Client interview: Digital Realty and the power of fibre to change lives
The entire African continent is experiencing a communications boom as mobile phone ownership accelerates across the 1.4bn population and internet connectivity becomes a vital part of urban and rural life. The power of digital technology is literally changing lives every day – from communication to education, entertainment, commerce, banking and more.
At the heart of this transformation is rapid investment in fibre optic cable networks. These link a growing number of data centres to provide the backbone to fixed and mobile services being rolled out across this vast and complex land mass. According to Ilker Esener, Vice President, Design, Engineering and Construction – EMEA at Digital Realty, the importance of this fibre infrastructure investment cannot be overstated:
If you think about a data centre, it needs power to keep servers and its infrastructure running, and it needs cooling to make sure that the heat is well managed. But at the top of the priority tree is connectivity – without fibre you have a facility that doesn't join up with anything. It is the veins and the arteries of a data centre network.
The entire communication network coverage across a continent the size of Africa has been made possible by the increasing use of satellites and high-power mobile phone signals. But, Esener points out, this technology relies on fibre networks to take the signal from the mast or satellite transmitter, down into the ground and, at the speed of light, move data via a server connected to the internet.
"Data has to sit somewhere – it can't sit in the ether," explains Esener. "Whether it is photographs, videos, emails or files, it all has to be stored somewhere and then accessed on demand. Fibre makes that possible."
Expanding to meet growing demand for data
Digital Realty is driving the continent’s digital transformation by building, operating and maintaining the data centres that form these vital communication hubs – the nodes that bring life into the fibre network. We have been working with Digital Realty to help plan and deliver the infrastructure capable of driving and capitalising on this boom.
Having started life as a real estate business, Digital Realty is now one of the world's largest data centre companies. It provides a range of services from single server racks for smaller clients through to entire data centre buildings, even campuses for its larger and ‘hyperscale’ customers.
Africa is the world’s fastest growing continent in terms of GDP and population growth and is experiencing rapid digital transformation. However, it is estimated that some one billion Africans still do not have proper access to the benefits of the internet. Digital Realty is currently expanding its activities across the continent in the knowledge that, over the next decade, there will be a huge opportunity for global businesses to tap into Africa’s expanding internet economy and to meet growing customer demand for connectivity.
Digital Realty’s aim is to deliver the largest and most densely interconnected data centre platform in Africa through its proprietary global data centre platform PlatformDIGITAL®. This will enable multinational and local businesses to accelerate digital transformation by having a leading global data centre provider at the heart of the region’s growing connected data community.
“What drives that growth is obviously the population in Africa,” says Esener, highlighting that Nigeria’s population of around 230m is now almost entirely economically active and reliant on some form of digital connectivity.
The African continent is at the foothills of what the infrastructure can do for it. The ingredients are there for e-commerce and then the entrepreneurial nature will very quickly piggyback on that.
"I would expect to see an explosion in digital services. Mobile phones are ubiquitous, and e-commerce follows," he adds. "That’s the potential; that's the future."
Renewable power on tap: invest in the opportunity
Data centres consume a vast amount of power, particularly in Africa due to the added cooling requirements of the climate. However, Africa’s expanding renewable energy market is creating new opportunities as, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, between 2010 and 2017 the average cost of producing solar energy fell by 73 percent and by 22 percent for onshore wind power.
Africa is therefore evolving into a major interconnection hub for data-driven businesses seeking a cost effective, future-proofing platform for data services. With robust and reliable fibre networks and low-cost energy, it then becomes possible to draw on data from anywhere in the world via new sub-sea fibre links.
Digital Realty’s African footprint across South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, together with its Mediterranean interconnection hubs in Marseille and Athens, means it can serve local as well as multinational enterprises and service providers.
“Africa is a brand-new market where legacy technology doesn't exist,” explains Esener. “It's an opportunity for the African continent to benefit by leapfrogging legacy technology and deploying more state-of-the-art equipment which is more efficient. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, naira for naira, it is cheaper.”
Setting new global standards
With the acquisition of various companies across South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, Digital Realty is continuing its expansion fast through major investment in the continent's internet infrastructure. This direct investment not only brings a massive financial stimulus to the region, but also drives the uptake of global standards and operational excellence.
Our pride is our availability – making sure we don't go dark and don't go down.
“We operate ‘five-nines availability’, which means we operate with 0.001 percent downtime in terms of our data centre facilities. So, in reality, in terms of critical environment, we keep the lights on all the time.”
Maintaining this standard and protecting the company’s reputation for delivery means Digital Realty must navigate the unpredictable reliability and resilience in power supply systems in South Africa and in Nigeria. Historic underinvestment in critical infrastructure and increasing demand means the whole society is used to juggling between mains power and back-up generators.
No field of dreams – but a huge opportunity
The reality of the African market is that, like all rapidly emerging markets, global businesses such as Digital Realty must go in with their eyes open, having carried out thorough due diligence on the potential risks to manage.
Esener explains that it requires a mindset towards innovation and fast learning, plus a pioneering spirit to succeed in Africa. Many businesses, he adds, prefer instead to have a clearer and more established regulatory framework without such inherent complexity.
But market entry needs to be very clearly thought through and understood, first and foremost to protect reputation, but also to ensure the business is fundamentally successful and able to make a financial return before it commits to investing in new data centre assets. That means looking at all input costs, running costs and borrowing costs to assess the risks.
One of the most interesting parts of working in Africa is its complexity.
Esener points out that the size of Africa means that what works in one country or even region may not work in another.
“This market is not a field of dreams,” he adds. “It has to be very prudently and cautiously managed in terms of environment, financial, brand and reputation and has to be done very professionally with the highest ethical standards. It's a step change, absolutely, a total step change.”