Building Drupal Web Sites in China: The Existing Landscape

September 3, 2015
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After working with both Chinese customers and global customers with a Chinese user base, we at Acquia have developed an understanding not only of the sometimes difficult requirements faced, but also the existing state of both sites and platforms.

From well-known challenges like the Great Firewall of China (GFW), to the lesser known problems of ICP licenses (for Internet Content Provider, a permit issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to permit China-based websites to operate in China), to hosting availability, the Acquia APJ (Asia, Pacific & Japan region) team has seen and dealt with most of these difficult requirements.

Currently the relevant Amazon Web Services region in Beijing (AWS cn-north-1), which I've circled below, contains just one availability zone (AZ), making the standard High Availability Architecture (HA) setup Acquia utilises in all other regions impossible.

This means the majority of Acquia customers requiring a Chinese presence manage their sites out of either Tokyo (ap-northeast-1) or Singapore (ap-southeast-1).

To ensure our customers’ sites remain online, the Acquia Cloud utilises a high availability (HA) architecture, removing single points of failure. To do this, we use multiple AZs within a hosting region and split web servers, database servers, load balancers and all other components between them. Using separate power and network grids in each AZ allows us to have confidence that even in the worst of circumstances, sites remain online.

Elsewhere in China, some of the largest companies in the world by revenue are moving into the hosting business. The two largest providers are Baidu Cloud (百度云), a hosting offering from online services company Baidu, and Ali Cloud (阿里云), a cloud computing offshoot from giant Alibaba.

Baidu hosts its own services, provides online storage and a developer centric execution environment. Ali Cloud provides an elastic distributed environment and hosts both Taobao and Zhifubao, the Chinese equivalents of eBay and Paypal respectively. The final option, Tencent, the company behind the Chinese messenger service QQ, has started their own cloud endeavours although at a smaller scale.

Despite a flourishing cloud industry, hosting in China hasn’t yet stretched into the realms of fully managed platforms yet. Whether it’s a shared server, a dedicated box with access to the root user, or a cPanel enabled server without command line access; the result is just a box to put a site on without configuration, guarantees or support.

While hosting providers are moving towards Xen as a standard practice, much of the existing shared hosting in the country utilises Windows as both the hypervisor and operating system. The effect of this is that more modern web languages and frameworks, designed with Linux in mind, may not be fully supported.

(from http://www.cioage.com/)

The prevalence of Windows as the operating system is reflected by some of the choices in CMS used by Chinese organisations. A scan of websites hosted within the country shows that open source is by far prefered to proprietary but with a number of home grown solutions developed for IIS/PHP taking the largest share. Discuz, DedeCMS and Z-Blog are all used widely but for narrow scoped applications of forums and blogs rather than the wider variety of possible uses Drupal has the potential for.

Finally, with mobile users in China accounting for 85.8% of online users and a mobile-to-desktop online ratio of roughly 6:5 (from the China Internet Network Information Center), the idea of responsive design and a mobile first online strategy should be paramount. However, the move away from sites based around <table> tags is a slow and drawn-out process, with many popular sites continuing to exhibit a more traditional theme (http://www.sina.com.cn/ and http://www.sohu.com/).

The result of the above leads us into a situation where a large proportion of online activity in China is reliant on outdated second class hosting platforms unable to offer a best-in-class experience for site visitors.

A disruptive transformation brought about by increased adoption of Drupal and Acquia in China would lead to fully-supported sites with faster page loads, better UX, greater control for site editors, and an assurance that the sites remain online. This in turn would ultimately lead to more conversions and increased revenue, desirable for everyone.

Next: I’ll take a look behind China’s Great Firewall (GFW), and what it means for organizations that are operating outside, and inside, China.

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Awesome post exploring the landscape in China

Thanks Adam