Accelerating data centre construction in Africa

Wendy Cerutti

Head of Cost Management, Johannesburg

Africa

Driven by edge and cloud computing, and the massive volumes of data that will require storage and processing, demand for data centre construction in Africa is set to skyrocket.

As hyperscalers and niche providers set their sights on expanding into the continent, growth of the data centre sector looks extremely promising – and will require innovative engineering to meet ever-increasing requirements. But what are some of the challenges unique to the data centre space and what industry players need to consider when looking at opportunities in this market?

Factors driving data centre demand in Africa

Data centre activity in Africa is on the rise. Technology giants NTT, Microsoft and Amazon have opened data centres on the continent, in South Africa, and other global players are likely to follow in investing where the demand is.  

In addition to these wholesale-type businesses, smaller, cloud-based computing providers will need hyperscale capabilities. Evolving technologies such as edge computing and Internet of Things will require massive infrastructure to deal with the volumes of big data coming down the line.

Together, these factors will create significant demand for data centres in Africa – demand that will drive innovation in the areas of efficiency, cost-effectiveness and, increasingly, lower-carbon technology and renewable energy.

Not ‘just another building’: where experience meets expectations

To succeed in this burgeoning market, you must know what you’re dealing with. Data centres are complex structures that require a deep understanding of what’s needed to make them work. Developers with limited experience outside the building industry may not fully understand the unique challenges involved.

While the expectation of the client is to build more efficient data centres, faster and more cheaply, the reality is that critical processes – design, site selection and setting up a multidisciplinary team to execute the project – can take considerable time. Supply chain issues and local skills shortages also have the potential to impact delivery and affect the ongoing maintenance and servicing of data centre equipment.

Experienced industry players, with an in-depth knowledge of the local environment and potential issues, are better able to critically assess the client’s requirements and present alternatives to what may be prescriptive models.

The way data centres are built in South Africa, for example, is different from how they’re built in Europe. As one industry specialist notes, ‘There is always room for intellect and reasoning to be brought to the table.’

Data centre site selection: gaps and opportunities

Demand is a key starting point for selecting a data centre site and hinges on the client’s key requirement, whether that’s for data processing or resilience. Power is a big-ticket item and it’s not uncommon for data centres to draw power from an off-site substation as well as one built on site.

Infrastructure development around the site is often the biggest challenge. Environmental factors must also be considered.

Due diligence in selecting the right location to meet demand helps to mitigate the risk of bias in the process and manage expectations. Multinational clients use site-selection models and focused teams from various disciplines to identify and approve the location of their data centre sites – a practice that’s yet to be firmly established in Africa. In the rush to get to market, this part of the process is often overlooked, which almost guarantees there will be issues further down the line.

Given how critical it is to get the basics in place, there’s an opportunity for local industry players to learn from this approach and start implementing similar models and standards, which consider a wide range of factors, to establish objective criteria for site selection. 

Benefitting from proven models

In Africa, the cost and risk of investing in leading-edge or prototype data centre solutions are simply too high. But world-class facilities have been and are being built using proven technologies and models tested in other parts of the world, particularly Europe and the US.

Each data centre project is different and requires the right model for what the client wants to do with the facility, how they plan to scale and what their proposed budget is. Standards may work well for some applications, but not for others. The wrong design could result in parts of the data centre running idle – a waste of resources that can be extremely costly.

In addition, design is contingent on the local environment. In South Africa, for example, relatively low labour costs make brick-and-mortar facilities quite viable. In other countries, a modular or skid-based design may be the safer and more cost-effective option.

The key is to understand what the client aims to achieve from the data centre and be flexible in presenting options that would best meet that objective.

Making the data centre industry more competitive

Buying power has a significant impact on the feasibility of data centre projects. If we are going to transform the industry, we must address the issue of cost control. In some cases, margin stacking can make up 18 percent of the contract value – for little or no value added.

The construction industry must start to drive best practice procurement behaviour that’s based on a fair, transparent process for understanding input costs.

The high cost of certain assets, such as cooling, will become an inhibitor unless alternatives are implemented. But deploying renewable energy in a home is challenging enough, let alone in a data centre. We need to engage constructively with local regulators to change perceptions and find a way forward – driving energy back to the grid through data centres, for example.

We, as an industry also need to broaden our engagement with property developers so that there is a better understanding of the data centre business model and how to create a mutually viable project – the current thinking on property ownership for instance is preventing progress in the market.

Investing in skills development

A shortage of skills in the African market is a substantial challenge that needs urgent attention. Limited experience with projects of this nature means there’s less opportunity to gain practical experience – which compounds the problem of having few skills to begin with.

While the potential is there, it’s not being tapped into to meet the current and future needs of the industry. It is now critical to focus on investing in skills development across the board.

To progress from a ‘toolbox’ engineering approach and close the skills gap, the industry must look at ways to accelerate skills development. Industry players need to engage with and support institutions offering training and certification to provide input into course content.

Over and above technical training, people need hands-on exposure to the data centre environment and its unique, often demanding, requirements. That means investing in apprenticeships and working with local data centre providers to help build practical experience and a more generalist knowledge of the industry.

Broadening the conversation

The data centre market in Africa is dynamic and there’s no doubt the challenges are substantial – but there are enough examples of successfully completed projects to prove what can be done.

The time is coming when our industry will be stretched to its limits to meet growing demand. By pulling together and thinking differently, we can establish a solid foundation for designing, building, and maintaining the facilities that drive our digital world.

For further information contact:

Wendy Cerutti
Head of Cost Management, Johannesburg