· Operations

How to operate in China ?

It is often said that China is THE market to conquer. Imagine : one billion potential buyers in a developing country ! Before any implantation in this market, many technical, legal and financial are considered.

The Great Firewall and its implications

The Golden Shield Project (the official name of the Great Firewall) has been completed in 2008. Since then, all Internet traffic in mainland China is controlled and filtered. Also, any content that violates Chinese laws can be blocked. For example the Google search engine is only accessible from the mainland by the URL google.cn, a version that complies with Chinese laws, all other versions of Google being blocked.

Websites filtrering methods

Among the blocking techniques, three stand out :

  • IP address blocking : the IP address of the server hosting the offending website can be blocked. Any call to a page hosted on this machine will be refused ;
  • URL filtering : any URL validating a certain rule or containing specific keywords are blocked ;
  • DNS spoofing : every call to a domain implies a call to a DNS that provides the corresponding IP. China intercepts these requests and replace the original IPs by controled ones (see DNS Spoofing on Wikipedia for more information).

Performance, Quality of Service and Response Time

Accessing a service through the Great Firewall has an important cost in terms of performance. In addition to the analysis of URLs and the checks of IP addresse, some specific tracking code injections have already been made in the pages displayed to the user. This may cause a malfunction in the scripts or some errors preventing a proper display.

There is few interconnections between the mainland and the rest of the world. If you also consider the obligatory passage through the Great Firewall, you will end up with a significant latency that greatly increase response times.

Lastly, the chinese telecommunication network is shaped by the repartition of the chinese population through the country : for example, regions like Xinjiang or Qinghai, in the west of the country and sparsely populated, are only covered along the major thoroughfares and in the large cities while the regions of Beijing or Shanghai, in the east and densely populated, have a very good infrastructure.

Map of the fiber network in China, source : CTAmerica

This uneven implementation and the massive latency added by the Great Firewall can greatly penalize the experience of a chinese Internet user and encourage him to leave the service.

To counter these limitations and constraints, you need to deliver content closer to users. You need to assess the possibility of hosting your application on a server located in China or delivering it through a Content Delivery Network (CDN) with a local presence.

The mandatory ICP Licence

In order to operate a service (either directly or via a hosting CDN) on the chinese territory, there must be a so-called ICP license (Internet Content Provider). This license is mandatory for all operators of service under its own domain name.

The ICP licence is granted by the regional Chinese administration under several conditions, including :

  • Local Implementation : the company offering the service must have a physical presence in mainland China. A Chinese employee of this implementation will be the representative to the administration.
  • TLDs of specific areas : the domain names extensions of the operated services are required to be “com,” “cn” or “com.cn”.

The ICP license is relatively easily granted, but obtaining it may be faster or slower depending on the level of cooperation in the concerned region.

If you consider using a CDN to deliver your website or application, the CDN provider must also have an ICP license to offer a real presence in mainland China.

Operational costs of a service

Hosting the solution in China

Several companies are authorized to host websites or machines for foreign actors like ChinaCache SinoHosting for example.

The services offered by the Chinese hosting services are comparable to those offered by European providers, except for the prices, higher than in the rest of the world. For example, an entry level server propulsed by the french provider OVH will cost €81 per month. A server with half this computing capacity will cost €132 per month at SinoHosting. Deploying an important platform with multiple servers can therefore quickly be very expensive.

Keep in mind that the use of a hosting service is only possible after having obtained the ICP license. The negotiations will be interrupted until the license approval.

Finally, software piracy is not a fiction and foreign companies operating within China are regularly the target of attacks and data recovery attempts. So be very careful to secure both the data flows from and to China.

Broadcast through a Content Delivery Network

The use of a Content Delivery Network broadcasting inside China follows the same rules and constraints that into the rest of the world.

The CDN providers propose their Points of Presence (POP) to their customers. These POPs are agreements with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to install servers in the datacenters that are close to end customers. Thus, a user calling a service broadcost through a CDN will get a response from a server that is physically closer to him than the original server. The response times are thus greatly reduced, on average by 60-70 %.

However, the cost of implementation of a CDN POP being greater in China than in the rest of the world, it is passed on to the end customer. This is often a lump sum of about €1,500 monthly.

Alternatives

If you can’t broadcast your service from mainland China, there are alternatives. Many hosting providers have data centers in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and the CDN providers are also present with high capacity POPs. In addition, some of them offer deals that include several geographically distributed POPs around China’s borders (Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan for example), reducing latency and keeping a certain level of performance by offering a service via a server that is relatively close to end users.

These solutions, however, are all subject to filtering. Moreover, convert them back to a mainland-hosted service is more difficult or impossible.

CDN providers that operates inside China

Chinese CDN providers such as ChinaCache or ChinaNetCenter each have more than 100 POPs behind the firewall. However, their presence in the rest of the world is much smaller, even if ChinaCache is implented in North America. International operators such as CDNetworks (25 POPs) or EdgeCast (10 POPs) are also present and can cover the Chinese territory in addition to international coverage.

Every choice of a CDN provider for China broadcast must be made in conformity with a strategy defining the type of service to be provided, where and its budget.

For exemple, if you want to start a e-commerce Website that can also sell products behind the Firewall of China, you will need a local hosting or a CDN provider, and an extensive preparation to ensure that your investment will ensure the availability of your service in the rest of the world as well.

If you already use the services of a CDN operator with a presence in China and want to grow in this market, the average additional cost of approximately €1,500 per month (subject to obtaining the license ICP) can be justified if the systems of your provider do not require to be reconfigured to deliver your resources to the end user.

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