"Eastern Data, Western Computing": China's National Big Data Infrastructure Project
A look at this ambitious project, its progress so far, and its deeper meaning
Last February, four Chinese government bodies1 jointly announced the commencement of a large-scale project to restructure China’s data infrastructure. Known as the “Eastern Data, Western Computing” project — which I will refer to as “EDWC” for short — it aims to build a network of big data centers that move much of China’s data storage and computing from the populous, data-overburdened east to the more spacious and resource-rich western regions.
The project’s aim is twofold: to alleviate developmental inequalities between China’s eastern and western regions, and to build a stronger and more environmentally friendly big data infrastructure to support the country’s future technological needs.
Since the project’s launch five months ago, there’s been a steady flow of updates regarding the construction of new data centers, regional talks held to discuss the project’s local and national impact,2 and statements from enterprises like Huawei and ZTE regarding their technical contributions.
In this article, I aim to provide an overview of the EDWC project: its aims, its progress so far, and the challenges and opportunities it presents.
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Building a new infrastructure for big data
At its core, the Eastern Data, Western Computing project aims to build eight computing hubs across China. Five of these hubs are in western regions (Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Chengdu-Chongqing region, Guizhou), while the remaining three are in the east (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, Yangtze River Delta, Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area).3 Each hub is home to at least one data center cluster.
Commonly described as an integration of data centers, cloud computing, and big data,4 the EDWC project has also been invoked as a spiritual successor to China’s other nation-spanning engineering efforts such as the West-East Gas Pipeline, the West-East Electricity Transfer Project, and the South-North Water Transfer Project. In terms of national goals, the EDWC project is an implementation of one of the stated goals in the outline of China’s Fourteenth Five-Year Plan:
Accelerate the construction of a national integrated big data center system, and strengthen computing power planning and smart scheduling.
Progress so far
Since February, the project has seen steady progress. Here are just several examples:
The China Telecom Hangzhou Big Data Center, a project for the Yangtze River Delta computing hub which has received a total investment of 5 billion yuan, began construction on March 31.
In May, construction started on a cloud and big data center in Qingyang, which will form part of the Gansu computing hub. The project by China Telecom Gansu has received a total investment of 447 million CNY.
Work on the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area hub’s Shaoguang cluster officially commenced on May 29, following an official opening ceremony. The data center cluster is expected to hold 500,000 standard-sized racks by 2025.
On July 23, Guizhou’s regional government announced its intention to accelerate EDWC work on the province’s computing hub.
The significance behind the project
On the day of EDWC’s approval, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) also published a Q&A document outlining some key points about the project. It included a section defining the project’s significance:
Implementing the “Eastern Data, Western Computing” project promotes the rational layout of data centers, the optimization of their supply-and-demand balance, and promotes these centers’ green intensity and interconnection. The project is significant on many levels:
First, it is beneficial for elevating the entire nation’s level of computing. The construction of a national, interconnected arrangement of data centers expands the scope of [China’s] computing facilities, improves computing efficiency, and achieves the scaling and intensification of China’s computing power.
Second, it is beneficial for promoting green development. Increasing the spread of data centers in the west will substantially increase the scale of green energy use by taking advantage of the region’s local green resources. In addition, through technical innovation, the upgrading of older facilities,5 and low-carbon development, this project can continuously optimize the energy efficiency of data centers.
Third, it is beneficial for expanding efficient investment. Data centers have a long supply chain, and they involve a broad scope of investment. In these regards, data centers have a strong driving effect. The construction of computing hubs and data center clusters will drive both upstream and downstream industry investment.
Fourth, it is beneficial for promoting coordinated regional development. Distributing computing facilities from east to west will drive the effective shift of relevant industries, promote the flow of data and values between east and west, clear out more room for development in the east, and open up the west for the development of new patterns.
A greener data network
There are many practical reasons to focus on Western China for developing a stronger, more future-proof national data infrastructure; at the top of the list is the region’s greater access to green energy. With China’s many computing needs — spanning mobile internet, the Internet of Things (IoT), the Industrial Internet of things (IIoT), AI, big data, etc. — this project is essential for future-proofing China’s data-dependent development.
Data centers are notoriously energy-hungry, and China’s demand for data storage and processing will only increase with time. Yu Xiaohui, head of the Chinese think tank China Academy for Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), estimates that data center growth will remain steady at around 20% during the first half of this decade. It’s estimated by China’s Open Data Center Committee that the country’s data centers used 93,900,000 MW/hrs of power and emitted 64,640,000 tons of carbon in 2020. This power usage will likely quadruple to 380,000,000 MW/hrs in 2030, and without the use of green resources, carbon emissions will surpass 200 million tons — 2% of all the carbon that China will emit that year.6
With China’s stated goals of reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, leaning into the west’s more abundant access to renewables is a logical decision.
