Africa’s Cloud Computing: what will it take for it to become big across the continent?

Top Story

Cloud Computing has been big in Africa for a long time at the consumer level. Think of all those Internet users that use web mail browsers like Yahoo and Hotmail. But now its promoters are seeking to persuade us that it will bring about a fundamental shift for both corporates and consumer users. Forget your desktop PC or your laptop. Just focus on the software and files you need and getting them through Internet access on any machine. Russell Southwood spoke to Microsoft’s Hennie Loubser,  Regional General Manager for West, East, Central Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands about how it sees Cloud Computing developing on the continent.

The key argument for Cloud Computing in the developed world context is that it enables both the individual and large corporations to pay for both software and hardware in a different way. Instead of buying all that hardware, software and storage with all the security and maintenance that goes with it, you buy a monthly service from a provider and pay the equivalent of a monthly rental for all those things.

As Hennie Loubser sees it:”Now companies are able to provide data centres at scale which makes it more cost-effective than building it yourself. It’s a great opportunity to reduce the complexity of running these systems plus also the complexity of the security around them. It’s about improvements in productivity and getting new business insights.” According to Gartner, in developed country markets, 20% of organisations may not have an IT infrastructure in three years time.

Microsoft already runs 23 million Xbox Live accounts and 370 million Hotmail accounts. Using this experience, it’s providing Cloud Computing tools that will allow a range of programmes to run remotely from the server. It has developed a set of productivity solutions including Exchange Mail programmes, instant messaging and VoIP and collaboration solutions like Office Live and SharePoint Online. It also offers SQL Azure for platform storage, management and security in the Cloud. As Loubser sees it:”The aim is to give customers a choice about how they access things.”

Based on African users being familiar and comfortable with the Hotmail service, Loubser sees the possibility of extending these kind of remote access services to SME companies: This is a massive opportunity to make these services available. You don’t always need a PC. You can use a phone. The challenge for us is how to enable the developer community to see the Cloud as an opportunity and to provide infrastructure to scale to the end user through the SQL Azure programme.”

It wants to start rolling out these kinds of services in South Africa and strike up partnerships with telcos to provide these services. There are obviously technical constraints like latency so “it’s important to have partners closer to the end user.”

So how will they provide the level of data centre capacity that they have laid on in other parts of the world?:”We’re partnering with people in the larger economies on the continent: places like Nigeria, Kenya, Angola and then there’s a second tier of economies like Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. This will keep us busy for the next eighteen months. Mobile operators see data services as growing so we have something in common. We both have content and services to promote to the end-user. That’s one scenario we’re ready to go to market with.”

“We’re talking to those providing data centres, who have storage and management expertise. We’ll bring best practice and help them become our representative in the region. We think it will be a strong value proposition. For example, it can run bank infrastructure. They will then pay for the software and have services delivered through the Cloud. Then they would only pay for what they use. Customers have been asking us for this for a long time.”

“Somewhere like Angola has big potential but there’s big uncertainty over issues like privacy and data security. So we’re asking what’s the most appropriate model? It may take longer to get there than elsewhere.”

But what about up-time? The nightmare is being cut off from everything you need because the Internet access has gone down. I’m just back from 4 days in Gambia where the Kairaba Hotel had weak to non-existent bandwidth all week. What guarantees are there about access?:”Good point. No-one can offer guarantees in the foreseeable future. Microsoft data centres in the rest of the world give reliability guarantees.”

But for Africa, the answer is “one step at time”, a steady build up of services and reliability, starting with things like Instant Messaging in the Cloud. So you would keep the mail server on the premises and make it a staged approach that could be used for learning that would give confidence (to trying) other (Cloud) deployments. It’s a huge opportunity for software developers and some will use our tools to do it.”

The challenge for making a success of Cloud Computing in Africa is three-fold. Firstly, African users will need to be convinced that the first generation of services are “nice-to-have” rather than “must-have” so that they can become comfortable with using them and knowing they are available. Microsoft has the tools to make it happen but it’s not quite the same as having the “killer apps”.

Secondly, there has to be steady and consistent bandwidth, particularly from 3G (and its upward variants) and Wi-Fi wireless access points: the kind of dribbling bandwidth that allows you to do e-mail if you can put up with the long pauses while things upload, will not really fly with these kind of applications. Thirdly, the kind of guarantees that form part of the reality of these services in the developed world need to become the same standard that Africa data centres work to. Without these things in place, the African Cloud will remain largely a space for Hotmail accounts and little more.