Chinese Information Market

Seamless Networking in China: Progress, Problems and Perspectives

by Huijie Chen and Heting Chu

Seamless networking, such as the Internet, was unheard of in China not long ago. But as the country's economy is rapidly growing, more and more seamless networks have been set up to meet the demand for sharing resources, exchanging information and promoting communication - the three ultimate goals of networking.

Telecommunication Infrastructure

An appropriate telecommunications infrastructure is the prerequisite for having seamless networks. In recent years, the annual growth rate of telecommunications in China has been around 40%, at least twice as fast as the national economy. China's data communication infrastructure has been built primarily upon two public data networks - Chinapac and China DDN (digital data network). Both of them have recently been constructed by the Chinese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication (MTP).

Chinapac is an X.25 packet-switching public data network (PDN) which covers the capitals of China's 30 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions and is also linked with 37 PDNs in 19 countries and regions. The network transmits data at the speed of 64Kbps at maximum. China DDN is a digital data network covering 21 large cities within the country at present, and it is connected to several DDNs in foreign countries as well. The maximum data transmission speed of China DDN is now 2Mbps.

Pioneer Networks

China started researching and implementing seamless networks in the late 1980s. The following is an overview of major pioneer networks in China.

China Academic Network (CANET) was set up in 1987 by the Institute of Computer Application in Beijing as an e-mail-only international connection routed through Karlsruhe, Germany. CANET was the first network in China with an Internet domain name (canet.cn), carrying users nationwide through dial-up links or Chinapac. But without TCP/IP implementation, CANET users cannot connect to the Internet directly. Due to budgetary difficulties, CANET has no plan for further development.

China Research Network (CRN) was built through a pilot network project running from 1987 to 1990. CRN currently consists of nine universities and research institutions in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shijiazhuang connected via either dial-up links or Chinapac. Like CANET, CRN has its own Internet domain name, crn.cn, and e-mail-only gateways located in countries that belong to the Association of European Research Networks (RARE). CRN's international well-known entry point (WEP) is at the North China Institute of Computer Technology (NCI) in Beijing, which is one of China's top computer research institutions. By any measure, CRN is merely for computer and network related research.

The National Computing & Networking Facility Center (NCFC), funded by the State Planning Commission and the World Bank, is a new shining star in seamless networking in China. NCFC is located in the Zhongguancun area in Beijing and currently includes three parts: the fiber optic backbone; three sub-networks in the area: Chinese Academy of Sciences Network (CASNET), Peking University Network (PUNET) and Tsinghua University Network (TUNET); and facilities for connecting to other domestic and international networks. There are now about 2000 nodes on the three sub-networks of NCFC. NCFC is a "showcase" project for a nationwide research and educational network. Given the roles the three best-known academic institutions play in China's academia, it is no doubt that NCFC will become the base for China's future development in seamless networking.

Internet Connectivity

China officially became an Internet member in 1994, although some pioneer networks registered their Internet domain names as early as 1990. By the time of this writing, the following three networks, all located in Beijing, have been connected to the Internet directly.

  1. NCFC, the most influential seamless network in China, got connected to the Internet in April 1994. The physical connectivity was established between the CASNET Computer Network Center and the NSFNET backbone in Stockton, California, via SprintLink over a leased 56Kbps line. In 1993, NCFC registered at the InterNIC domain names for each of its three sub-networks, i.e., cas.edu.cn for CASNET, pu.edu.cn for PUNET and tu.edu.cn for TUNET. All three sub-networks obtained Class B IP addresses.
  2. The Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) got the first international leased line in Beijing in June 1991 for its network connection with SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) at Stanford University. Only DECnet protocol was running on the leased line originally. TCP/IP was not implemented until May 1994. Since then, IHEP has gained full Internet connectivity. IHEP has registered the domain of ihep.ac.cn at InterNIC. Two Class C IP addresses were assigned to IHEP. In July 1994, the IHEP's Internet route was switched to the Japanese National Institute of High Energy Physics (KEK) in Tsukuba near Tokyo.
  3. Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT) became the third entity in China with direct Internet connectivity. BUCT joined the Internet family on September 20, 1994, via Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. Its domain name is buct.edu.cn. Of the three networks, IHEP is the most publicized in the Internet world, although NCFC is more visible within China. BUCT, however, is little known both domestically and internationally.
Obviously, Internet connection activities are taking place mainly in Beijing - the capital of China. Institutions outside of Beijing are trying to get connected to the Internet through either NCFC or IHEP. For instance, the Computing Center at the Institute of Modern Physics located in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, was successfully linked to IHEP via Chinapac recently. The regional network in Shanghai is going to be connected to the NCFC backbone in the near future.

