult to determine the type of content that may result in liability to us, and if we are found to be liable, we may be subject to fines, have our relevant business operation licenses revoked, or be prevented from operating our websites or mobile interfaces in China,” the documents read.

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