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Community Blog Case Study: How Alibaba Cloud Supports Online Education

Case Study: How Alibaba Cloud Supports Online Education

Learn how Alibaba Cloud's services supported online education and e-learning companies in China through several cases.

How The Cloud Can Support and Add Value to Online Learning Platforms

Peak traffic rose by more than a factor of ten. Any online education company faces a huge risk as traffic spikes like this. To continue, an online education organization must ensure that it has an adequate number of employees, including teachers and teaching assistants, routine management staff, and O&M technical engineers, when faced with such a challenge. To provide more background, Yuanfudao mobilized 356 leading professors, 412 teaching assistants, 151 professional engineers, and other related personnel to continuously provide free live streaming lessons during the COVID-19 outbreak in order to provide high-quality course material for primary and secondary school students. These human resources, however, were also inadequate.

The biggest difference between online education and conventional offline education is the very nature of being online. Online education provides educational services through the Internet, smart devices, and the digital courses that are broadcasted to students. Therefore, it is very important to ensure that online services that serve as the backbone of these e-learning services are operating continuously and stably and without lag, high latency, disconnection, or downtime.

With that said, it is unwise to depend on conventional data centers and IT architecture. The first reason is that it takes as long as three to six months to purchase, deploy, and use equipment for conventional on-premises data centers. This amount of time makes it hard for an enterprise to be able to cope with sudden traffic peaks in a reliable and sustainable manner. Second, the traffic peaks produced by the COVID-19 outbreak are only temporary. Therefore, purchasing large numbers of physical servers and bandwidth would produce considerable waste after the outbreak is over. Third, the manpower and time costs of development and O&M would be unnecessarily high because multiple technology stacks are required to cope with the traffic spikes in a conventional data center. In particular, the technology stacks used for distributed storage, distributed computing, video encoding and decoding, video encryption, and CDN distribution would all be required.

Only employing cloud services would be able to meet such challenges in a cost-effective manner. Let's describe the experience of a certain online education enterprise during the COVID-19 outbreak as an example. The enterprise scaled up its system three times and almost doubled its consumption of cloud resources in less than a week. However, the most recent time, it took less than 10 hours to inventory resources, deliver requirements, and scale up the system. The scale-up was completed at during the only morning hours, allowing millions of primary and secondary school students to attend online classes on the same day.

But the reality of the situation is that cloud computing provides much more than what we just described for online education. It can provide several things that can add value to online education services.

Below are some of the advantages cloud computing services were able to bring to China's online education market.

1.Fast launch even when starting from scratch: In Huanggang, Hubei Province, it took only one day to implement an online teaching platform through an online live streaming platform for the senior students (12th grade students) at Huanggang High School. As the technological foundation, ApsaraVideo services provided by Alibaba Cloud helped by autoscaling resources, processing massive volumes of data, intelligently applying the data, and deploying cloud products in vertical video scenarios such as live streaming and video on demand. This comprehensively ensured that the system could run smoothly in high-concurrency scenarios.

2.Deep penetration and wide coverage: Because teachers and students live all over the country for larger non-localized online platforms, only a large number of cross-city, cross-province, and cross-country connections can meet the needs of students located in more remote or rural regions. At Alibaba Cloud, edge nodes are built based on the providers' edge nodes and networks. This ensures the high stability of real-time live streaming and interactive networks. In addition, with our global coverage and multi-layer penetration features, edge nodes enable deep penetration and wide coverage of online education services.

3.Use on demand: The auto-scaling feature of Alibaba Cloud can cope with peak traffic, while conventional virtualization technologies usually result in a severe waste of resources outside of peak times. With the popularization of cloud-native technologies, containers have become a new option for elastic scaling. Based on the DevOps System, containers can be elastically scaled up and down. In addition, the emerging serverless approach not only ensures high availability of applications during traffic spikes and plunges, but also reduces idle computing resources during low-traffic periods.

