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SA’s thriving data centre industry leads to widening skills gap

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 08 Feb 2021

SA’s thriving data centre industry has led to increased demand for cloud computing skills, and desperation to fill the digital skills gap.

According to analysts, the combined impact of several local and international companies launching data centres in SA has fuelled strong demand for cloud computing skills, while further widening the shortage of the necessary skills.

In March 2019, Microsoft opened two data centre regions in SA, becoming the first global provider to deliver cloud services from data centres on the African continent.In the same month, Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei started offering its cloud services from a leased data centre in Johannesburg.

One month later, Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced the opening of the AWS Africa (Cape Town) region.

Last year, German start-up CloudRadar launched data centre facilities in Johannesburg, and carrier- and cloud-neutral co-location data centre solutions provider Teraco announced it is investing R4.4 billion in the construction of new data centres and the expansion of its existing data centres in SA.

Since then, various other players, including Dimension Data and Oracle, have announced imminent launches of their data centres locally.

According to IDC, the hardware and software cloud services market is expected to grow in the range of 20% to 30% until 2024 in the Middle East, Turkey and Africa region.

Jon Tullett, research manager, IT services for IDC, sayscloud adoption is evolving rapidly, with cloud revenue, grouped together with cloud-related services, amounting to a $4 billion market in SA.

Both cloud and data centre markets are very healthy right now, and leverage each other’s growth, he adds.

“We see cloud growth pacing data centre growth, with a lot of hybrid technologies like hosted private cloud as well as new applications like edge compute, and of course, co-location is part of many cloud migrations too.

“The obvious front-of-mind driver currently is COVID-19. It’s accelerated a lot of cloud deployment – not unplanned, but sooner than expected – and that’ll have a ripple effect on enterprise application spend for the next two or three years.”

While the current growth pace doesn’t change the long-term forecasts much, Tullett is of the view that it does shake-up SA’s cloud market in terms of what organisations are likely to demand, resulting in increased demand for cloud skills such as information security,database skills,programming skills, data engineering andDevOps.

“Cloud skills are in short supply anywhere in the world, and SA is very low on the list of countries that are winning that race. The more specialised the skill, the more severe the problem; we don’t have enough cloud skills nor do we have the engineers, or the integration skills, or the development skills, or the third-party support skills. It’s not only end-user organisations struggling to find those skills but the entire ecosystem.”

Short supply leads to outsourcing

Derrick Chikanga, IT services analyst at Africa Analysis, believes current key cloud services in SA include software-as-a-service, infrastructure-as-a-service, platform-as-a-service, cloud implementation and migration, cloud consulting, cloud managed services – with this market expected to almost double to R19.7 billion by 2024.

“With increased demand for data centre services comes the increased need for skills. Most cloud engineering expertise is currently in short supply and the country has had to outsource these from overseas companies. Hence, tertiary institutions should start developing curriculum that addresses these skills related to cloud and data centre operations, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning services,” notes Chikanga.

Shaun Dippnall, CEO and co-founder of Explore Data Science Academy, says the growing cloud computing-related skills demand has prompted the academy to introduce a 12-month data engineering course.

“The importance of data engineering is underscored by the fact that two of the world’s largest cloud computing hyper-scalers − Microsoft and AWS − have recently established data centres in SA. Apart from the skill set, there is a shortage of training courses online that offer both the content and practical application of data engineering skills required in the workplace. This is particularly true of the South African market.”

Discussing the proportion of the skills gap locally, Dippnall references the Dice 2020 Tech Job Report released early last year, which cited data engineering as the fastest-growing job in technology in 2019, with 50% year-over-year growth in the number of open positions. Interest in this function has been burbling for years, as organisations discover data engineers are key to unlocking the value of their data.

As the amount of data produced by organisations engaged in digital transformation increases exponentially, so does demand for the skills sets and tools to build the infrastructure and data pipelines required by business, he adds.

“If we track the skills trajectory globally, we can assume a similar growth curve for SA. While we don't have an exact picture of the number of data engineers required to fuel the current growth in demand, it is similar to the huge demand for data scientists.”