What makes application delivery in China so hard?

The truth of the matter is that entering the Chinese internet market is hard. There are the obvious culture and regulatory barriers, but there are also a number of technical barriers, specifically, when it comes to delivering applications to users inside China.

At the end of 2016, China had over 700 million internet users, more than double the number of internet users in the U.S. And as the Chinese tech market continues to shift from hardware to software and services, Forrester Research analysts predict this will drive software growth of 10 percent over the next couple years.

China is now a critical market for global technology companies and enterprises. It’s little wonder that tech giants like Apple, Facebook and others are clamoring to secure a hold there, even when it means addressing unique challenges and making certain compromises.

But with the great potential of the Chinese market also comes great difficulty.

The truth of the matter is that entering the Chinese internet market is hard. There are the obvious culture and regulatory barriers, but there are also a number of technical barriers — specifically, when it comes to delivering applications to users inside China. Three of the primary application delivery challenges in China are outlined below.

The Great Firewall

Traffic traversing between China and the global market is controlled by what’s referred to as the Great Firewall of China, a system of filters and content inspection deployed via Chinese ISPs to control what content is available to users. Behind the Great Firewall is a combination of legislative and technological actions taken by the Chinese government to regulate the internet domestically. Domestic and foreign internet companies are required to cooperate with these efforts under Chinese corporate statutes.

A dominant technical effect of this Great Firewall is that it slows down traffic for Chinese users accessing content outside of China, and vice versa.

Commonly, traffic transiting the Great Firewall experiences congestion as it traverses the “choke point” of the Firewall, resulting in severe packet loss and additional latency, poor throughput, and other degradation. Of course, that’s the best case for traffic transiting the Firewall — for content that doesn’t run afoul of the government’s filters, which may be silently dropped.

The Great Firewall isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as government officials have intimated in recent months. As a result, there’s great motivation to deliver applications from behind the Great Firewall to provide a better experience to Chinese audiences.

Connectivity in country

The Great Firewall isn’t the only challenge, however. Major ISPs like China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile are all important, and they’re poorly interconnected inside the country. To reach users on each of these ISPs most effectively requires connectivity behind the Firewall to each network.

To complicate matters further, providing truly great performance inside China requires distributing infrastructure across major metropolitan areas, because inter-city connectivity tends to be poor. Some of the most effective intra-China application deployments span dozens of infrastructure nodes, each connected to the major carriers in the country.

Access to infrastructure

When it comes to international providers, ensuring good connectivity and well-distributed in-country infrastructure is still a difficult challenge.

A number of Chinese cloud providers have emerged to offer AWS-like services inside the country, and there are some international providers with in-country offerings as well. That said, access to physical infrastructure is generally easiest when working with providers specialized in assisting international companies in China. Chinese providers do tend to have significantly better presence in the country than international providers, however.

Another challenging factor is that the majority of the aforementioned Chinese cloud providers’ offerings are still relatively immature. Often, significant limitations exist in features or functionality that we’ve come to expect from major international providers like AWS, Google or Microsoft. Compounding the issue, language barriers significantly impact the usability of Chinese cloud offerings.

Balancing costs, presence, and functionality therefore still requires making trade-offs in selecting from among the infrastructure options in China.

Keeping it local is the key

So how do developers and operators overcome these challenges to improve delivery of applications to increasingly critical Chinese audiences?

It’s important to keep as many aspects of the application delivery stack in-country as possible:

  • Minimize cases where users have to transit the Great Firewall
  • Use DNS networks with a Chinese presence
  • If using content delivery networks (CDNs), use local CDNs for Chinese traffic

Optimizing delivery across distributed infrastructure in China requires careful traffic management, and the goal must be to keep users as local as possible given the connectivity challenges. You never want your users in China to transit the Great Firewall when they can instead interact with application infrastructure inside the country. And whenever you can, you want to ensure they’re serviced by infrastructure from a relatively nearby facility, with good connectivity to their ISP.

Major online properties focused on efficient delivery inside China leverage traffic management technology delivered from within China to direct traffic across their in-country infrastructure.

Delivery in China is hard but not impossible

There’s no doubt that there are significant business and technical challenges involved with moving into the mainland China market, at the same time that market becomes an even larger opportunity.

Fortunately, the tools for addressing many of the technical issues — such as modern traffic management solutions and public cloud infrastructure — are becoming more readily available.

As the market continues to become more competitive, addressing the Chinese audience will be a key driver of growth for international companies. As this happens, delivering applications effectively will become ever more critical.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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