Business as usual

Ayotunde Coker_Rack Centre.jpg

The realities of remote connectivity have placed regional providers like Rack Centre on centre stage. Business continuity, cloud services and increased capacity demands are just a few things that are par for the course

All eyes are on Africa. From the construction of MainOne’s data centre in Ghana’s Appolonia City to Teraco starting work on its second data centre facility in South Africa – and not forgetting the raft of new subsea cable projects underway – there seems to be nothing short of growing interest in the continent and keeping it connected.

One of the key players in these projects is West African data centre provider Rack Centre. Speaking via Zoom to managing director Ayotunde Coker, it was clear that Covid-19 had ushered in a new normal for all of us, albeit more gradually than previously thought.

“The uptick in demand for our services was gradual,” says Coker.

“To quote Warren Buffet: when there’s a rising tide it raises all boats but it’s when the tide goes out that you will see who is swimming naked and that’s what happened during the early parts of the pandemic, customers quickly realised what they needed in place.

“The biggest surge we saw was the uptake in cloud. There really is a push for businesses to automate and for businesses to move into operational expenditure mode,” he adds.

The biggest negative impact according to Coker was that the pandemic caused a “slight delay in the onboarding of new business that was planned in the early part of the year”. But, other than that, things are on the up.

“We have noted many more customers running live from Rack Centre and relying on the comfort of our own business continuity planning to keep their businesses running, so that they can focus on their other processes and customers,” added Coker.

“Business continuity is in our DNA,” he says when asked how the company is maintaining its own operations during this time. Leveraging its experiences in previous outbreaks, such as the Ebola virus, Rack Centre already had the processes in place and had built itself up as having a strong brand in the region that has served it well.“We put in place extensive measures and moved quite quickly early on,” Coker says. “By end of February, we had instigated our critical response team made up of Rack Centre senior management, implemented new business continuity planning operating procedures and procured sanitisers, masks and PPE as anticipated.

“By the first week of March, we had all changes required to working from home for critical facility monitoring in place, and all staff not essential for physical monitoring of the site working from home.”

If that weren’t enough the company also secured its energy supply chain and critical spares with its suppliers. All of this early action meant that it did not experience any shortages during this time.

“At every stage we communicated with all stakeholders,” Coker says. “As the patterns of the virus became better understood we implemented more physical location segregation for employees on site, and fully restricted customer access to site.

“The core of the facility and server rooms were designated ‘sterile areas’ only accessible when PPE-clad. We implemented free remote hands services for all customers so they rarely had to visit the facility.”

One thing that can been agreed on is that Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation journey for many businesses that were still on the fence, ultimately changing the conversation.

With such cables as Google’s Equiano and the consortium-led 2Africa due to complete over the next few years, it stands to reason that these new projects create new infrastructure development opportunities across the continent, or at the very least bring huge amounts of data along with them – Coker agrees.

“I think they will create new infrastructure opportunities because some colocation capacity will be required by the cable operators,” he says.  

“In addition, the growth of data and the increase of broadband penetration in the last mile will drive demand for data locally. Edge computing and hosting is becoming critically essential, and with the recent changes and increase in the adoption of technology, will drive more demand for data centre, cloud, content distribution and broadband infrastructure.”

Digging deeper into what the significance of these systems will be for the continent as a whole – Coker hints at its ability to put Africa in the fast lane of the global connectivity race.

“It’s a validation of intent and a testament to the potential here in Africa. As much as those cables connect Africa to the world, it also means that the world comes into Africa,” he says.

Looking ahead, the increased traffic from new cable systems will have a material effect on data demands in the areas where it lands “at all levels of the infrastructure stack”, according to Coker. “It looks like this business to business, and business to consumer balance will permanently shift.”

One key trend that has really come to the forefront is the prevalence of gaming and its impact on networks around the world. Coker sees the same demands for gaming infrastructure and services from his customers.

“We are seeing increased implementation of gaming infrastructure at the edge, and, in carrier neutral highly reliable environments like Rack Centre,” he says.

“Gaming has particular demands for low latency and performance that is better delivered at the edge in high-optimised and reliable, carrier-neutral data centres. Ultimately, it requires speed.”

On whether or not we’ve reached the peak, or if the uptake in gaming is set to increase across the continent, Coker’s money is on further growth, not just in gaming but other verticals, too.

“My intuition is that it will, as people adopt other non-contact forms of leisure brought together by improved seamless payment platforms integration and broadband penetration. This also goes for other streamed entertainment, such as video content.”

Interestingly, he says that Africa’s social nature will also contribute to gaming really taking off there, even pointing to betting platforms becoming even more dynamic and popular.

“There will be an interplay between the two, and we can thank the likes of Equiano and 2Africa to carry much of that heavy content load.”

Given that cloud has been one of the key beneficiaries of the global lockdown, conversation naturally turned to multi-cloud convergence.

“We have an increasing number of local cloud platforms coming onboard, expansion of existing platforms and we will see increased demand for growth.”

Rack Centre has spent years building its cloud eco-system called Cloud on Ground, which leverages its neutral position with a good broad range of cloud providers both local and international, IaaS and PaaS.

“The right flavour of cloud is selected based on customer needs creating this multi-cloud type of environment,” he adds.

The biggest hurdle remains security across the various cloud environments, but that doesn’t solely lie in the technology.

“The other challenge with multi-cloud environments is that you need to secure the core network with federated security across them all, while customers need an easy and simplified user experience,” he explains.

Do multiple environments increase your attack surface? Yes, according to Coker but the common denominator is “end point protection and the person”, both of which require fortification in their own right.

Now firmly over the halfway point of 2020, strategic plans for the data centre provider remain on track.

“Covid has only reinforced our plans,” says Coker. “We are doubling our capacity to 1.5MW with our current architecture, and we have just appointed Arup to undertake the conceptual design for our future expansion to beyond 10MW at the current campus.”

If that weren’t enough, investment firm Actis has recently acquired a majority stake in Rack Centre as part of its $250 million plan to develop a chain of data centres in Africa, providing further backing to Rack Centre’s development plans.

At the same time, Coker shared that the company remains focused on driving and meeting the demand of its local and international clients through edge infrastructure and capabilities, adding that “we continue to expand and grow our ecosystem”.