South Africa: Data centre professionals get together to talk green and expansion plans across the African continent

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The hype about cloud computing and data centres can often seem overblown when you visit some of Africa’s smaller markets but in many of the larger markets, data centres and the services they enable are now becoming an established part of enabling both consumer and corporate services. A recent conference in South Africa provided the opportunity to look at the challenges and floated the idea that the challenging circumstances of Africa may offer it the opportunity to become a pioneer in green, energy efficient solutions.

What is not often recognized is that data centres in Africa are managed by IT staff who are not necessarily trained in data centre optimization and in  best cooling techniques but are more focused on the latest software and networking equipment.

One of the objectives of this forum was to highlight how to cut down the cost of data center through improved facilities design and management. The forum showcased the implementation of successful data center virtualization methods and looked at outsourcing strategies that focus in particular on developing a foolproof disaster recovery plan for maximum security and protection.

Sylvain Beletre, Senior Research Analyst at Balancing Act opened the first day session and provided a presentation of recent market research carried out in Africa. Data centre facilities are limited on the continent but due to grow by 10% per year over the next 3 years.

In its 2011 report, Balancing Act counted 120 commercial data centers and projects in Africa with about 10 to 20 more commercial centers to be built over the next 5 years. In-house data centers are estimated to be 10 times this number across Africa with South Africa leading the pack. Examples provided by APC by Schneider highlighted that data centers can reduce energy costs by 20-30%. Beletre showed where the new data centers are being built across Africa's most developed cities and gave pointers to growth drivers and investment opportunities across the region. Balancing Act plans on releasing an update to its 'Data Centres in Africa' report in the autumn of this year.

Lee Smith, director at Dee Smith & Associates in South Africa is a design, implementation and integration expert in South Africa.  For Smith, deciding on the right data centre location is key: not only it is important to make sure that expert staff will feel comfortable about working in its environment, it is also key to ensure sufficient local enterprise needs, power and bandwidth availability.

Lee Smith examined energy cost reduction measures and made a point that for a data centre to improving energy performance it needs to be designed in before the centre gets built. Vendors need to train management and operating teams to make sure they know how to use each technology. Smith also explored ways and means of improving data center management by involving all technical teams and getting them to talk in a common language from the start.
Working with your procurement contract partners at an earlier stage of project development will improve outcomes. Continuous performance controls ensure that your facility is cost effective. Smith also stressed that the modern data centre is scalable and flexible. Modernising the rules, tools and methods of your procurement is also key to setting up a long term scalable facility.

Smith gave some simple practical tricks such as having racks and servers painted in bright colours rather than in black which can reduce temperature and light consumption by up to 30%. Unfortunately today, most legacy equipment is painted in black. A facility's diesel tank needs to be stored far from the main sever facility with a shower type pipe which allows it to empty its tank fast in case of fire or leakage. BCX and a few other data center owners work with Lee Smith because he supplies training for their facility managers and supplies some customized consulting.

Marilyn Howard, Director of BMH Technology Solutions in South Africa provided a better understanding of the data centre definitions and challenged current opinions. For some, data centers mean faster and safer access to data. For others, it is a way to back up critical data. Overall, it is a crucial piece of the nascent African ICT infrastructure. "It is an enterprise tool made of software and hardware components that meets specific requirements" Ms. Howard concluded.

Howard illustrated the idea of a successful data center virtualization method and explained that today we can do much more with less investment. Many efficient best practices require minimal costs and don’t require expensive purchases to help data centers reduce CO2 emissions and lower their energy costs. BMH claims to be able to set up data centre containers at a quarter of the price of a standard facility - from USD 250,000 for 100 servers instead of the usual USD 1 m.

Paul de Klerk, Regional Manager at BT Cape (EOH owned) explored new data centers' cooling systems solutions and designs that enable organisations to attain best practice standards and compliance requirements. BT Cape specializes in rolling out cable in data center facilities. De Klerk explored ways to reduce energy consumption while maximizing cooling systems. He emphasized that "a data centre is not a simple office building", and he also pointed to global data centre accreditation standards. "There is no such thing as an off the shelves package for African data centres, these have to be customized to fit the environment and clients' requirements" he noted, adding that it often comes back to budget limitations.

Over lunch break, an attendee in charge of the data centre at Cape Town's University confirmed de Klerk point on customizing data centre designs across Africa: "In Cape Town one of the issues we have is salt in the air coming from the sea. In Joburg, temperatures are higher and local staff have to focus on reducing summer heat; The other issue comes down to power and the region could use alternative sources such as the sun or powerful water and air currents available on the coast".

Microsoft South Africa's Stephen Cakebread, Private Cloud and Azure Product Manager provided a review of cloud, virtualisation and efficiency methods that can easily be implemented. Cakebread explored new data centres services and applications delivered by the IT giant. Cakebread gave a short analysis of the emerging technologies for data centers and assessed what the next generation of cloud computing and data centers apps look like. To date Microsoft does not yet have any of its own data centres in Africa but they are using local commercial facilities.

For Sakkie Burger, Managing Executive for Data Centre Services, Business Connexion (BCX), optimizing data centre environments and how to further enhance value for clients were the reasons that attracted him to the forum. "I am also attending because green aspects are top priorities and Africa represents a serious opportunity for BCX facilities' expansion" Burger said, adding that "BCX had about 27% of the data centre services market share in South Africa as of Nov. 2011 according to Frost and Sullivan. BCX is also the only service provider in the country that has Tier 4 accreditation provided by the 'Uptime Institute' and delivered back on 15 May 2009". The South African data centre market is heating with major players like T-Systems (which manages some local data centers) and Teraco (one of the main carrier neutral data centers' owner) taking shares in what could become a leading outsourcing destination.

In its November 2011 report entitled ‘An overview of the South African Data Centre Market’, Frost & Sullivan put annual data centre revenues at R2.3 billion in 2010, while it expects a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 9.6% through to 2016, when revenues are anticipated to R4.0 billion. It notes that the top four data centre providers have a combined market share of 68% with the remaining 32% contested by more than ten companies. The nearest competitors to Business Connexion are IBM with 16% of the market and Dimension Data with 15%.

Among the comments made during the first session, it was mentioned that cooling air is a major cost for data centre facilities. But there is an opportunity to re-sell that hot air to local community buildings. There have been examples of hot air being re-used to heat hotel or private outdoor swimming pools and offices.

One of the attendees mentioned that there have had recent requests for audio-streaming storage and this seems to be a future market across Africa. Audiovisual content such as video-streaming will certainly pick up in the years to come.

Nils Gerstle, director of Collaboretix Enterprise Consulting (Pty) Ltd - a South African based business consulting, technology and management company focused on strategic alignment and data centres - observed that technology and data centre managers often rely too much on vendors to educate them on available solutions. Technology choices are overwhelming and too little time is spent on analysing strategic needs, before making technology decisions. Gerstle pointed out: "You often have a situation where technology buyers go for the Rolls-Royce of technology solutions where the BMW would have been more than sufficient". Collaboretix works with clients to bed down their enterprise and management strategies and align them with their actual business and technological requirements. This establishes a base for clients to make more informed decisions relating to their technology solutions and ensures alignment. “Managing expectations is one of the most important aspects in business”, says Gerstle.


According to delegates, it seems that Africa has the potential to lead a new generation of greener data centers and set up its own accreditation standard relevant to its innovations, varied environment and its limited electric capacity.

To find out more about the event, click here.

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