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14.12.2017

Data centres Africa part two: Efficiency and Resiliency

The second of a two part series on the African data centre market covers some of the specific challenges and opportunities for building new capacity in the region.

Intro

As described in part one of this series, there is growing demand for data centre services across Africa.

Existing capacity is very limited given an estimated population of more than 1 billion. Research organization BroadGroup has analysed the commercial data centre market in 16 African countries and estimates that there are around 74 colocation providers operating more than 90 data facilities.

But while the continent lacks data centre capacity there are signs that growth is quickening; new data centre operators are discovering innovative solutions to provide services for their customers. Innovative solutions are required to deal with tough environmental conditions, an unreliable grid and often a lack of resources and investment. Data centres in Africa need to be reliable but also highly efficient.

Impediments

Existing data centre operators in Africa, or companies considering entering the market, currently face a range of challenges that have limited build-outs to date. These include wider macro factors such as political instability and poverty but also a number of specific issues that could affect data centre projects. These include:

Electricity availability and costs
According to a 2016 World Bank report, the total electricity generation capacity across the continent, which has a total population of nearly 1 billion, is less than 100 gigawatts—less than the total generation capacity in Spain with its population of 46 million—and halved if South Africa is excluded. The report also concludes that most African utilities were financially constrained. “In only 19 countries did the cash collected by utilities cover operational costs; just 4 of these countries were also covering half or more of capital costs, based on new replacement values of current assets,” the report stated.

The only way to tackle the lack of investment is to raise prices but this is extremely challenging when outages are still so commonplace. According to the World Bank a significant issue is that few utilities in the region track the frequency of outages. “Despite the severity of service interruptions, very few utilities in the region seem to be measuring the quality of service according to the two internationally accepted metrics: system average interruption duration index (SAIDI) and system average interruption frequency index (SAIFI). Of the 39 countries with utility annual reports, only 16 reported any measure of system interruptions; of these, only Cameroon, Liberia, Mozambique, and South Africa reported SAIDI and SAIFI,” the report stated.

An unreliable grid will inevitable mean facilities have to be designed with more power resiliency – UPS, generators – but also higher energy costs will make energy efficiency measures a priority.  Those contrasting pressures will create challenges for building out new capacity.

Temperature and humidity
The variations in temperature and humidity across the region will have an impact on the design and operation of cooling systems. Other factors such as dust and sand could also prevent the use of some efficient cooling technologies such as direct outside air-cooling. Availability of water for evaporative cooling may also be an issue. Again this may require investment in expensive mechanical cooling that adds to overall data centre capex and opex.

Quality of existing sites for expansion
According to Sweden-based prefabricated modular data centre specialist Flexenclosure – which has build sites in Chad, Angola and the Ivory Coast – there is only one Tier-certified data centre in Africa for every 47 million people, compared to one for every 5.5 million people in Western Europe. That means that existing sites may not be sufficiently developed to make expansion worthwhile or economic. “Much of Africa’s data is stored in unsecured server rooms, often without adequate climate control, redundant power supplies, fire suppression capability or a host of other critical systems,” said Sybrand Pretorius, Flexenclosure’s sales director in a recent blog post.

Lack of resources and adequate brownfield sites
One option for building out new capacity is to convert existing buildings. But according to Flexenclosure, it is often the case that existing generalist buildings in some Africa countries are just not suitable for conversion to data centres. “The reality though is that traditional construction methods are typically not adequate to house mission critical ICT infrastructure – especially in Africa where environmental and weather extremes can deliver significant challenges to even the highest specified facilities,” said Flexenclosure’s Pretorius.

Security
Poverty and political instability mean that crime is sometimes a serious issue in some African countries. Most data centres have good levels of physical security but this isn’t always sufficient. In Western countries, it is usually the data that is being protected but in Africa high-value IT or facilities equipment may be a target. Corruption means that sabotage may also be a motive. For example in November 2017, thieves broke into The City of Johannesburg’s data centre in Braamfontein and made off with two million rand (US$137,420) worth of copper cables. It was believed the attack was an inside job.

Skills
The lack of skilled and certified builders, and engineers is also often cited as another potential roadblock to data centre construction in some regions of Africa.

Wildlife
Rather than big game, the animal-based risk to data centre projects in developing countries could come from rodents chewing cables or insects nesting and burrowing into sensitive equipment.

Innovations

However, there are a number of potential design and construction approaches that could be used to help overcome some of these obstacles. These include:

Use of prefabricated modular (PFM) designs
A number of companies have developed so-called PFM data centre designs for both whitespace but also power and cooling infrastructure. These pre-built units of capacity can be constructed off-site and shipped to where they are required. They may not necessarily be cheaper than conventional builds but they have the advantage of being quicker to deploy, requiring less on-site construction skills and often being of higher quality (due to off-site testing) than some bespoke builds. “Prefabricated data centres…are built off-site in clean-room factories where they are also pre-equipped and fully tested before being deployed and commissioned in-country,” states Flexenclosure’s Pretorius.  Another advantage of PFM builds is that they can be scaled up to meet customer needs. “The modular nature of prefabricated facilities allows capex to be more accurately managed during the initial build phase and to be tightly kept in line with the growth of the business over time,” adds Pretorius. “So future expansion can be undertaken exactly when the business needs greater capacity and without interrupting on-going data centre operations.”

Alternative approaches to resiliency
Given the instability of the grid, there is growing interest in the use of Lithium-Ion over traditional lead-acid batteries. Frequent outages mean that the UPS batteries may be charged and discharged on an almost daily basis. Lead-acid batteries don’t cope well with this kind of frequent use but Li-ion are much more tolerant as long as they are not completely discharged. Also the East Africa Data Centre (EADC) in Nairobi, Kenya, became the first facility in central and eastern Africa to be awarded Tier III by Uptime Institute. EADC achieved the certification in part due to its $5m investment in local utility Kenya Power’s new substation that allowed it to reduce its resiliency on diesel generators.

On-site generation and renewables
The high-cost of electricity and the instability of the grid has led some operators to investigate the use of on-site energy generation including renewables. For example, South Africa-based mobile operator MTN used solar mirrors to power an absorption chiller for a data centre in its Johannesburg head office. There are good indications that renewables will become more plentiful in the near future. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast that the installed capacity of renewable energy in the Sub-Sahara region could double in the near term from around 35 GW to above 60 GW.

Wireless connectivity
The development of 5G networks could enable high-bandwidth connections between data centres and help overcome some of the connectivity issues faced by some operators in the region. However there is also a lot of investment in new fibre in some locations.

The design and operation of data centres in Africa is challenging due to the pressure to keep costs down but also to build resilient sites able to cope with the environment and grid instability. However, these challenges are not insurmountable for progressive data centre designer companies and operators.

Future-tech has helped a number of clients with data centre projects in emerging markets. For more information contact us at: info@future-tech.co.uk

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