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Hosting in China or overseas: making the best choice for your business

Should I host my site in China or overseas? This question is often asked when considering establishing an online presence for the Chinese market. We offer both China (Shanghai, Shenzhen) and overseas (Singapore, UK, USA) hosting, and we have clients coming to us for advice about the best location. At the same time, many do not clearly understand the issues involved and the differences between both choices.

Although making in China seems to be the way to go, we will see through this article that it makes sometimes sense to consider alternative locations.

Speed of access is the main reason why sites serving mainly a (mainland) Chinese audience should be hosted on servers physically located in China. Due to what is usually referred as the “Great Firewall”, overseas traffic to China is filtered, reducing substantially the speed of sites hosted in other countries. Especially when your site is in a shared hosting environment, it can make a huge difference. Clients and potential prospects may not have the time and patience to wait tens of seconds for your site to load, or to go from one page to another.

The second strong point for hosting in China is avoiding to have your site blocked in China. Whole blocks or specific IP addresses are randomly blocked from access in China (when for instance that IP is shared by a politically-“unfriendly”, adult or other types of sites judged not suitable for the Chinese audience, which can trigger the block). Locally-hosted sites are less susceptible of being blocked (unless your hosting company goes into trouble and servers are shut down). Many companies which got tired of having to move from host to host due to their sites being blocked in China ended up setting up an account with a domestic Chinese hosting company.

Now, what is negative about hosting in China and why should you consider hosting overseas instead? Here is a list of six factors that can be critical for your business:

1-ICP license. All sites hosted in China are required to apply for an ICP (internet content provider) license. The process can take from two weeks to a couple of months. The ICP can be applied as an individual, but for a corporate website your business license will be needed. You can sure operate your website prior to obtaining the ICP license (or not apply for one at all), but at any time the relevant authorities may ask your web hosting company to shut down your account.

2-Censorship: Hosting in China will force you to self-censor your website, as any sensitive content (especially if in Chinese language) may mean trouble for you and your host. If your site has blogs and forums in Chinese language, you will need to be very careful and you may even be required to apply for additional licenses.

3-Data security and copyright: There has been many cases of Chinese datacenters selling data hosted on their servers to third parties. The likelihood of having your site copied and your pages contents or confidential information stolen is definitely higher when hosted on Chinese servers. Rule of law in the hosting industry is almost inexistent, and for copyright infringement issues you will have all the trouble to get any assistance from law enforcement organizations.

4-Cost: hosting in China is more expensive when compared to overseas (especially the US), especially for larger space plans. It can make a real difference over a couple of years.

5-Technical support: English-language technical support is in most cases not available from most of the Chinese web hosting companies and datacenters. On the other hand, if you were used to a 24/7 support from your host overseas, in China you will have to settle for business hours only. If your site happens to go down or have problems on Saturday, your only option would be to wait till Monday for a technician to get it resolved. You can imagine the impact on your holiday sales.

6-Email: if email is an important part of your business, then you should definitely not host in China. Or, as we recommend to most of our clients, even if your web hosting is in China, keep the email hosting overseas. Many shared Chinese IP addresses are heavily used by spammers, ending up in blacklists, meaning your sent emails will in most cases find themselves in spam boxes of the recipients. It is true that European and US mail servers can be very slow when used in China (both for POP and SMTP servers), so alternative locations in south east Asia should be considered instead.

As we have seen, many factors need to be taken in account when deciding of where to host your website. If only part of your site is in Chinese or your site audience is shared between China and overseas, it makes sense to keep your main site overseas and get a sub-domain or a new .cn domain hosted in China for that specific market. From our own experience, Hong Kong and Singapore make excellent alternative choices if your site is to serve mainly visitors from mainland China, avoiding you the troubles of hosting in China while offering decent access speed.

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