Problems and Perspectives

It is not hard to see from the above descriptions that problems do exist in seamless networking in China. The following are the most significant.

Lack of cooperation and coordination. Disparate networks were constructed and operated alone with no overall plan to get those networks interconnected. This problem resulted mainly from insufficient financial resources and absence of cooperation among concerned parties. For example, while there is an expectation that NCFC will develop into the "NSFNET" in China, no satisfactory answers can be found to questions as to how other institutions will connect to NCFC and who will oversee the implementation. Meanwhile, NCFC staff argue that it receives no funding to link other institutions to its backbone, although they do wish to help establish such linkages. Furthermore, it is reported that NCFC is not permitted to share its international link to the Internet. Another example in this regard is the management of China's domain name with ".CN" as root. Currently there is no agreement nor authority on who should be in charge of the domain name assignment/management and how the domain name server (DNS) should be set up and managed.

Little connectivity and limited accessibility. Even though China now has full Internet connectivity, the connectivity is, as seen, established only in Beijing. For various reasons, including the issues of coordination and cooperation, China has a long way to go before other cities and provinces in the country have access to the global network. At present, only some well-known researchers, scientists, professors and people directly involved in seamless networking are given accounts on the major networks listed above. As for others, one must be at least an associate professor at a certain institution to be eligible for account application. An initial lump sum of China's currency 1500 Yuan (roughly $200US) is needed for the physical installation (excluding modem charge), and 15 Yuan for every online hour thereafter.

On the other hand, Internet accessibility in China is limited both in types of network tools being used and in amount of connect time available. To most users, e-mail is the only network application that they can use. Other tools are either unavailable, or no one knows how to use them. At IHEP, for example, in order to save time and money and to keep the 12 hot network lines "cooler," the management suggests that users log out of the system within 10 minutes. This means that messages must be pretyped and transferred to one's account before being sent out, and incoming messages must also be transferred into PC versions before being read.

Inadequate information infrastructure. Information infrastructure has two major components: telecommunications and information resources. As reported by NCFC, for instance, its Internet link is already saturated during the daytime, preventing the connection of more institutions to its backbone. The authors of this article, as users outside of China, often are unable to get connected to the networks in China due to the inadequate infrastructure within the country. In addition, there are very few information resources available in electronic form in China for people to share, although some Gopher and WWW servers (e.g., gopher:://gopher.net.edu.cn, http://www.cnc.ac.cn, http://www.pku.edu.cn and http://www.ihep.ac.cn) have been set up. As a result, similar to the situation in communicating printed information, network users within China function more often as information receivers than they do as information disseminators. While China, as a developing country, has many pressing issues to handle other than the construction of information superhighways, all of the above indicate that China needs better information infrastructure for the advancement of its seamless networks.

Indeed, China is speeding up its construction of a modern information superhighway and plans to implement a series of "golden projects," i.e., building seamless networks for selected fields. For example, the Golden Bridge Project for economic information, the Gold Card Project for financial exchange, the Golden Customs Project for foreign trade and the Golden Key Project for education.

Furthermore, CERNET (China Education and Research NETwork), a nationwide network with Internet connectivity, is under construction. The project is directed by the China State Education Commission. The first phase of this project, from 1994 to 1996, is to connect about 100 universities in China using China DDN as its backbone. The second phase, from 1996 to 2000, will connect most institutions of higher education all over the country. The network center of CERNET will be located at Tsinghua University in Beijing, with eight regional centers to be established in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xi'an, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu and Shenyang.

As seamless networking continues to evolve worldwide, we look forward to China digitally reaching across the Great Wall to every corner of the world, and vice versa!


Huijie Chen is reference librarian at the Heindel Library at Penn State Harrisburg. Heting Chu is associate professor in the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University.