What is Zhong Tai? Front End, Back End, …Middle End?

What is Zhong Tai? Front End, Back End, …Middle End?

Spoiler Alert: It’s just another way to say platform

The 2020 O’Reilly Software Architecture Conference training I attended, which I reviewed here, suggested that we read Thoughtworks’ Radar. In the latest volume, I came across a strange phrase: Zhong Tai. The definition in Radar, ”an approach to delivering encapsulated business models,” wasn’t exactly elucidating. Googling Zhong Tai revealed a dearth of knowledge about the subject on the Western Internet.

A friend, who is fluent in Mandarin, helped me learn more. She determined that the Chinese characters for this are 中台 and linked me to a few Chinese sites discussing it. I plugged the sites into Google Translate and started digging.

There seems to be two primary ways of thinking about Zhong Tai:

  1. From a business perspective, thinking of capabilities

  2. From a technical perspective, thinking of architecture

A Business Perspective

This perspective is mostly based on listening to the Thoughtworks podcast on the topic. When looking at it from a business perspective, Thoughtworks makes Zhong Tai seem like something between SaaS solutions and whitelabel solutions. The core idea is that you can transfer business capabilities to another organization, internal or external. Internally, this means breaking down barriers between departments to encourage sharing services and resources.

Photo by KT on Unsplash

One example of this: if you’re a food delivery company, you’ve already built out a full infrastructure around driver tracking, routing, queueing, and much more. If someone wants to start a makeup delivery company, they could reuse your whole infrastructure around delivery. The Thoughtworks podcast didn’t mention how this “reuse” of business capabilities would work in terms of licensing or who actually runs the servers. It seems like Zhong Tai would be most well suited for a company that owns multiple smaller companies that are similar to one another

A Technical Perspective

When digging into the Chinese web I quickly found that the idea of Zhong Tai is attributed to Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant. They wrote an entire book on Zhong Tai with a title that roughly translates to: The way of enterprise IT architecture transformation: Alibaba’s middle-end strategic thinking and actual combat (ISBN: 9787111564805). I was able to find a copy of the book online and ran it through Google Translate. I read the first chapter and learned about the brief history of Zhong Tai.

  • In 2003, Taobao, a C2C website, was founded as part of the company Alibaba.

  • In 2010, Taobao launched Tmall, a B2C website which became wildly successful.

  • These two websites, although both owned by Alibaba, each had their own e-commerce system. Payment processing and orders were completely different on each platform.

  • They realized they were wasting massive resources maintaining them independently so they created a shared business division so they reuse parts of the e-commerce system.*

*Like most of this article, most of my understanding is based on Google Translate. Technical words/concepts don’t translate so easily so I’m making my best guess for some of this.

When looking at this from a technical perspective, Zhong Tai seems to be about doing something that’s already quite common in Western tech companies: creating shared platforms. One company might make a payment platform that could be used by multiple departments or organizations. If that payment platform was made available to the public you might call it Stripe.

Why is it called middle end? A core problem Zhong Tai is trying to solve is that the frontend changes too fast for the backend to keep pace. The idea is that you can create a middle layer (or end) that depends on your platform (or backend). That middle layer can be changed very quickly to keep up with the changes on the frontend. I didn’t find any great examples in reading. However, one example might be: if many teams in a company rely on machine learning (ML), the company could create a platform for training, maintaining, and accessing ML models. A middle end would be built on that platform, and could house business logic and expose data to a frontend.

One recent article harshly criticized Zhong Tai. The author said that Zhong Tai is very expensive and while it may help big companies it will squash small companies. The author claimed that there isn’t any common definition of Zhong Tai, other than that it involves reusing technology. They also felt that it set expectations far too high and didn’t appreciate the complexity and uniqueness of businesses.


中台 are the Chinese characters for Zhong Tai. is pronounced zhōng and means middle. is pronounced tāi and means, among many things, stage, but in our case it is translated to “end.” Note: 中台 is also the phrase for China-Taiwan relations so that may cause confusion when translating or searching this phrase.


Zhong Tai, as best I can tell, is the concept of creating platforms that can be shared across your organization, or possibly outside of your organization. When written like that, it isn’t anything new or shiny. Maybe that’s why Zhong Tai hasn’t been well documented on the Western Internet. Maybe I am grossly oversimplifying a complex concept based on poor translations. If that’s the case let me know and I’ll be happy to update the article.


PS: This blog post was originally published on Medium, back before all the paywalls. It was moved here April 2024.