According to IBM, the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data every day – highlighting the enormous financial dividends that could be reaped through date centres. It is in this light that experts in the field are urging for African countries to take maximum advantage of this opportunity for development. Olubayo Abiodun, Clifford Agugoesi and Chimezie Ndubisi look at the possibilities for Africa
FOR over a year, a mystifying project in Altoona, Iowa in the US, a town of just over 15,000 people, was a topic of frenzied guesswork: which company is spending $1.5 billion on a data centre occupying 130,000 square meters, with servers and databanks? The mystery surrounding this project was resolved in the last month. Facebook was revealed to be the company behind the project, dubbed by the US media as the “most technologically advanced data centre in the world”.
The following statistics will provide a clearer picture of the positioning of data as the “new oil” in the global economy. The global cloud computing market is the fastest growing sector of the IT industry and will rise from $21.5 billion in 2010 to $73 billion in 2015 according to research by the International Data Corporation. Besides, software giant Microsoft says cloud computing will create 11.3 million jobs in the world economy by 2014. And when European Union digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes unveiled the long awaited cloud computing strategy in 2012, she described it as a “game-changer” for the European economy. The commission says that a €45 billion investment in cloud technology could generate just under €1 trillion in GDP in addition to 3.8 million jobs by 2020.
Curiously, though, Africa is a late starter in this game-changing scenario. The fundamental building blocks for the new age are still largely missing in the continent’s configuration for the battle being waged in this information age. The Chief Executive Officer of Internet Exchange Point of Nigeria (IXPN), Muhammed Rudman, observed that one of the strengths of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as the internet is the way they can help unlock distant expertise, knowledge and markets. However, this access – usually to ‘foreign’ content with foreign perspectives – has its limitations.
“Easier access to globalised knowledge is fast turning us into ‘consumers’ of distant and potentially irrelevant information. More worrying perhaps, developing countries are being ‘invaded’ by foreign ideas and values that may undermine or overwhelm local cultural heritage and economic livelihoods,” he noted.
Explaining why Africa is losing out because its over reliance on foreign data, Rudman noted that local content hosted abroad has higher latency than if hosted locally. According to him, this higher latency makes internet slower and more expensive due to the distance, and that money paid to foreign hosting companies constitutes capital flight. But done otherwise, it will provide additional revenue opportunities for local ISPs, which in turn will create more job and technical competencies.
Rudman also explained why data centres are in short supply in Africa. He said electricity issues, high cost of internet bandwidth, lack of cooperation between operators to share infrastructure, lack of interconnectivity between operators and high cost of fibre for local interconnection were all constituting the challenges for proper data management and content sharing in Africa.
The Managing Director/chief Executive Officer, Upper Link in Nigeria, Olusegun Akano, would also like to see African countries reap the immense benefits in data centres. He said that every country had come to realise that hosting data was a great business that could generate income, boost GDP, and promote employment among other value additions. Hence, it was not surprising that countries such as the US, Canada, China, Germany, UK, India had fully tapped into the potentials and opportunities inherent in data possibilities by hosting centres.
While he acknowledged that some investors have started establishing data centres in Nigeria and in some parts of Africa, Akano expressed doubts that the resources, particularly the expertise and managerial skills for the management of data centres are domicile in Africa given the depth of skills requirements for such operations.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Rudman tells the story of the emerging scenario from Nigeria where more sophisticated data centres are springing up in Lagos and a few states. The most visible data centres in Nigeria are the MTN Data Centre Service, ZTE and Mendallion. MTN Data Centre Services in Lagos is the biggest of its kind in Nigeria by current architecture and configuration.
With this glimmer of hope on the horizon, cost of internet bandwidth and local transmissions are going down. This, though, is only a fraction of the expectation, as the price is still considered very high when placed beside what obtains in the international markets.
Interestingly too, additional fibre networks are being deployed across the country. Governments are encouraging more investments across Africa for both metro and inter-city fibre networks. Besides, more universities are realising the amazing impact of ICT to the educational sector.
Experts in business process management (BPM) in general and data and analytics are therefore urging African countries not to ignore the possibilities that lie in the amazing data that the continent currently generates. If properly harnessed, these authorities believe, Africa could leverage this data for her development.
According to research and advisory company Gartner, after a few years of experimentation and early adopter successes, this year will be the year of larger scale adoption of big data technologies. In a worldwide Gartner survey of information technology (IT) leaders, 42 per cent of respondents stated they had invested in big data technology, or were planning to do so within a year.
“Organisations have increased their understanding of what big data is and how it could transform the business in novel ways. The new key questions have shifted to ‘What are the strategies and skills required?’ and ‘How can we measure and ensure our return on investment?” said research vice president at Gartner, Doug Laney.
“Most organisations are still in the early stages, and few have thought through an enterprise approach or realised the profound impact that big data will have on their infrastructure, organisations and industries,” said Laney.
Gartner says organisations are undertaking their big data initiatives in a rapidly shifting technological landscape with disruptive forces that produce and demand new data types and new kinds of information processing. The analyst firm believes these organisations are turning to big data technology for two reasons: necessity and conviction. It points out that organisations are becoming aware that big data initiatives are critical because they have identified obvious or potential business opportunities that cannot be met with traditional data sources, technologies or practices. In addition, media hype is often backed with rousing use cases.
“This makes IT and business leaders worry that they are behind competitors in launching their big data initiatives. Not to worry, ideas and opportunities at this time are boundless, and some of the biggest big data ideas come from adopting and adapting ideas from other industries,” said research vice president at Gartner, Frank Buytendijk. “Still, this makes it challenging to cut through the hype when evaluating big data technologies, approaches and project alternatives.”
Despite these challenges, Gartner predicts that two years from now, 20 per cent of Global 1,000 organisations will have established a strategic focus on “information infrastructure” equal to that of application management.
The research firm goes further to say that in anticipation of big data opportunities, organisations across industries are provisionally collecting and storing a burgeoning amount of operational, public, commercial and social data. Yet in most industries – especially government, manufacturing and education – combining these sources with existing under-utilised “dark data” such as emails, multimedia and other enterprise content often represents the most immediate opportunity to transform businesses.
Gartner adds that by integrating and analysing a variety of data sources, not just individually, organisations can achieve the most extraordinary business insights, process optimisation and, of course, decision making. “Although most of the big data hype is about handling the sheer size and speed of data available, our research shows that the ultimate wins will be from those making sense of the broadening range of data sources,” it says.
The International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that this year priorities will move from finding data to discovery, and government will focus on discovering insights in data and finding hidden relationships that enable decision makers (or machines) to anticipate events and trends, evaluate options, and act accordingly.happy wheels