• Silver linings

    As the world’s top data storage platforms set up in Africa, the conversation is shifting from whether the continent’s businesses should migrate to the cloud to how best to use it

    Silver linings

    NASDAQ-listed software company Domo recently published its seventh Data Never Sleeps infographic, unpacking the massive amounts of data that the global internet generates every minute. The findings are both fascinating and useless: fascinating in that they provide a snapshot of how irreversibly interconnected our modern world is; useless in that the numbers are simply too massive to adequately comprehend.

    Every minute, according to the 2018 data, YouTube users watch 4.5 million videos; while 18.1 million texts and 188 million emails are sent; 390 030 apps are downloaded; 9 772 Uber users take a ride; and Skype users make 231 840 calls. That’s just scratching the surface. Expand that into 60 minutes per hour, 24 hours per day, and you start to believe Domo’s claim that ‘by 2020 there will be 40 times more bytes of data than there are stars in the observable universe’.

    The numbers are mind-boggling but they are also proof – as if anybody still needed it – that digital transformation is essential for any organisation to remain relevant today and future-proof tomorrow. ‘Cloud platforms and services are part and parcel of this,’ Hemant Harie, MD of South Africa’s Gabsten Technologies, writes in an opinion piece. ‘However, despite this, many businesses are still sitting on the proverbial fence about migrating to the cloud. The reality is that every business is already using cloud services to some degree, and without a formal strategy they could land up facing unforeseen challenges. Without cloud services, business is all but impossible, so organisations need to get up to speed or risk losing their competitive edge.’

    Harie believes that one of the biggest challenges businesses face in terms of the cloud is actually understanding everything that it entails. ‘There are various levels of cloud integration that many businesses are using unknowingly, and this lack of knowledge could prove detrimental,’ he writes. ‘For example, Gmail and the Google suite of tools are cloud services, and they are extremely commonly used by many people. If your employees access their Gmail account at work, whether for email or any of Google’s productivity tools, then your organisation is using cloud services.’

    It’s a basic example, but it shows how pervasive the cloud has become – and, as Harie warns, ‘any enterprise might in fact have several cloud services in use in their business, but these are outside of the control of IT and do not form part of any formal backup or disaster recovery solution’.

    The cloud is everywhere. And while it provides the backbone for modern, mobile business growth, Manish Govil, global AWS practice head at India’s Wipro Limited, warns that cloud migration shouldn’t be seen as purely an infrastructure replacement strategy. ‘Cloud’s real business value comes in all of the advanced capabilities that cloud now makes possible: from the likes of server-less computing, security, databases on the cloud, data streaming, IoT, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and so much more. It’s these powerful capabilities that bring you the scalability and intelligence needed to compete in the digital era,’ according to Govil.

    He says analysts are predicting that by 2020, businesses worldwide will spend more than US$1 trillion on the cloud. Again, it’s a huge, almost incomprehensible number – but its real-world impact is already being seen in Africa, where a massive cloud gold rush is currently under way.

    Server-less computing, data streaming, virtual and augmented reality and machine learning are just some of the business benefits of the cloud

    Microsoft opened cloud data centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town this past March, becoming the first global provider to deliver cloud services from data centres on the African continent. Amazon’s AWS has confirmed it will launch its own infrastructure region in Cape Town in the first half of 2020; while Oracle recently announced plans to launch 20 new Oracle cloud regions by the end of 2020, with South Africa selected to be one of the pilot regions for its Gen 2 cloud infrastructure.

    This is good news for Africa, as it’s much easier to import large volumes of data into a local data centre. It’s also a clear sign of the confidence in the continent’s ICT potential and its businesses. Nedbank has already partnered with Microsoft to migrate components of its IT infrastructure to the cloud, and more are expected to follow shortly.

    Africa, perhaps even more so than more developed regions, is shaping up to be the next battlefield in a fierce cloud computing turf war. Market intelligence firm IDC predicts that by 2022, the top five ‘mega platforms’ – namely Oracle, Google’s Google Cloud, Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Azure and Alibaba Cloud’s Aliyun – will run 80% of the world’s total cloud workload. While announcing the new African data centre at September’s Oracle OpenWorld conference, Oracle founder Larry Ellison said in his keynote address: ‘We’re at least 25 times more reliable than Amazon. That’s a very conservative number.’

    But while the major players fight it out for market share, the market itself is in no rush to pick any single player. A recent survey by network analytics company Kentik found that enterprises are increasingly using more than one vendor in multi-cloud deployments, while Forrester Research confirms that 62% of public cloud adopters are using two or more unique cloud environments/platforms, while 74% of enterprises describe their strategy as hybrid/multi-cloud.

    Alain Sanchez, senior evangelist at cybersecurity company Fortinet, explains the dynamic in a recent opinion piece. ‘Traditionally, whenever a new technology arrives – whether the steam engine or the internet – there has been an orderly and often rapid transition from old to new tools. The advent of the cloud looked to be on a similar trajectory based on the initial assumption that it would be the best choice for all IT infrastructure,’ he says.

    Cloud’s trajectory, meanwhile, is more like ‘a ping-pong ball being tossed back and forth across the table’, with infrastructure, applications and data continually moving back and forth between on-premise physical networks to private/public cloud infrastructures as organisations of all sizes try to find the best way to use the cloud.

    Pointing to a recent IHS Markit survey, Sanchez says that of the 350 companies surveyed, 74% had moved an application into the public cloud, before moving it back into their on-premise or private cloud infrastructure. ‘This doesn’t mean they reversed all of their cloud deployments,’ he says. ‘Just that they are encountering cases for bi-directional movement. For example, 40% of respondents noted that, in some cases, the cloud deployments they moved back into their infrastructure were “planned temporary” deployments. This could be due to a variety of factors, such as the need to set up a temporary infrastructure during an IT transition associated with a merger or acquisition.’

    This combination of private, public, on-premise and hybrid cloud environments comes with a blend of convenience and – potentially – chaos. Sonja Weber, lead delivery solution manager at T-Systems South Africa, warns that multi-cloud environments provide no single view of an organisation’s investment in these platforms.

    ‘You have disparate systems and disparate skills, and no way of knowing if the investment that you made is really performing the way it should be, or realising the expected feature, functions or savings anticipated,’ she says. ‘What’s worse is that you also have no way of telling whether you’ve had a breach or failure. Should anything go wrong, chances are that you will not know until it’s too late. Therefore, the risk to your business, with the potential downtime and resultant direct damages, becomes a massive problem.’

    As Microsoft, AWS and Oracle set up shop in South Africa – with further data centres surely to follow – the continent’s businesses will be increasingly drawn to the speed and convenience of cloud computing. Already, though, the conversation has shifted entirely from whether or not Africa’s businesses should migrate to the cloud, to how best to use it.

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images