Get ready for data centres



In January 2017, this column ran an article titled “2017 – Year of the Cloud in Kenya”. Indeed, 2017 has been a good year for cloud adoption in Kenya, even though recent surveys have found that many organisations – including the Government – still persist with traditional investments in on-premise IT infrastructure.

To recap, cloud computing is, effectively, leasing computing capacity – storage, infrastructure, even software and applications – from an internet-based provider, and thus paying just for what is consumed. So, instead of investing millions of shillings in servers to install on the organisation’s premises (with the attendant required investment in physical security, server room cooling, administration costs and employees, software licensing tracking, system patching and configuration and so on), the organisation uses an Internet connection to access all required computing services from a cloud provider. If a server is needed, the cloud provider spins up a virtual machine (VM) with the necessary specifications – processing power, disk storage capacity, memory, network connection, operating system – on the fly, literally in seconds. VMs are emulations of actual servers, only that they do not physically exist as tin boxes, but are software images that fully mimic the operation of an actual server.  Obviously, this model saves organisations tonnes of money in computing costs, because in a cloud environment one pays only for what one uses. VMs can be scaled up and down as needed – for example, if a sudden processing workload requires a doubling of memory, this is done on a management interface and the new memory is available immediately, no waiting to go purchase physical memory, power down the server, install the memory, power up the server, reconfigure it to recognise the memory, and so on.

But for the model to work, someone has to host the entire infrastructure that gets leased out. These hosts are Cloud Providers, and they accomplish cloud provision by running giant data centres. A data centre is a vast facility hosting computer systems, including computer storage, processing and telecommunication systems. Data centres must guarantee their customers a certain minimum level of availability before they can become viable alternatives to on-premise computing infrastructure. As a result, data centres must have super-redundant power supplies, excellent physical security, world-class internet connections and backups to those, and predictable and easily enforced legislation to ensure that social vices like corruption and political crises do not put them at risk of unavailability.

One data centre can service many clients, so that all those clients’ data and operations would be hosted within that data centre’s infrastructure, and the clients can therefore not afford to have the data centre go offline for any reason whatsoever. In most instances, such data centres have backup data centres, and even backups of backups, so that customers are always assured of accessing their data and computing systems.Kenya has a handful of medium-sized data centres, certified to what’s called “Tier 3” status – targeted at small to medium sized enterprises that can afford a bit of downtime. However, such investments have come at a steep cost: data centres in Kenya have to set up their own power supply lines, isolated from the normal Kenya Power transmission lines (because these are obviously not even remotely reliable), they have to install massive generators as backups (because Kenya Power is, well, Kenya Power!), and they have to even build their own power substations and diesel storage facilities. And that’s just the electricity component. There are physical security requirements, Internet connection requirements, and so on.

This is where Nairobi County can come into its own. Nairobi can easily become the data centre capital of the region, attracting immense investment and jobs, by carrying out a few reforms geared towards making it easy and convenient to invest in top-tier data centres. Nairobi would need to provide for the zoning off of regions for data centre construction. These could using the Export Processing Zone model pioneered in Athi River, with light-touch legislation and the removal of constraints within those zones. A suspension of taxes on CAPEX items like giant diesel generators would help cut the cost of setting up data centres, as would a removal of duties on basic OPEX requirements like diesel and gas. The special data centre zone would also benefit from a removal of the onerous municipal laws that stifle so much business in the city, and which many times lead to corruption and blackmail of businesses by politicians and their connected fat-cat friends, as well as from county-led construction of roads and other basic infrastructure, including basics like fencing and armed security.Nairobi would also need to provide some form of incentive to data centre investors. A good one could be a suspension of taxes – city and national – for, say, five years. This would allow investors to pass on their tax cost savings to clients, driving up cloud adoption in the city and locking in future revenues for the county. In addition, the money that organisations would save by not having to invest in their own computing infrastructure would likely go towards business expansion. Add this to the many jobs created as the data centres ramp up services, and it becomes an obvious win for Nairobi. Even more importantly, this would give Kenya a huge head start in the regional competition for IT investment, moving the country on from the now-plateauing software and applications development space that Kenyans have so far been leaders in.

The author is an information systems professional.