4. AI + education: AI technologies will revolutionize the online education industry, especially in terms of efficiency. After online practice exams are taken by millions of people, AI can implement automatic correction, intelligent evaluation, and national ranking. In online classrooms, AI can provide intelligent customer services, automatically convert online classes to audio files for students to review afterward, and automatically analyze the video and audio files of teachers and students to evaluate the class quality based on its content. Just as Zheng Zibin, the CTO of VIPKid, pointed out at the Apsara Conference 2019, with the help of the cloud and AI technologies, online education is entering the AI era with individualized teaching being its focus.

5.Security and legal compliance: By their very nature of being online, online services exist several security challenges and compliance risks. In fact, in recent months, cyber attacks to online education platforms have increased dramatically. Online education and e-learning requires complete security protection solutions to prevent service interruptions caused by cyberattacks and other security threats. Alibaba Cloud provides comprehensive security assurance in the form of technologies, products, solutions, experiences, teams, and methodologies.

The following cases shows how Alibaba and its partner are doing their part in the global fight against the coronavirus.

See How Alibaba and VIPKid are Doing Their Part in the Fight against COVID-19

Alibaba Cloud has improved network quality and enhances the main business line, answering VIPKid's core demands. In online education, a very high network quality is required in interactive teaching scenarios. The company's core business metric, class completion rate, is highly influenced by network fluctuations. If a class is ended due to low network quality, the platform will pay the normal class hour fees to the teacher and compensate the student. Therefore, improving the network quality helps VIPKid save hundreds of millions of Chinese Yuan (about 14 million dollars), which increases its profits.

Alibaba Cloud optimizes the business architecture and unitizes services: With a variety of PaaS products, Alibaba Cloud has optimized the system architecture, simplified the O&M pipeline, and reduced operating costs for VIPKid. Stability and reliability are VIPKid's core concerns. VIPKid has always been impressed by Alibaba Group's service unitization capability and is now gradually implementing service unitization through tools and solutions provided by Alibaba Cloud.

Alibaba Cloud provides atomic AI capabilities to accelerate team innovation: The key to AI + education is to empower the education industry by using AI technologies. Essentially, AI is used to perform and assist in education work. This is also an important area for development and exploration in the online education industry. Alibaba Cloud empowers VIPKid by providing corresponding atomic AI capabilities so that VIPKid can focus more on business innovation based on AI scenarios and retain its leadership of the industry.

See How Alibaba Cloud Powered Some of China's Best Classrooms in the Cloud

Taking Full Advantage of Containerization Technology

With brick-and-mortar schools closed, students would likely still follow their regular routines and go online all around the same time. This meant that online learning platforms like Onion Academy would need to prepare for huge traffic volumes and highly concurrent access. To ready their systems, Onion Academy integrated Alibaba Cloud Container Service for Kubernetes and several ApsaraDB database engines. This allowed Onion Academy to quickly and smoothly scale the business without changing the application itself. Alibaba Cloud Container Service can elastically and intelligently expand the underlying resources within minutes, allowing a business to quickly deploy thousands of application instances.

At the recommendation of the Container Service team, Onion Academy further optimized their overall ECS configuration by replacing a large number of small ECS instances with a large ECS instance with 30 to 50 CPU cores. This allowed for a expansion capacity that was 10 times greater than their original expansion capacity.

Upgrading Their Database Management Systems

Next, to ensure the overall stability and "smoothness" of Onion Academy's underlying platform, Alibaba Cloud provided a comprehensive architectural solution for Onion Academy. At the database layer, ApsaraDB for Redis provides high-speed caching, whereas the combination of ApsaraDB RDS for PostgreSQL and ApsaraDB for MongoDB provides persistent storage. At the application layer, the team adopted modified microservices and containerized deployment. This architecture gave Onion Academy the core capabilities needed to be able to tackle face on the new challenges they faced with more students and teacher logging on.

