Exploring TikTok’s Technology Stack – The Tech Behind Series

Julian Wallis
12 min read
The tech stack, from micro-services to big data frameworks and machine learning, positions TikTok as a prime example of how a stellar UX can supercharge a business.
tiktok's technology stack explained

Every day, social media undergoes constant changes, with new platforms, features, trends, and similar elements emerging rapidly. In this dynamic landscape, TikTok stands out as a frontrunner, captivating audiences globally through its engaging and captivating short-form video content.

But how does the platform do it? What technologies are powering its success behind the scenes? And how do people enjoy using this social media app so much? All that and more will be answered very shortly.

This tech behind deep dive delves into the intricacies of TikTok’s robust technology stack, shedding light on the secrets behind its unparalleled success.

TikTok is a social media platform that gained immense popularity for its short-form video content. Launched in September 2016 by the Chinese company ByteDance, it was initially known as Douyin in China. 

The international version, TikTok, was released in September 2017. The platform allows users to create and share short videos set to music, often featuring creative lip-syncing, dancing, and various visual effects. TikTok’s meteoric rise in popularity can be attributed to several key factors:

User-Friendly Interface

TikTok introduced a user-friendly and intuitive interface that made it easy for users to create and share engaging content. The platform’s simple design encouraged widespread participation.

Algorithmic Feed and Personalisation

TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, powered by machine learning, played a crucial role in its success. The platform quickly learns user preferences based on their interactions and serves them a personalised feed of content. This algorithmic approach enhances user engagement by providing content tailored to individual tastes.

How Does TikTok’s Recommendation Algorithm Work?

The recommendation algorithm which essentially is the heartbeat of the app is when to break it down to barebones is just a mathematical equation. For instance, let’s say you went on the app, and liked videos A, B, C and D, and I liked videos A, B, C, and E, and someone else liked videos A, B, C, and F. 

Now what’s gonna happen is the algorithm works by showing everyone the videos they haven’t liked from the common set (A, B, and C) in their feed. Now, think about this repeated at a massive scale in real-time across millions of users. 

AI and Machine learning are at the forefront of this algorithm, allowing this to be done at a sizeable scale. These technologies work in tandem to understand the interest signals that people exhibit very quickly and show them the content that’s going to be relevant for them in a super-quick fashion. 

The other aspect to this is that TikTok doesn’t ask you multiple questions on whether you enjoyed a piece of content like in a survey format to gauge user interest. What they’ve very intuitively done is build that experience organically within the overall user experience of the app. 

When using the app, your engagement is essentially a form of voting through the use of your thumbs. As you watch a video on TikTok, you express your interest by either swiping up to view the next video, hitting the like button, or sharing the content with friends. These actions serve as tangible signals of user interest that the algorithm uses as input data. This data is then incorporated into the mathematical formula of the algorithm, where it undergoes pattern recognition. The algorithm processes this information to generate results that align with the user’s preferences, ultimately presenting recommended pieces of content tailored to what the user is likely to enjoy. 

In essence, the algorithm refines its understanding of user preferences based on their interactions, ensuring a more personalised and enjoyable content experience, which is and always has been the secret sauce behind TikTok’s global success.

Short-Form Video Trend

TikTok tapped into the growing trend of short-form video content, catering to users with limited attention spans. The 15 to 60-second video format became popular, allowing users to express themselves creatively concisely and entertainingly.

Music Integration

TikTok’s integration of a vast library of music clips and sound bites allowed users to add popular songs to their videos easily. This feature contributed to the platform’s appeal, particularly among younger users who embraced the music-driven creative aspect.

Viral Challenges and Trends

TikTok fostered a culture of viral challenges and trends. Users often participate in challenges, creating their interpretations of popular themes. This collaborative and participatory nature encouraged widespread engagement and content creation.

Global Accessibility

TikTok aimed for global appeal by providing a platform for users from different cultures and backgrounds to share their creativity. This inclusivity contributed to its rapid adoption worldwide.

Celebrity and Influencer Engagement

The platform attracted the attention of celebrities and influencers, who began using TikTok to connect with their audience more informally and authentically. This celebrity involvement helped to popularise the platform further.

Pandemic-Driven Surge

The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in TikTok’s surge in popularity as people sought new forms of entertainment and connection during lockdowns. The platform provided a lighthearted escape and a way for users to stay connected while physically distant.

