Future Tech

Alibaba Cloud unleashes thousands of Chinese AI models to the world

Tan KW
Publish date: Tue, 25 Jun 2024, 01:50 PM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

Alibaba Cloud has created an English language version of Modelscope, its models-as-service offering.

Modelscope was launched in 2022 and is broadly comparable to services like Amazon Web Services' Bedrock or Microsoft's Azure OpenAI Studio. All are essentially libraries of foundation models from a variety of sources, offered in a form designed to ease the job of plumbing them into apps built on their respective cloudy hosts.

Alibaba Cloud claims it has won over five million developers as users of Modelscope since its 2022 debut, and that it is home to over 5,000 models. The Chinese web giant's own "Qwen" models are present, plus plenty from Chinese startups. The service also hosts what Alibaba Cloud describes as "over 1,500 high-quality Chinese-language datasets and an extensive range of toolkits that support data processing."

While the service has previously been accessible from anywhere - it's a cloud, after all - like its Western rivals Alibaba Cloud offers a text-heavy user experience. Your correspondent has plenty of experience applying online translation tools to Chinese text, and can report they regularly produce some odd artefacts that would not delight developers.

Modelscope in English therefore matters - not only in the US, where Alibaba Cloud launched the service at an event in Seattle, but across the Chinese cloud's target markets. In South East Asia, for instance, English is a more common second language - and lingua franca of commerce and tech - than Mandarin.

Alibaba Cloud is number three by cloud revenue share - behind AWS and Azure but sometimes beating out Google - in some of its target markets across Asia, but is not a major player elsewhere.

That's not for lack of ambition. It operates 89 availability zones in 30 regions, 16 of which are outside mainland China. The outfit also offers a comprehensive range of cloud services, a well-regarded cloud-native database named Apsara, has developed speedy CPUs to power its servers, and has shown off sophisticated cloud engineering such as clever edge boxes that use Intel ASICs to speed traffic, and tiering tech that doubled the number of VMs running on each of its cloudy hosts.

Alibaba Cloud is, however, not immune to concerns about China's national security laws, which compel it to share information with Beijing whenever asked. As clouds are often used for mission-critical workloads, many Western buyers believe Alibaba Cloud has a higher risk profile than its rivals. Adoption has therefore been modest outside of China and Asia, and Alibaba Cloud's datacenters in the West are said to host primarily Chinese clients.

The cloudy giant has, however, escaped bans - so far. Chinese telcos China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom - which also offer cloud services - have not been so lucky, as all had their activities in the US sharply restricted on national security grounds. Reuters reports that Washington may even be considering further action against the three over fears that their carriage services and clouds could compromise the safety of US data.

All of which will likely give pause to developers considering Modelscope's English language incarnation - no matter how intriguing the models and data it offers. ®



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