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Government paces cloud development in China

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 10, 2013
The Chinese government is supporting investment in cloud and mobile infrastructure to overcome the country's bandwidth and capacity constraints. Smart cities and other civil projects are bidding for funds but grassroots usage may drive future adoption.

I have just returned from a short visit to China as part of a EuroCloud delegation to the 5th China Cloud Computing Conference in Beijing, invited by the Chinese Institute of Electronics (CIE). Although I was not there as a Diginomica writer, I'd like to share some impressions here as the trip gave a valuable insight into the evolution of the cloud in China.

The 20-mile (32km) route from Beijing's international airport to the city center is a challenging one for any driver. Like many capital cities, Beijing is renowned for frequent traffic jams and aggressive driving styles, especially at busy intersections.

Those conditions make the ultimate test for a computer-controlled, self-driving car. Forget those familiar images of Google's driverless cars on the California freeways, or autonomous Audi and Mercedes test cars negotiating well-disciplined German city streets. Chinese researchers have already caught up with and passed those milestones. Now they're working to perfect autonomous driving over the far tougher route they call 'T2T' — from the airport's Terminal 3 all the way to Tiananmen Square at the heart of Beijing.

Li Deyi, a fellow at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and chair of the CIE's cloud computing expert committee, told last week's conference that multi-lane intersections were the most difficult challenge faced by the driverless cars. Lanes are poorly defined and drivers follow many different patterns, so that whatever combination of geographic information systems (GIS), video, radar and laser telemetry is used, the computers still don't have enough information to find their way through.

Instead, researchers are using CCTV images and mobile phone location data to track and analyze the daily behavior of real-life drivers as they traverse these tricky intersections, to build up a library of successful trajectories the autonomous cars can follow.

Grand visions

This combination of cloud-based data collection and big data analysis to solve big-city problems is typical of the projects showcased at last week's conference.

The funding to develop China's cloud computing infrastructure is coming from the government, and so the nascent industry is championing projects designed to appeal to city, regional and national government decision-makers: smart cars to save fuel and reduce congestion; smart cities to optimize urban transportation; smart policing to enhance civil security.

Many speakers warned that such grand visions were at risk unless the country brings its infrastructure up to scratch.

"Cloud computing can only be successful when we do not have to worry about bandwidth or storage," said one regional governor, who linked investment in IT to the success of urbanization and agricultural modernization.

"It will serve to enhance public services and public governance," he said, citing food management, health applications, smart transportation, environment monitoring and reliable information sharing as areas where it would have a positive impact.

Cloud computing has to compete for funding with many other priorities in China's developing economy, but the word from the powerful Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) was that the government sees it as a key initiative.

Addressing the conference, Deputy Minister Liu Lihua said that MIIT will support the expansion of cloud computing and mobile computing, noting that, "as compared with developed countries, cloud computing in China still lags behind."

There's clearly a determination to catch up and, just like China's progress with self-driving cars, the uprating of the Internet, mobile and cloud computing infrastructure can only be a matter of time. That implies significant spending on building out datacenters and the communications networks to connect them up to users. Telecoms companies, datacenter operators and regional development bodies are all looking for a share of those funds.

Many speakers cited bandwidth as a top priority. Storage was also highlighted since the scale of China's population is such that any aggregation of data automatically becomes 'big' data: Intel's Boyd Davis cited the example of China Mobile collecting 30 terabytes of call records every month, which it processes on demand to deliver real-time billing information to subscribers.

Demand from the real world

Looking beyond these near-term priorities, other speakers focused on what happens once the infrastructure is in place and attention turns to the applications that will run in the cloud. Despite today's emphasis on government setting the pace, several saw market demand playing a bigger role in the future. That outcome would be consistent with what has happened in other parts of the world, where cloud adoption has soared after the roll-out of reliable broadband infrastructure.

"Business people in China in the future will be the mainstream users of the public cloud," predicted Bill Huang, president of the China Mobile Research Institute. Its Open Mobile Platform is designed to allow rapid development and deployment of business applications in a matter of days. In a later presentation, the chief architect of ZTE Corporation described its suite of mobile applications for small and home businesses.

Fan Li, vice president of search engine company Baidu, suggested cloud adoption was just getting started: "Are we booming?" she asked rhetorically. "I would say that we have not yet reached that tipping point."

Her admission that, in the past, "we failed to notice the demand from the real world," was a recognition that, just like IT specialists all over the world, China's cloud pioneers have tended to focus on building out the technology rather than paying attention to how it is actually being used.

Her presentation homed in on ways to make practical information easier to find online — medical advice to save on expensive healthcare costs; online education services to supplement traditional learning; and real-time driving directions to help avoid congestion. These were ideas to help solve the big-city problems of Chinese citizens. Unlike the grand, smart-city schemes described by other speakers, they harnessed the potential of the Internet for individuals to help themselves through access to online information and resources.

The key to unlocking this potential, she concluded, was to give people more access to information so that they could discover ways to make productive use of it. "Information is not yet open and transparent," she said. "I ask you to collaborate with Baidu to make information available and find the demands and interests of the general public in the real world."

After the grand blueprints of other speakers, her call to mobilize the creative potential of the crowd made a refreshing contrast. It was a signal that China's path to the cloud shares the same tensions between top-down planning and grassroots innovation that are seen all over the world. Government is setting the pace for cloud development for now, but once it has put the necessary infrastructure in place, it will have to step back enough to let the creativity of the crowd flourish.

Photo credit: Conference banner @philww; driverless car

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