In essence, TikTok’s success can be attributed to its innovative approach to short-form video content, a highly effective recommendation algorithm, and its ability to tap into global trends and cultural movements. The platform’s rapid rise to prominence reflects the changing landscape of social media and user preferences.

Decoding TikTok’s Tech Ecosystem – How Tiktok Works

Scalable Microservices Architecture

TikTok’s backbone is built on a microservices-based architecture, allowing rapid development, deployment, and independent scaling of discrete services. Each microservice, handling specific functionalities like user profiles and content recommendations, communicates seamlessly via APIs, ensuring flexibility and fault isolation.

The Microservices architectural style involves breaking down a large application into smaller, self-contained units known as microservices, each handling specific responsibilities. The beauty of microservices lies in their ability to collaborate seamlessly to fulfil a single user request, creating a dynamic and responsive user experience.

Microservices architecture is great for media content management, a key feature of TikTok, becoming more efficient as images and video assets find a home in a scalable object storage system, ready to be seamlessly served to web or mobile interfaces.

TikTok has seamlessly integrated cloud-native infrastructure into its operations, utilising key components such as user profiling, predictions, cold-start, recall, and a user feedback engine, all served through APIs. These services find their home in leading cloud platforms such as Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure. The result is an efficient video curation system that delivers content to users through the cloud.

In the realm of microservices, TikTok leverages Kubernetes-based containerisation technology, known for its role as a container orchestrator automating the application life cycle. Kubeflow further specialises in deploying machine learning workflows on Kubernetes.

As part of the comprehensive cloud-native stack, TikTok employs service mesh to facilitate service-to-service communication. This tool controls the data-sharing dynamics among different application components, embedding features or services at the platform layers rather than the application layer.

In response to the demand for high-concurrency, TikTok’s services are crafted using the Go language and gRPC. Go has emerged as the dominant language in TikTok’s service development due to its robust built-in network and concurrency support. gRPC, a Remote Procedure Control framework, efficiently builds and connects services.

TikTok’s success is primarily attributed to its commitment to providing an exceptional user experience. The platform has developed in-house tools that optimise performance at a low level, enhancing elements like ByteMesh (an improved version of Service Mesh), KiteX (a high-performance Golang gRPC framework), and Sonic (an enhanced Golang JSON library). Additional proprietary tools and systems, including parameter servers, ByteNN, and abase, contribute to TikTok’s technological prowess.

Big Database Management

Managing vast volumes of user-generated content demands a sophisticated approach. TikTok thrives on the mantra, “No data, no intelligence.” The vast majority of data originates from users’ smartphones, encompassing operating systems, installed apps, and crucially, user activity logs—tracking watch time, swipes, likes, shares, and comments.

TikTok harnesses big data through a streamlined process. User logs are collected and aggregated using Flume and Scribe, flowing seamlessly into Kafka queues. Real-time data processing takes centre stage with Apache Storm, working in tandem with other components in the Apache Hadoop ecosystem—a distributed system for data processing and storage. This ecosystem comprises MapReduce, YARN, HDFS, HBase, Hive, and Zookeeper, each playing a vital role in managing and processing data at scale.

As data volumes skyrocket, TikTok embraces real-time data processing frameworks. Apache Spark, a third-generation framework, enhances the speed of distributed processing for big data workloads by executing tasks in memory. More recently, TikTok has embraced the fourth-generation framework, Flink, designed for native real-time streaming processing.

TikTok employs a hybrid database strategy, incorporating relational databases (e.g., PostgreSQL) and NoSQL databases (e.g., Cassandra and Redis). This optimised approach ensures data integrity and swift retrieval for diverse use cases.

Content Delivery Network (CDN)

TikTok optimises content delivery through a global Content Delivery Network (CDN). By strategically distributing video content across edge servers worldwide, latency is minimised, and swift video loading is guaranteed. This strategic use of CDNs enhances the user experience, regardless of their geographic location.

Machine Learning and Recommendation Algorithms

At the heart of TikTok’s success are machine learning models and recommendation algorithms. These algorithms analyse user behaviour, preferences, and engagement patterns to curate personalised content feeds. But, what about the technologies that are running these algorithms? TikTok relies on TensorFlow and PyTorch to play pivotal roles in this process, contributing to the platform’s magic.