Take Guizhou Province, a key contributor to China’s aforementioned West-East Electricity Transfer Project and home to one of the project’s computing hubs. With its cool climate and its stable access to thermal and hydro power, it’s an ideal home for data centers. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that the region became a hub for big data even before the EDWC project was launched, even earning the nickname of “China’s data valley.”
The northwestern province of Gansu, another computing hub location, is another model example of green energy access. Take this recent Twitter thread on the state of solar power in Gansu by David Fishman from The Lantau Group, an energy-focused consultancy.
A road to balanced development
As mentioned in the final point of the earlier NDRC excerpt, another stated purpose of the Eastern Data, Western Computing project has also been to balance the development between the more populous east and the more sparsely developed west.
“Driving the ‘Eastern Data, Western Computing’ project is an important undertaking in resolving the imbalances and inadequacies present in China’s development,” states Li Hongwu, head of the China Unicom Research Institute. The project is not just beneficial for promoting balanced and sufficient regional and industrial development, he says; it’s also beneficial for boosting the entire industry value chain’s resistance against risks. Just as the West-East Electricity Transfer Project and West-East Gas Pipeline projects resolved energy issues, the Eastern Data, Western Computing project uses a new type of infrastructure to not only bring more investment to the west and assist in reshaping local industries and economies, but it can also use this computing infrastructure to steer the flow and development of high-level applications and drive the coordinated development of China’s digital economy.
Impact and opportunities
The EDWC project’s ripples can be felt in China’s high-tech industries.
Right after the construction of the project’s ten data center clusters was approved, Chinese digital computing stocks rose by 7.8%. Two companies — cloud provider CapitalOnline Data Service and private network services provider NOVA Technology Corp — saw their stocks jump 20% on Monday, February 21.7
Li Bin, deputy director of the NDRC’s Innovation and Development Center, has stated that EDWC can drive investment of around 400 billion yuan per year.
The project is a boon for many tech-related companies. Tech and telecom giants such as Huawei, ZTE, and ICT have key roles to play in EDWC. Another example is the fiber optics industry. Since China’s current backbone networks will be unable to meet users’ future needs for handling greater quantities of data at low latencies, fiber optic companies like Changfei (which has won bids for projects by China Telecom and China Mobile this year) will be able to boost the transmission speeds of China’s backbone networks.8
As Huawei’s chief data center network architect Li Jun explained in an article published last January, Huawei has leveraged its industry-leading IP network solution for cross-regional computing power scheduling. This solution, he explains, includes three specific technical innovations: an intelligent lossless algorithm, distributed adaptive routing, and an intelligent cloud-mapping algorithm.9
Discussions of the EDWC project have frequently emphasized how the project will create opportunities for development in the west. In Inner Mongolia’s Horinger County, home to the data center cluster forming one of the project’s major hubs, 58 IT projects are currently underway. Twelve of these projects cost more than 1 billion yuan each, and four of these exceed costs of 10 billion yuan. Inner Mongolia’s capital city of Hohhot, which administrates Horinger County, also held a forum on the Eastern Data, Western Computing project earlier this month.
As work on the Eastern Data, Western Computing project steadily continues, it isn’t without its challenges. Many have pointed out the difficulties involved with developing data centers in Western China, as the region has traditionally lacked the market demand and technological capabilities of the east. According to Wu Hequan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, “Data storage and computing is costly and will take time to pay off. If the western regions rely only on subsidies for power and land to attract data centers, this will be hard for them to sustain.”10
Overall, the EDWC project represents a landmark step for China that combines the country’s need for data-centric growth, its commitment to decarbonization, and its push for more balanced development in its eastern and western regions. For anyone with an interest in China’s technological growth, this is an essential project to keep an eye on.11
Specifically, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), and National Energy Administration (NEA).
For a more visual representation of these hubs, readers of Chinese can refer to the image included in this China National Radio article.
Note that the western regions of Ningxia, Guishou, and Gansu have also been home to large data center clusters for quite some time. As such, this presumably refers to the upgrading of current data center facilities and/or the leveraging of existing regional resources to support the construction of new facilities (credit to Steve Mushero for the tip about mentioning the region’s existing data center infrastructure).
Translation note: The phrase 以大换小 is used in the original text. Literally “replacing the small with the large,” another recent use of this phrase is in the context of a project upgrading an aging wind farm in Chongqing.
Huawei also published an English translation of this article, although it is notably missing a decent chunk of content, such as the section on distributed adaptive routing.