This sponsored story was produced in association with Alibaba, not by MIT Technology Review editorial staff.
It’s no secret: Organizations of all sizes are struggling to build the nimble architectures and secure backbones required for today’s digital-business needs and rapid-fire online transactions.
To address this need, Chinese e-commerce and cloud-services powerhouse Alibaba recently debuted its enterprise-class Internet architecture, Apsara Aliware, which uses the underlying technology that powers Alibaba’s successful online marketplaces. Offered through Alibaba Cloud, the cloud computing arm of Alibaba Group, Apsara Aliware has introduced Alibaba’s cloud and middleware expertise to customers who are currently mainly in China, though Alibaba plans to offer the solution globally.
Officially known as the Enterprise-Class Internet Architecture: Apsara Aliware, the solution consists of a proprietary technology stack and a highly agile and scalable cloud platform. It supports all Alibaba Group entities, including Taobao (an online marketplace that resembles eBay), Tmall (like Amazon, a business-to-consumer open platform that allows brands to sell goods and services), and Alibaba.com (a business-to-business platform), as well as Alipay, a service similar to PayPal.
Apsara Aliware is the cornerstone of the Alibaba Group’s technology innovations, supporting a diversified business portfolio that includes business, finance, logistics, cloud computing, video broadcasting, and navigation services. For instance, the Aliware platform processed total sales of more than $17.8 billion during the 2016 Double 11 Global Shopping Festival, up from $14.3 billion in 2015. During the 2016 event, the platform also supported peak volumes of 175,000 transactions and 120,000 payments per second.
The technology’s value proposition is simple, says Jiangwei Jiang, Alibaba research staffer and head of the Aliware team: “Aliware helps to enhance corporate IT system responsiveness, leading to huge improvements in enterprise business responsiveness and significant reductions in cost.”
Aliware is used by large Chinese companies in manufacturing, sales management, government, telecommunication, and retail. Clients include the Chinese petrochemical company Sinopec and Zhejiang Tobacco, among others. According to Data Center Knowledge, an industry news website, the primary cloud user base includes mobile-app developers, system integrators, Internet gaming and online platforms, and e-commerce and Internet finance companies.
A Platform for Efficiency and Innovation
Aliware customers benefit from Alibaba’s considerable expertise in building a reliable and hugely scalable digital backbone for online transactions. Few organizations have the experience and resources to develop their own platforms for handling high user and transaction volumes securely and speedily. For that reason, it’s less expensive and more efficient for many of them to instead use what Alibaba has already built.
“The essence of the platform is to enhance the efficiency of industry operations, to narrow the gap between the end user and the service or manufacturing enterprise, and to speed up the response to market changes,” Jiang says.
Consider, for example, the traditional car-manufacturing paradigm. After producing the cars, manufacturers and car buyers typically are out of touch because the local car dealership sits between the two sides. Through the Aliware platform, car manufacturers can interact directly with end customers, capturing their preferences for future product development as well as vehicle performance and quality information from the field. Data from manufacturing, customer management, supply chain, marketing, and other groups is shared and linked seamlessly.
The Internet and mobile technologies have profoundly changed the way customers and companies interact, says Jingyu Wang, Aliware cloud products R&D leader. Customers demand more from their e-commerce technology: more information, more say in product design, more service via their preferred channels.
“As the production and manufacturing industries accelerate to keep pace with the digital information age, the enterprise demand for data storage and computing capacity will grow far beyond the maximum capacity of the traditional hardware-supported mainframe system,” Wang says. As a result, Alibaba believes that demand for enterprise-class platform-as-a-service infrastructure will grow as companies seek to acquire infrastructure that is more effective than anything they could build themselves.
Evolution of the Aliware Platform
Alibaba knows more than most companies about what’s involved in building such a platform; after all, the company has been in the Internet business since its inception in 1999.
In 2008, Alibaba began to alter the technical architecture underpinning its online retail platform Taobao.com to make it more responsive to changing needs. Back then, the site leveraged commercial databases, minicomputers, and high-end storage. Each business sector had a separate system and a database accessing shared data without a common service layer, an architecture that created three problems: low rates of R&D efficiency, weak system scalability, and limited ability for technical updates.
Alibaba’s technical staff took two steps to fix these problems. First, they established a shared service layer consisting of such service entities as commodity, transaction, marketing, store, recommendation, inventory, logistics, and payment. “The advantage is that it is easy and quick to build a new business requirement from scratch. Meanwhile, any change in data structure only needs to be changed in one place,” Jiang says. This concept—since popularized in the microservices architecture—was a novel approach in 2008.
The second step was the large-scale application of distributed middleware (the predecessor of Aliware). That is, staffers built a software application architecture layer above the resource layer, developed applications efficiently, seamlessly realized application and terminal communication, and horizontally expanded data storage.
Currently, Aliware consists of five major products: EDAS, Enterprise Distributed Application Service; MQ, Message Queue; DRDS, Distributed Relational Database Service; ARMS, Application Real-Time Monitoring Service; and CSB, Cloud Service Bus.
A Rigorous Approach to Testing and Quality Management
Alibaba frequently needs to quickly “stand up” new features on its own platforms. “Oftentimes, we are required to launch one function today and then another totally different function tomorrow,” says Lin Zhao, product leader of the Aliware cloud products team. This agility benefits Aliware users, giving them the ability to build up nimble systems and accelerate speed to market, and also to achieve rapid business innovation.
With changes occurring constantly, automated quality assurance is paramount. “We have a complete product-requirements management platform, a bug-management platform, and a large number of automated test scripts,” Zhao says. Alibaba does regression testing before every new release. For important product features, the technical team performs product-development unit testing with help from professional testers. Test scripts are added to the automatic test platform, ensuring continuous efforts to improve product quality.
Aliware: A Versatile Platform for Enterprises and Government Entities
In the Chinese market, Aliware currently focuses on selling to government customers, hospitals, universities, and enterprises in multiple industries.
Consider one particular Aliware user, Sinopec Group’s epec.com, China's first e-commerce platform for the petrochemicals sector. In a one-year pilot program before its official launch in April 2016, epec.com recorded total transaction value of roughly $2.1 billion dollars, involving 25,647 suppliers, 1,615 buyers, 93,359 registered users and 153,000 goods.
Alibaba is also targeting small to midsize organizations, which tend to embrace public cloud for its versatility and comparatively lower costs.
“We believe that the future for enterprises involves hybrid-cloud-based services,” Wang says. “What customers need most is the ability to fully leverage the advantages brought by a distributed system architecture, thereby being able to deal with fast changing business requirements in an easy-to-manage environment, all while achieving swift business innovation.”