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What's happening in the world of digital learning?

  • David Bowden

Surfing the Great Firewall of China

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

How do you deliver a high performance elearning service to the vast market that is the People’s Republic of China, from a base in the UK?

Last month we needed to answer that question, and fast. Here's the brief story of how we achieved just that.

The project is to produce and deliver a Chinese language version of an English elearning course. We are responsible for producing the course material and for delivering it to students and businesses across mainland China.

Our main delivery server uses Amazon Web Services hosted in the Republic of Ireland. This service delivers courses to students in over 140 countries worldwide with ease.

However, when partner staff in China tested the new course it became apparent that the user experience inside China was very slow when not using a VPN connection. Sometimes pages would take minutes to load. Occasionally they would stall completely making the whole proposition unworkable.

We quickly realised that the cause of the problem is network performance degradation introduced by what is commonly referred to as the great firewall of China (GFW). The GFW protects the Chinese public from undesirable materials delivered over the public Internet. All traffic is screened through a small number of network transfer nodes, and our Irish server was evidently encountering a large amount of contention and queue time getting into China.

We needed to find a solution to this problem fast so that the launch of the course could take place according to plan.

Our first thought was to host a server inside China itself and set up a clone or subsidiary service just for this purpose. However, to do this you must be a Chinese citizen representing an organisation registered in China. Although this was a feasible approach, it would have involved a more complex set of contractual arrangements and more technical design and deployment effort. The increased costs, and particularly the increased timescales, made this option very unattractive.

Instead we performed a trial using a hosted service in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is outside of the GFW and does not have restrictions on who can set up a hosted service. Yet because of the close relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China, and especially the large amount of business that transpires between the two, network connectivity between these is excellent. The GFW node serving Hong Kong is high performance.

With minimal effort we put up some test materials on a server in Hong Kong and our mainland China testers tried the service. Pages loaded within one or two seconds, a completely acceptable level of performance.

A small amount of reconfiguring meant we could separate the course materials from the registration, administration and reporting back-end. For a small monthly fee, the course materials are hosted in Hong Kong and the server in Ireland is still used for central services. Within days we had deployed a new solution to a vast new market with seamless management of all resources from our base in the UK.

So we now know, to deliver services into China use a hosted service in Hong Kong.

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