Field services for Africa's cloud future
The cloud is booming in Africa. Hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing into data centres across the continent. All over Africa, providers are establishing new data centres or revamping existing sites. For example, Econet raised over $300 million last year for its Sub-Saharan expansions, and the UK-based Actis Fund invested $250 million in Nigeria's Rack Centre.
"Cloud growth has been explosive in most African regions," says Chimwando Muchelenganga, Axiz Field Services' Regional Service Delivery Manager for Southern Africa. "But it's not a huge surprise. African users and companies have been adopting cloud enthusiastically even before it was called that. If you look at platforms like Google, they've been offering things like Gmail e-mail addresses. That's a service, and it's not based on your local computer or your local network. You're accessing a server based somewhere else."
Local IT estates reflect this change. Companies increasingly rely on third-party software services, and they house their private systems in third-party data centres. Even if they run their systems mostly on-premises, they still use cloud architectures that are sometimes radically different from traditional technologies.
This change has a considerable impact on field services, and organisations should look for the right qualities when selecting a field service partner for Africa.
How cloud impacts field services
Cloud systems differ from traditional IT in two significant ways. They include much more scope for software, and they are often decentralised away from the main business premises. Yet traditional services tend to focus almost exclusively on managing hardware, Muchelenganga explains:
"When you talk about traditional field services, from the customer's perspective they expect us to be looking at boxes. When that box has got an issue, we rush in, because we set SLAs to fix the box. And that's it. When you look at it from a cloud infrastructure view, there are still those boxes that need to be fixed. But now, they're often based at a service provider and they involve a higher degree of software, connectivity and service integration knowledge."
These changes fundamentally alter what field services provide.
Modern field services need competency in a broader range of services, with certification skills to match those services. If, for example, a cloud e-mail service goes down, the field service agents should be able to interrogate the issue from hardware, network and service availability perspectives.
"A lot of the new pedigree for field services reflects a variety in both certified skills and expertise," says Muchelenganga. "It's no longer the kind of game that can just go to a small provider. You need a provider that, like the cloud, can scale and adapt and move resources around."
Africa's highly-variable markets also mean local field service providers must have competencies with different vendors. Not everyone uses the same vendors, so field services must cover various options. Indeed, the leading field service providers work closely with different vendors, and some even operate as the local representatives that maintain vendor installations.
Field services for Africa's cloud
As mentioned before, cloud systems are often decentralised. Field agents need to be able to travel to different sites, even different countries. In Africa's context, this is a challenge for most field service companies.
Many field service companies operate in limited geographies and can't reach other national offices, branch sites or regional data centres. Different countries have different language and cultural requirements, and many also apply radically different visa requirements for skilled labour. Flying a foreign expert in to fix a local problem is often not feasible, be it for geographic, time or political reasons.
Thus, field services that can genuinely support African enterprises need local partners. These partners understand the local market, can address issues in their jurisdictions, and smooth out the process to bring in additional help if needed. Such local partners can be established local field service branch offices or independent businesses that operate to the standards and expectations of the field service provider.
"For example, we are established across almost all of Africa - we have a representative in almost each and every country in Africa," says Muchelenganga. "For the countries where we don't have representatives, we've got partners and we try to make sure the partner engineers are certified."
Cloud and Africa are meant for each other, accelerating digital adoption across a continent using cloud before it had a name. As more connectivity reaches us, such as the imminent landing of Google's Equiano super submarine cable, and as data centres grow exponentially, Africa's prospects in the digital future grow stronger.
But it requires field services to change. Not all field services can cover the new digital footprint. For that, they need to be spread across Africa, in tune with its many nations and cultures, certified to support the numerous vendors and services on offer - and do so through a broad continental presence and partner network.