The need for speed: Why Africa's datacenters are still trailing behind

Summary:While latency is holding back the development of online services in Africa, and unreliable power supply holding back the development of datacenters, what's next for facilities on the continent?

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Africa's datacentre industry is lagging, but on the rise. Image: Shutterstock

For years, Kyle Spencer has been devoting countless hours of his free time to his passion: online gaming. The gaming community in East Africa, where Spencer lives, is woefully underdeveloped, but he has been doing his best to bring players together. It has always been an uphill battle; for games that rely on quick reflexes, the issue of latency makes connecting with other gaming enthusiasts across the region all but impossible.

But things are improving in East Africa, both for gamers and for businesses, governments and others who rely on low-latency connections. As director of the Ugandan Internet eXchange Point, Spencer has been working to improve the state of local connectivity, and internet service providers have been doing their bit as well by building out more and more infrastructure to neighbouring countries.

"The number of latency-sensitive data services, including e-government, has grown very rapidly," Spencer says. "This has led to significant economic growth, and reduced reliance on international transit."

But measures like these just might lead to more long-lasting solutions as well, he says, by improving market conditions for Africa-based datacenters.

The home-grown datacenter industry in Africa has been steadily growing, and South Africa does now boast a handful of high-quality facilities of its own. Still, "it's a fairly simple market right now," says Lilia Severina, business development director for EMEA at the Uptime Institute, a consortium of companies in the datacentre industry.

Throughout the continent, the lack of a continuous power supply continues to dog the industry, preventing local datacenters from operating to international standards. As a result, multinationals such as Google and Microsoft have all steered clear.

"Any kind of streamed data that relies on high quality of storage of data — and instant access to that data and services like caching – these systems need to be available 24/7. And to make anything available 24/7 you need a continuous power supply," Severina says. "No one could supply solid quality of service if they were to rely on datacenters in Africa."

According to Seacom, whose submarine cables connect Africa to Europe and the Middle East, 90 percent of African internet content is hosted elsewhere. The resulting latency affects anything that requires streaming, and the distances involved make streamed services more expensive for consumers, Severina says.

But African investment is slowly starting to change that. Banks, keen to improve the resilience of their datacenters, have been spending to create environments that can keep their systems up and running.

Some governments have been pouring money into their IT sectors as well, says Severina; datacenters in countries such as Kenya, where undersea cabling systems land, are growing particularly fast.

Natural resources may give the industry an additional boost, she adds, pointing to the oil-fuelled growth of the datacenter industry in the Middle East. Oil-rich African countries like Nigeria and Angola already have some of the most advanced datacenter industries on the continent

"Datacenters are a very expensive investment, but the oil industry drives companies to be present in the global market because oil is exported and sold globally. Companies that have oil money are also very keen to push their banking industry to more sophisticated levels," Severina notes.

Companies such as Seacom are already looking to the future of the industry. In early May, Seacom's head of engineering Mark Tinka predicted that the next step in the development of Africa's internet will be to host more content in Africa.

"Over the past six years, we have seen a great deal of activity in Africa's telecom market as providers have invested in infrastructure such as carrier-neutral datacenters, open peering internet exchange points, national and regional fibre links and submarine cables," he said in a statement.

Earlier this month SEACOM announced it was partnering with global network provider Level 3 Communications to deploy content delivery network (CDN) nodes into datacenters connected to its pan-African IP/MPLS network of undersea cables. This, said Tinka, should help bring in more locally hosted content.

"For African end-users, this should translate into improved latency and faster speeds as they access media streaming, file downloads, web pages, music, videos, software updates and other popular content," the company said.

But with many of the most popular internet-based services still provided by majors like Google, Microsoft and Amazon, many are wondering if initiatives like these will be enough to induce them to build their own datacenters on the continent.

For that, says Severina, Africa will most likely have to wait at least another five years, and some basic infrastructure still has to be put in place. Power needs to become more reliable and more fibre needs to be laid, she says. But improvements must be made on the demand side as well.

Datacenters become crucial when handling cloud-based services, Severina points out, and while African connectivity is growing fast, availability is still low compared to the rest of the world. "Cloud is a highly internet-reliant service," she says, "so internet penetration will need to increase for large-scale implementation to make financial sense."

When these companies do finally decide to invest in datacenters of their own, she says, "I would argue that they would strongly consider South Africa as a landing point," given that it offers the largest market for their services. But even that, she adds, is years away.

Still, Spencer is optimistic."As far as datacenters go," he says, when he arrived in Uganda six years ago, "it actually made more sense to host locally-oriented data services in Europe or America than it did to host them here." Now, with connectivity costs falling and speeds picking up, things are starting to change.

"I believe the industry will continue to experience fairly rapid growth in the near future," Spencer says. The development of Africa's internet may depend on him being right.

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Topics: Data Centers

About

Hilary is an itinerant print and radio journalist who originally hails from Southern California. In recent years her travels have taken her to Europe, Asia and Africa, where she has reported on everything from techie innovations to antique riverboats. She is currently based in Kampala, Uganda, where she's busy swatting mosquitoes and keep... Full Bio

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