Closer to the edge
Bringing the Internet to African users, one data centre at a time.
We live in an era of smart everything. From the phone to the fridge, it’s possible to imbue even the most mundane, everyday items with intelligence, allowing them to do more and make our lives easier.
This has been made possible by two key technological revolutions: smarter, faster and more energy-efficient devices, and ubiquitous, high-speed access networks. However, this smart era hasn’t happened in isolation; providing the foundation that enables this is an ever-expanding ecosystem of networks and data centres, connecting all these devices, enabling their true usefulness.
Changing computing models are nothing new. As technology evolves, the centre of gravity shifts back and forth between highly centralised computing resources, such as mainframes and pure Web applications, and distributed, edge-based computing such as PCs and today’s smart devices.
Ben Roberts, Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Liquid Telecom, explains that the combination of smart devices and the increased maturity of cloud computing platforms has changed the way all organisations, from consumer-facing media companies through to large corporates, deliver content and host applications.
“Initially, we saw a big push from content providers to minimise the distance between users and content, but more recently, the public cloud providers have been trying to bring their services closer to users. This happened first in more developed economies, but today it’s happening across Africa as well,” he says.
He explains that 10 years ago, only 50% of content being consumed by African users was being delivered from Africa, but this number is now closer to 80% in South Africa and the rest of Africa is at 70% and growing.
Creating local connections
“This growth has been driven largely by the rise in local peering, allowing information to flow freely between networks. The days of information having to make a roundtrip to London to travel between two African users are largely over,” he comments.
Stephane Duproz, CEO at Africa Data Centres, explains the growth in African data centres has been a critical catalyst for bringing content and applications closer to users across the continent.
“The data centre is no longer just a building where companies can place their equipment. It’s more akin to a crossroad on an ancient trade route, where merchants from across the world would congregate to share information and trade goods. Today, however, instead of silk and spices, the data centre is creating a community of connectivity, a digital ecosystem where information is exchanged for everyone’s benefit.”
Having, for example, two large cloud providers in the same data centre, close to the user, means that systems can quickly exchange information, providing better user experience.
This drive for improved user experience is a key motivator in getting companies to move their systems and applications closer to the edge of the network.
While we have seen the creation of major Internet hubs in key locations across Africa, that is only part of the story.
Duproz explains that the next step involves finding ways to connect at a more local level. “While we have large hubs in Nairobi, Johannesburg and Cape Town, we know that this isn’t enough to provide the level of service that people are looking for. We need to bring the information closer to consumers and this requires creating several smaller facilities across the continent.
“Each of these local hubs provides the opportunity for local networks to interconnect and reduces the time it takes for information to travel from a user on one network to one on another,” he says.
“We’re also seeing that the digital ecosystems created around these facilities drive the creation of new, innovative businesses, allowing for local entrepreneurs to leverage the investments that have been made and drive the local digital economies forward.”
The massive rise in the number of people working remotely and the resultant growth in the use of collaboration tools is proving to be an additional driver for bringing data centres closer to the edge. Not only are most of these tools cloud-hosted, but with users supplying not only their own devices but also their network connections, network latency becomes an issue, especially on bandwidth-intensive video calls.
“Our lives are all becoming more digital and, by bringing information closer to users, we’re not just creating a better user experience, we’re opening the doors for new economic opportunities,” he concludes.