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Alibaba eyes retail sector with new cloud offerings

Chinese cloud supplier says retailers will be able to use its machine learning platform to understand consumer preferences, among a slew of services it is making available globally for the first time

Alibaba Cloud hopes to build on its e-commerce and retail pedigree with a batch of new cloud offerings that are now available globally for the first time.

The services include a smart access gateway that enables retailers to connect their data from different shops to a single cloud platform, data lake analytics, and a serverless, high-performance query service that analyses historical inventory and sales data.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview, Derek Wang, chief solution architect at Alibaba Cloud, said that although the new services have been available in China for some time, they have been engineered to comply with local regulations, such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The focus on retail is deliberate, given Alibaba’s expertise in developing cloud services for retailers in China. “Alibaba has been leading innovations in retail, and we’ve been doing a lot of trials in China on ‘new retail’ concepts that are data-driven,” he said.

Citing Alibaba’s work on Hema, its supermarket chain that blends offline and online experiences, Wang said the company has been able to deliver data-driven insights to improve the shopping experience.

Such insights can be derived from Pai, Alibaba Cloud’s machine-learning platform that offers a suite of tools and AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms to help retailers take advantage of AI capabilities. Pai was one of the nine services unveiled by the Chinese cloud supplier at the Alibaba Cloud Summit in Singapore today.

Wang said that through Pai, users will be able to harness machine learning easily to understand consumer behaviour and preferences. He added that Alibaba’s platform is open, and supports the TensorFlow computational framework for building machine learning models.

“E-commerce is witnessing considerable growth and Alibaba Cloud, leveraging Alibaba Group’s development, can offer a mature ecosystem to support the regional retail sector,” said Wang.

“Using these products will help merchants deploy their resources more effectively, and gain deeper consumer insights. The technology available can also give our consumers better protection against fraud and an improved shopping experience.”

Amid growing concerns over cyber security across the Asia-Pacific region, Alibaba Cloud said it is also launching an “anti-bot service” that protects users from online scalpers and crawlers.

The service adds to the supplier’s upcoming cloud-based scrubbing centre in Malaysia, which will help businesses mitigate distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

Global ambitions

As a sign of its global ambitions, Alibaba Cloud plans to gradually increase the number of services it offers to customers outside China by the end of 2018 to cater to those that want to be on top of the curve in cloud adoption.

Ng Yu Xuan, industry analyst for datacentre and cloud computing at Frost and Sullivan, said Asia-Pacific’s cloud computing market is highly price-sensitive, giving Alibaba Cloud an opportunity to expand its footprint in the region through its aggressive pricing strategies. 

But because the adoption of AI and machine learning is still at a nascent stage in Asia, Ng said Alibaba would need to form an extensive partner ecosystem outside China, especially with forward-looking smart retail players.

To that end, Alibaba Cloud is starting up an ASEAN partner alliance programme, and hopes to recruit 150 partners and train 600 sales and technology personnel in the next 12 months to fuel the growth of its ecosystem.

Read more about cloud computing in ASEAN

Tim Sheedy, principal adviser at Ecosystm, said the programme has the potential to support Alibaba Cloud’s growth in the region and echo the successes of global peers such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

“The company should focus its energies on growing this programme quickly, while continuing to support its Chinese partners in pursuing opportunities in the rest of Asia-Pacific,” he said.

Sheedy noted that the variety of new services being launched by Alibaba – from security to machine learning – shows the company is looking to solve the problems its customers face in becoming digital businesses.

“Alibaba’s legacy in retail, and the fact that many retailers already use its platform, positions the company well to move further into the retail space across ASEAN and the rest of Asia.” he said. “It will hope to benefit from the growth that e-commerce providers are witnessing across the region.

This, however, is a highly competitive market – and in some parts of the region, Alibaba comes to the market many years after its competitors have established themselves.

It will need to rely on partners to help it differentiate its offerings, and to give Alibaba presence in enterprise accounts. From there, it should look to win business from existing cloud providers or create new opportunities for growth as its customers create more public cloud-native applications, and move more of their on-premise capabilities to the public cloud.”

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