The Cloud in China

Contributed by Tom Blackadar, Managing Director at Binocular Vision LLC.

tom_blackadarCloud systems have emerged in recent years as a strong trend in pharma informatics.  Salesforce and Veeva are used by many companies, and many bioinformatics and computational chemistry applications use cloud computing resources.  CIOs are increasingly deciding that a well-run cloud system can be as secure and fast as a traditional data center, if not more so.

Externalization has driven global integration applications that bring together multiple CRO and academic partners.  Traditional technologies often fail in the complex security and high-latency networks required by these applications.  The cloud would seem to be an ideal solution, but will it work in China?

The Chinese internet is different.  Within the country, it is fast and reliable, in many ways more advanced than elsewhere.  I have 200 megabit fiber to my apartment in Shanghai.  I can place online orders for groceries and take-out food and receive them within hours.  But China carefully controls access to sites outside its borders.  Normal people cannot search Google or access Dropbox, and even unblocked sites are slow and unreliable because the international pipes are limited and subject to interruption and packet loss.  Video streaming and even HTTPS can be unavailable at times.

China wants to promote international commerce as long as it is balanced with social stability.  Enterprise businesses can buy dedicated international lines and request exceptions to site blockings.  Commercial cloud providers are generally unblocked as long as they avoid political traffic.  But it is difficult to separate the two goals, and any geopolitical event can lead to temporary shutdowns and protocol blockings that can interrupt even the most business-oriented cloud service.  Even a site like Salesforce can become inaccessible to users connecting from their home or hotel room.

One solution is to host the cloud service in China. Amazon now has a Beijing site that provides most AWS services but separated from other regions.  Alibaba, Baidu, and other Chinese cloud providers have excellent platforms that are advancing rapidly in the local market.  For relatively static content, mirror sites can be practical.

But what if you’re trying to host an ELN or data integration site?  Mirroring is impractical because the data must be dynamic and centralized at an international location.  Dedicated lines will be expensive if data volume becomes large.

There is no simple answer, but the problem can be solved for most commercial applications.  Things to consider:

  • Don’t rely on politically sensitive providers such as Google.
  • Avoid VPNs, video streaming, and other technologies that are routinely blocked.
  • Avoid elaborate login protocols and security challenges with many points of failure.
  • Use standard HTTP(S) and low-latency designs.
  • Keep it simple and go local where you can.

In the end, China will adopt the cloud and we can make it work.

Posted in Pistoia Alliance Members Only.

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