Networking a place in Chinese history
The origin of China's first Internet connection fittingly lies in an ongoing project to study energies and particles similar to those created during the formation of the universe.
The project, called the Beijing Electro-Spectrometer (BES) Collaboration, brought together physicists from the Institute of High-Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing and Stanford University's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC).
While the written record of the events that led to China's first Internet connection is incomplete and the memories of those involved have faded with time, an internal document written in early 1994 records the establishment of the first full Internet connection between SLAC and IHEP on May 17, 1994.
That first Internet connection was the result of a joint effort between IHEP and SLAC that was designed to improve communications between physicists in the U.S and China who were working on the BES collaboration.
"By 1990, it was recognized that if people were going to be collaborating they needed to be able to communicate easily," said R. "Les" A. Cottrell, assistant director of SLAC's computer services department.
At that time, IHEP was connected to SLAC over a dial-up X.25 connection that ran between CNPAC, then China's national public data network, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. This connection, which was used to exchange e-mail once per day, was slow and expensive - costing around US$100 per hour and running up monthly bills of around US$10,000.
In addition to the link with SLAC, IHEP also had an X.25 connection through CNPAC with the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. The dial-up link with CERN, which was used to exchange e-mail, was established in 1987 and upgraded to X.25 in 1990.
By 1991, SLAC scientists working on the BES Collaboration were regularly travelling to Beijing. However, the daily exchange of e-mail left these researchers feeling out of touch with SLAC and unable to access programs and data that resided on SLAC's computers. To overcome this problem, several researchers involved with the BES Collaboration suggested establishing a direct link between SLAC and IHEP.
A delegation from IHEP that included Xu Rongsheng, then the deputy director of IHEP's computer center who would lead the Chinese effort to establish a direct link, was visiting SLAC at that time and was receptive to the suggestion of a direct link. A visa was quickly arranged for Cottrell to visit Beijing in March 1991 to look into the possibility of establishing a direct link between SLAC and IHEP.
The first step would be to establish a modem connection between IHEP's Digital Equipment Corp. VAX computers and SLAC using the DECnet protocol.
"We knew that if we could just plug a modem into the VAX, and then use the modem to talk to the phone to dial up, theoretically we ought to be able to make a connection all the way to SLAC," Cottrell said.
There was just one problem: IHEP had only one phone line that was capable of making international calls, a line that was used by the institute's international relations department to send and receive faxes. The only phone lines available at IHEP's computer center were connected to an operator and could not be used to establish a data connection.
"There's no point in me going unless there's a phone line," Cottrell recalled telling the IHEP delegation, requesting that three phone lines capable of making international calls be installed ahead of his visit - one line to experiment with a modem connection to SLAC, a second line to allow direct voice connections and a third to be used as a backup in case something went wrong.
When Cottrell arrived in Beijing carrying a 9600-bps (bits per second) Telebit Corp. T2500 modem in his luggage, the three phone lines had been installed and were waiting for him. Before long, Cottrell, working with Charles Granieri, a computer systems specialist at SLAC, was able to get a direct modem connection between IHEP and SLAC that transmitted data at about 900 bps.
"We were able to log on to SLAC and we were able to do some real work," Cottrell said.
In addition to allowing access to SLAC's computers from IHEP, the DECnet connection was cheaper than the X.25 link, costing around US$4,000 per month.
While the DECnet connection between SLAC and IHEP offered significant improvements over the X.25 link, the experiments being conducted by the BES Collaboration still required a better connection. To that end, SLAC approached the U.S. Department of Energy and quickly won approval and funding to establish a dedicated 64K bps link using AT&T's SkyNet satellite service.
Getting the dedicated 64K bps connection up and running would prove more difficult than expected, lasting nearly two years. The initial plan was to connect SLAC with satellite earth stations in California and at Beijing's Capital International Airport. From the airport, a 35-kilometer microwave link would connect the earth station with the local phone exchange's fiber optic network, which would cover the last 15 kilometers to IHEP.
But problems getting the connection to work forced planners to instead use a copper link to cross the final two blocks between IHEP and the fiber optic network.
By early 1993, the Beijing Telecommunications Administration had succeeded in getting the connection to work with acceptable error rates and the link was officially handed over to IHEP on the morning of March 2, 1993.
"That was the first leased line in China," Xu said.
The improvements offered by the dedicated 64K-bps link, which initially used the DECnet protocol, were immediately noticeable. Tests showed the link offered a file copy rate of around 42K bps, a significant improvement over the 9600 bps modem that had previously been used to connect IHEP and SLAC. During 1993, the link was used to exchange an average of 2,500 e-mail messages per day, many of which were forwarded by SLAC to recipients in other countries via the Internet.
The dedicated link also allowed Internet access for physicists at IHEP who had an account that allowed them to access SLAC's computers. By remotely logging in to SLAC's computers, these researchers were also able to access the Internet. However, this connection did not offer full Internet access to all of the researchers at IHEP.
The IHEP-SLAC connection cost around US$10,000 per month, split between the U.S. and Chinese sides, less than the combined monthly cost of the X.25 and dial-up DECnet connections in 1991, which could cost as much as US$14,000 per month.
In the beginning, about 300 of China's top professors and scientists had access to IHEP's computers over dial-up connections but the dedicated connection soon drew interest from other academic and research institutions and raised hopes for a dedicated connection from China to the Internet.
Connecting IHEP to the Internet would have been possible when the dedicated link with SLAC was established in March 1993, but the U.S. government -- whose concerns were heightened in 1993 by tensions over alleged human rights violations in China and evidence that Chinese users were using the dedicated link with SLAC to access the Internet and copy files located on other U.S. servers -- would not allow the connection to be made, instead limiting use of the link to communication between researchers at IHEP and SLAC.
With the 64K bps connection operational between SLAC and IHEP, the final requirement necessary for Internet access was U.S. government approval to expand the scope of connectivity with IHEP and for the installation of a TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) router. The approval was held up by U.S. government concerns that the router -- which was from Cisco Systems Inc. -- would be unable to handle connections above 64K bps.
In addition to SLAC and IHEP, plans to upgrade the link to a TCP/IP connection with the Internet also involved the U.S.-based Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy and provided Internet connectivity to SLAC. Approval to use a TCP/IP connection was slow in coming, with the U.S. Department of Commerce finally issuing approval for the export to China of the first TCP/IP router at the end of 1993.
The Cisco router arrived in Beijing in February 1994 and was installed at IHEP in March. At that point, ESnet took over management of the U.S. end of the link from SLAC, one of the final steps towards opening the Internet connection with China.
Two months later, on April 18, 1994, ESnet sent out an e-mail to announce it planned to begin carrying Chinese IP traffic and on May 17, 1994, a full Internet connection was established by ESnet that linked the IHEP-SLAC connection with FIX-West, at that time the interconnection point on the U.S. West Coast for all of the major IP networks.
China never looked back.
Sumner Lemon and Stephen Lawson