• Information hyperdrive

    The data centre arena is primed for growth

    Information hyperdrive

    In its 2020 State of African Data Centres report, the African Data Centres Association (ADCA) describes a ‘largely untapped market’ with ‘huge opportunity’ for business. ‘There are only 85 players in 54 African countries with a population of over 1.3 billion inhabitants,’ the ADCA writes. ‘The amount of data centre area in square metres on the African continent is similar to the Paris or Amsterdam area, with an economy of 12 million people. That means there is a one for 100 ratio and shows the room for growth in Africa.’

    Since then, a handful of leading providers have been working to fill that gap. In October 2021 Teraco Data Environments, Africa’s largest vendor-neutral data centre provider, completed Phase 1 of its new hyperscale data centre in Cape Town. With 25 000 m² of building structure, 8 000 m² of data hall space and 18 MW of critical power load, CT2 is the largest data centre in the Western Cape, and one of the biggest in Africa.

    In August 2022, Teraco sold a majority interest to global data centre giant Digital Realty, in a move that signalled international interest in Africa’s data centre fortunes. Digital Realty was already active in Kenya, Nigeria and Mozambique, the strategic importance of which is being enhanced by the ongoing implementation of the continent’s subsea cable networks. ‘Africa is poised to remain a high growth, high-demand area for data centre solutions,’ says Teraco CEO Jan Hnizdo.

    When one speaks to other industry insiders, it becomes clear that Africa’s data centre space is primed for growth. Michael Abendanon, head of Middle East and Africa at NTT Global Data Centres (which acquired Dimension Data in 2019), describes what he saw on a recent visit to Nairobi. ‘The big hyperscalers are in Kenya,’ he says.

    ‘Microsoft is there, and you’ve got system integration and service provider services there, but you don’t have massive data centre investments … yet. But it’s coming. It takes a while to build these [data centre] facilities. There are one or two in Kenya, but there isn’t large-scale deployment. We’re starting to see it in South Africa, but there’s still lots of room for growth in terms of data centres, internet penetration, consumption of platform services and so on.’

    Mike Last, chief marketing officer and VP of international business development at African hyperscale carrier WIOCC, agrees. He says the enterprise market for data centre space is growing in certain markets. ‘Enterprise adoption varies greatly country-to-country. In the more open and developed markets – such as South Africa, Nigeria, Mauritius – the benefits of migration to third-party facilities are well understood and enterprise demand continues to rise. In less open or less well-served markets, most enterprises continue to maintain on-site server rooms and data centres, creating latent opportunity for early movers into such data centre markets.

    ‘However, what we have seen is that when high-quality colocation facilities become available in a country, enterprises will typically turn to adopting colocation. But the time to adoption varies from country to country.’

    That has a lot to do with the sheer scale of investment required to set up a data centre – and how you define what a data centre looks like. ‘A data centre is an ICT play, but it is also a property play,’ says Abendanon. ‘Historically, every large organisation has a data centre of some kind. It could be a room with some racks, raised flooring, gas and fire suppression, some power… But that’s not what we’re talking about. You could say that the server in the corner of your house that’s cooled with an air con is a data centre, and technically it is. But we’re talking about big, industrial-sized, hyperscale-ready complexes.’

    Consider Teraco’s JB3 facility, located in its Isando Campus east of Johannesburg. The multibillion-rand facility includes 45 000 m² of building structure, 12 000 m² of data hall space and 29 MW of critical power load. The next step in Africa’s data centre journey is to expand that level of connectivity beyond the continent’s major hubs.

    The next stage of Africa’s data centre journey is to expand beyond the major markets of South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria

    ‘Most activity is limited to the major markets,’ says Last. ‘In recent years, there has been significant build-out of large, core data centres in major urban centres, with South Africa leading the way. Nigeria and Kenya [are] now following, with Nigeria the dominant of the two. We believe that both have hit the tipping point of achieving significant take-up by cloud providers and content distribution networks.

    ‘Some smaller facilities have also been launched to meet local demand at key hubs in further countries: for example, BoFiNet in Gaborone or TelOne in Harare. This model of deploying data storage and processing at large, remote facilities offers clients cost and operational benefits through economies of scale. However, the result of this model for data centre deployment is a centralisation of connectivity and capability within these hubs, leaving most of Africa underserved.’

    Last believes that as data volumes grow, processing demands increase and low-latency requirements need servicing, this architecture must change to one that fully supports localised delivery, storage and processing of data and content. ‘The cloud needs to be “decentralised” to support content delivery, not only to the office, but increasingly to the home, the hotel, the car and everywhere in between,’ he says. ‘Social media means end-to-edge content generation and consumption, not the core-out consumption we’re currently set up to support. Deployment of local storage and local processing within a highly connected edge DC ecosystem will be critical going forward.’

    WIOCC’s Open Access Data Centres programme is addressing that need by rolling out an interconnected, open-access network of smaller, edge data centres to business and content hubs countrywide, supported by core facilities at key locations. ‘This initiative is enabling clients to cost-effectively deploy new network technologies and expand coverage into new markets, at the same time implementing an architecture that minimises latency through content being served locally, optimising end-user experience and underpinning successful roll-out of new, time-sensitive applications,’ says Last.

    For Abendanon, it comes down to market demands and business cases. ‘A data centre is much like a shopping centre. Shopping centres pop up where there’s enough people to consume retail products and offerings in a specific suburban area. As you get this infrastructure build and penetration of internet and data services, so people consume data services to buy things to sell things to grow the economy and to digitalise their organisation. A data centre is really the heartbeat of a digital economy. It’s a digital hotel for the digital economy. And the more Africa’s digital economy grows, the more “hotels” you will find.’

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images