Africa needs more data centres

Africa needs more data centres

Every day people around the world generate 500 million tweets, post 4.3 billion Facebook messages and make 6 billion Google searches.  And these numbers are growing, driven not least by Africa’s relatively young population which, in the last 18 months, has seen a huge 47% increase in active mobile social users, Sybrand Pretorius explains.

Social media is just one source of the data that is generated daily by businesses and consumers across the continent – data that typically needs to be managed and stored within a data centre, something that Africa is seriously short of. In fact, there is only one Tier-certified data centre in Africa for every 47 million people, compared to one for every 5.5 million people in Western Europe. And with Africa’s population growing faster than any other continent on earth, the problem is only going to get worse.

There are three critical issues: data security, data proximity and lack of resources. The shortage of professionally built and maintained data centres means that much of Africa’s data is stored in unsecured server rooms, often without adequate climate control, redundant power supplies, fire suppression capability or a host of other critical systems. These are vital to ensuring the integrity of a data centre and the optimal operation of the IT equipment it houses – essentially keeping data accessible and safe. Of course, data safety isn’t guaranteed by simply ensuring that there is redundancy built in to guard against and overcome potential points of system failure. Physical security is also important to minimise the risks of data being tampered with, corrupted, stolen or completely lost, any of which could lead to serious damage to an individual or company. So, the risks of storing and managing data in sub-standard facilities are significant.

Data proximity
Equally problematic is the storing of data in facilities outside the African continent. It may well be kept in professional colocation facilities that do not have any of the security concerns outlined above, but the lack of proximity to Africa-based end users regularly results in unacceptable latency when attempting to access data. In a world where businesses and consumers demand instant access to everything – particularly streaming media – these delays are frustrating for users and service providers alike. Added to this, there is a growing push towards new laws mandating not only that companies conduct themselves responsibly when collecting, processing, storing and sharing people’s personal information, but that this data must be stored on servers physically located within the country’s borders. Nigeria has already implemented such legislation, Kenya is about to follow suit and many other countries are exploring similar rules. Increasing the proximity of data to its ultimate users is critical from a customer satisfaction perspective and increasingly from regulatory perspectives too.

Lack of Resources
The money, materials and precision equipment required to build modern data centres are very hard to find in Africa.  The assumption is often made that standard brick and mortar buildings can be built or converted for data centre use.  The reality though is that traditional construction methods are typically not adequate to house mission critical ICT infrastructure – especially in Africa where environmental and weather extremes can deliver significant challenges to even the highest specified facilities. And Africa’s data centre resource issues are not simply material.  More significant still is the lack of local expertise, not only in designing and building new data centres but also in managing them on an ongoing basis.  This skills shortage is actively being addressed, but it will likely remain a challenge for the foreseeable future.

Regardless of the issues described above, the data boom that the continent has been experiencing for some time is now clearly fuelling an African data centre boom.  New professionally built and maintained facilities are needed across the continent as a matter of urgency, and this is providing opportunities not only for the traditional players in the ICT world but also for entrepreneurs looking to establish entirely new service opportunities with dedicated colocation and data hosting facilities. The question is where these new facilities are going to come from?

Prefabrication
The clear answer to addressing Africa’s immediate need for more data centres is prefabrication. Prefabricated data centres, such as Flexenclosure’s eCentre, are built off-site in clean-room factories where they are also pre-equipped and fully tested before being deployed and commissioned in-country.  In this way, construction costs and timescales can be managed with far greater accuracy and the data centres are built by a team of professionals highly experienced in delivering Tier-certified facilities – all of which contribute to significantly reducing project risk.

Traditionally constructed buildings’ inherent inflexibility means that they are typically built over-sized in the hope that the business will ultimately fill it – an extremely inefficient use of capital.  By contrast, the modular nature of prefabricated facilities allows capex to be more accurately managed during the initial build phase and to be tightly kept in line with the growth of the business over time. So future expansion can be undertaken exactly when the business needs greater capacity and without interrupting ongoing data centre operations. 

As a result, as they expand prefabricated facilities can also take advantage of new technologies that may not have been available during the first phase of the project. And critically, given Africa’s immediate need for new data centres, a prefabricated approach will always deliver fully commissioned facilities in a fraction of the time it would take to build a traditional brick and mortar one.  And that means faster service improvements for service users and faster time to revenue for service providers.

It’s clear that Africa needs a lot of new data centres, and fast. The good news is that prefabricated facilities are clearly the right solution for Africa’s short, medium and long-term data centre needs.

Sybrand Pretorius is sales director of Flexenclosure