Machine learning is the core of TikTok’s acclaimed “hyper-personalised, addictive algorithm.” The process begins with vast datasets, followed by content analysis, user profiling, and context analysis. Neural-network deep learning frameworks, such as TensorFlow, power computer vision and natural language processing (NLP). Computer vision deciphers images within photos and videos, while NLP encompasses classification, labelling, and evaluations.

Classic machine learning algorithms come into play, including logistic regression (LR), convolutional neural network (CNN), recurrent neural network (RNN), and gradient boosting decision trees (GBDT). Common recommendation approaches like content-based filtering (CBF), collaborative filtering (CF), and advanced matrix factorisation (MF) further refine TikTok’s algorithm.

Further to these fundamental machine learning concepts, TikTok’s secret weapons lie in its other innovative approaches:

Algorithm Experimental Platform: TikTok’s engineers experiment with a blend of machine learning algorithms, running A/B tests and making adjustments based on user responses.

Extensive Classification and Labeling: TikTok’s machine learning models are built on user engagement metrics, going beyond likes and shares to include watch time and swipes. The multitude of user features, vectors, and categories surpasses most recommendation systems globally, with continuous additions.

User Feedback Engine: TikTok also relies heavily on iterative feedback retrieval from users update the models, enhancing predictions and recommendations. The experience management platform is a testament to the effectiveness of this engine.

To tackle the cold-start problem in recommendations, TikTok employs a recall strategy—selecting candidates from a pool of proven popular and high-quality videos. Additionally, TikTok moves certain AI operations to the client side for a super-fast response, encompassing real-time training, modelling, and reasoning in smaller sizes using machine learning frameworks like TensorFlow Lite or ByteNN. TikTok’s data magic extends beyond centralised systems, ensuring a personalised and responsive user experience.

Video Encoding and Streaming

TikTok ensures real-time video processing and streaming with advanced video codecs (e.g., H.264, H.265) and streaming protocols (e.g., HTTP Live Streaming). This guarantees high-quality video playback and adaptive streaming, seamlessly adapting to varying network conditions.

Mobile App Development Excellence

TikTok’s mobile applications are crafted with precision using native technologies. Java/Kotlin for Android and Swift/Objective-C for iOS are the primary choices. Cross-platform frameworks like React Native may be integrated for specific features, striking a balance between code reusability and native performance.

The Controversies Surrounding TikTok’s Data Security

Recently, according to the New York Times, governments in the United States, Europe, and Canada are intensifying their efforts to restrict TikTok, citing security concerns due to its Chinese ownership by ByteDance. Lawmakers fear that sensitive user data may be at risk, and they point to Chinese laws allowing data demands for intelligence operations. 

Despite TikTok’s denial of such allegations, bans have been imposed in various countries, including India, Britain, Australia, Canada, the EU, France, and New Zealand. In the United States, multiple states, colleges, and even New York City have banned TikTok on government devices due to perceived security threats. 

The Biden administration is reportedly pressuring Chinese ownership to sell the app or face a potential ban. While the government can ban TikTok on official devices, a broader ban that restricts Americans from using the app may face legal challenges. 

TikTok defends itself against bans as a “political theatre” and emphasises its collaboration with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The privacy and security concerns surrounding TikTok differ mainly due to its Chinese ownership, distinguishing it from other social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

So, what does this tell us? Is TikTok really a malware? To learn more, check out our post from earlier this year where we investigate if the allegations against TikTok as a leakware are legitimate or not.

Conclusion – TikTok’s Tech Stack Summarised

TikTok’s technology stack is an extraordinary blend of innovation, scalability, and technical prowess. By orchestrating these components meticulously, TikTok has not only created an engaging platform but has also mastered managing a colossal user base.

Understanding this technical ecosystem provides valuable insights into modern app development and scaling strategies, offering a pathway to success in today’s fiercely competitive digital landscape.

From cloud-native infrastructure to microservices architecture, big data frameworks, and machine learning, TikTok exemplifies how a robust tech foundation can propel a platform to global acclaim. As businesses strive for growth, the lesson from TikTok is clear: harness technology to supercharge your user experience and customer satisfaction. 

At Intuji, we specialise in helping businesses leverage technology to scale their growth through exceptional customer experiences at an unprecedented level. Let us navigate you through this journey, guiding you towards a tech-infused strategy that takes inspiration from the success of the likes of TikTok.

Published On

December 18, 2023