Onion Academy also optimized the data connected with cold users and its cold and hot data systems. Faced with too many cold users, the company urgently needed to improve cold user processing. This required faster data processing under high pressure. The homework data of teachers and students can be divided into hot and cold data. Data was originally migrated at regular intervals, but the hot data was growing too fast and the original solution could not cope. At the recommendation of Alibaba Cloud data experts, Onion Academy added a cold user cache, upgraded and sharded their databases, and made a series of indexing optimizations and statement modifications.

Next, in the face of the epidemic, Onion Academy upgraded the capacity of dozens of core databases and upgraded to PG-class instances overnight. This was possible due to the extreme elasticity and seamless upgrade and expansion capabilities of Alibaba Cloud database management systems. A single ApsaraDB for Redis cluster can handle tens of millions of access requests with ultra-high performance. This ensures that no business bottleneck occurs even if the traffic multiples dozens of times over. At the same time, the persistent storage provided by ApsaraDB RDS for PostgreSQL and ApsaraDB for MongoDB offered stronger processing capabilities. This solution can cope with complex queries and also allows for extremely elastic horizontal scaling. This provided comprehensive assurance to Onion Academy business operations and ensuring business stability even if its business volume increases by 1000 fold.

Suspending Classes without Stopping Learning: Alibaba Cloud X-Dragon + Container Solution

The X-Dragon + container solution provided by Alibaba Cloud is ideal for such scenarios. This solution is highly regarded by online education enterprises and has already been used by several enterprises for their distance learning and remote collaboration platforms. This solution not only improves the overall availability and reliability of the system, but also greatly simplifies the development and iteration process of business applications. Instead of complicated IT system support work, you can instead perform online business and user support. This provides a lightweight solution that is suited to the current situation.

Key Features of the Solution

The solution provides five benefits:

1) Ultimate Performance and Improved Utilization

Alibaba Cloud Container Service for Kubernetes (ACK) can directly run on Alibaba Cloud EMB instances with zero CPU or memory virtualization performance loss. With the advantages of the X-Dragon architecture, the overall performance is superior to a physical machine with the same configuration. In a wide range of containerized scenarios, you can use the container scheduling capability of Kubernetes for hybrid application deployment. This improves resource utilization by more than 300%, makes full use of the superior performance of EBM instances, and improves cost performance.

2) Fast Creation and Simplified O&M

Compared with traditional physical machines that can be delivered within hours, EBM instances can be created and started in minutes. They can take advantage of the scheduling and orchestration capabilities of Kubernetes and, through the close coordination between ACK and Alibaba Cloud infrastructure (such as SLB, VPC, NAS, and SLS), services can be rapidly deployed. This greatly simplifies the process, reduces O&M costs, and improves the automation of the online education business architecture, allowing it to provide the elasticity needed during peak hours.

3) Enhanced Network Features and Performance

Compared with traditional physical machines, EBM instances support 32 or more ENIs. The Kubernetes Terway container network used by Alibaba Cloud can be used with multiple ENIs to fully utilize the high bandwidth and high Packets Per Second (PPS) features of EBM instances. The cross-host network bandwidth between containers has almost no performance loss compared with that of the host. In addition, the cross-host network supports high traffic volumes and highly concurrent network requests during peak hours.

4) Physical-level Isolation with Application-level Encryption

EBM instances feature zero CPU and memory virtualization and full exclusivity, providing higher security and isolation to ensure the stability of instances.

5) Robust Fault Recovery and Multi-Zone Redundancy

With the automatic failover and recovery capabilities of EBM instances and Kubernetes' fault recovery drift for containers, the solution significantly improves the system's availability and automated O&M capabilities. In addition, based on the multi-zone deployment of EBM instances, the Alibaba Cloud Kubernetes cluster network provides application disaster recovery capabilities through cross-region redundancy based on physical machines. This ensures the availability of online education services.

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