Chinese cloud giants donate services for COVID-19 research

The pandemic has evoked the 'spirit of the cloud', as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu make portions of their services available for free.
20 March 2020

Baidu co-founder and CEO Robin Li attends Baidu Create 2019 in Beijing. Source: AFP

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has hit China the hardest, and in a bid to help combat the resilient virus strain, the top three Chinese cloud services providers have opened up parts of their platforms for free.

Alibaba Cloud, Tencent Cloud, and Baidu AI Cloud have each made varying aspects of their cloud services free for certain users, particularly researchers of the coronavirus. This group are in dire need of sturdier data processing capabilities to deal with the influx of pandemic related data flowing within China.

China is the world’s second-largest cloud infrastructure market with 10.8 percent of the worldwide total, according to Canalys. It looks like all three cloud giants (Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu accounted for 73 percent of Chinese cloud infrastructure spending in the fourth quarter of 2019) will make data analytics and related tools available for free, but their other complementary offerings might differ.

Alibaba Cloud is offering credits for purchases of its Elastic Compute Service, cybersecurity, and other services. Even better, the market leader is providing its AI-powered cloud platform to research institutions to speed up the testing and treating of the coronavirus, such as in gene sequencing and protein screening.

Similarly, Tencent Cloud is making its platform available to research teams from various universities throughout China.

Tencent had previously made its video and audio chat tools free for students and businesses as the pandemic enveloped the country, but now has also launched Cloud Office Portfolio to further support remote working, including popular tools Tencent Meeting and WeChat Work.

Baidu AI Cloud also made its AI platform and algorithm available for research centers, and interestingly made its online medical consultation platform free, which has already handled over 15 million consultations without putting doctors at risk via face-to-face appointments.

Baidu AI has also developed advanced mapping tools that are tracking the initial spread of the virus from its originating point, to aid response and relief efforts within the country.

These are in addition to the services and support (such as on-demand computing power, AI, and more) that the three top cloud companies had already been supplying to the Chinese government, relief agencies, researchers, and other end users.

The swift responses, as well as the myriad powerful applications, clearly demonstrated the breadth of cloud computational capabilities, said Canalys senior analyst Yih Khai Wong.

“The benefits of cloud computing were demonstrated by the leading cloud service providers in response to the escalating coronavirus crisis, they rapidly deployed continuity measures for organizations and established resource-intensive workloads to analyze vast datasets,” Wong said in a statement.

“Cloud companies opened their platforms, allowing new and existing customers to use more resources for free to help maintain operations.”

The quick and ongoing contributions of the cloud platform operators in China mirrors the efforts by Microsoft and Google, in what has become a memorable part of the COVID-19 relief attempts with many technology firms contributing in various ways.

Wong continued: “They provided free access for research institutions to accelerate drug screening for potential vaccines.

“Students also benefited by accessing online learning tools set up on the platforms after schools were closed. This set the precedent for technology companies around the world that offer cloud-based services in their response to helping organizations affected by coronavirus.”