Big Interview

Building the foundations of Africa's cloud

Chris Wood, CEO, WIOCC
Chris Wood, CEO, WIOCC

Drawing on its years-long work connecting clients through data centres, WIOCC has launched its own venture, leveraging its network to build the cloud infrastructure Africa needs. CEO Chris Wood shares the details with Melanie Mingas

Early last year, a report by African Data Centers Association (ADCA) and Xalam Analytics claimed Africa needs 700 new data centres to deliver the 1,000MW of capacity it needs for its connected mid-term. Whether one looks at colo, hyperscale, edge enterprise, or any other category, there are many gaps in the continent’s data centre market. But now there’s a new player looking to fill some.

“The gap in the market is that there simply isn’t enough data centre capacity on the African continent. And even with the entry of some of the major global players, Africa will still lag behind the rest of the world in terms of available kilowatts per user,” says WIOCC chief executive, Chris Wood.

In November 2021, WIOCC unveiled Open Access Data Centres (OADC), its own carrier-neutral, pan-Africa network that is intended to grow into a portfolio of more than 20 tier III certified facilities. Brought to life with a cash injection of US$200 million generated through a debt and equity capital raise, the first five years of the operation is expected to be bankrolled by $300 million in reinvested cashflow.

“Extending WIOCC Group’s business into constructing and operating a network of data centres has been very much about extending our ability to support our clients,” says Wood.

“Over the years, we’ve increasingly been asked to deliver client connections into data centres in Africa, working with data centre operators on reconfiguring these to meet the needs of our clients. By owning and operating our own facilities, we believe we can do this better,” he adds.

OADC debuts in a marketplace that, according to Wood, is developing rapidly but remains fragmented, “populated by an assortment of operators, each focussed on one, or a small number, of countries and facilities”. OADC’s plan to deploy continent-wide hyperscale infrastructure that will ultimately reshape Africa’s cloud.

“Consequently, the African cloud is more accurately characterised as a loose collection of semi-isolated clouds across the continent, with only limited synergy between them,” says Wood.

“With content moving ever-closer to the edge of the network, a single high-capacity regional data centre is no longer sufficient, but this market fragmentation limits companies in their ability to expand business operations rapidly into new territories and markets across Africa, due to the challenges in addressing requirements for consistency, standardisation, interconnectivity, flexibility and scalability,” says Wood.

As such, the vision for OADC is to offer the wholesale community the “bespoke solutions capability” it demands while providing other customers with standardised colocation services.

“What is urgently needed is a truly seamless, carrier-independent, hyperscale infrastructure underpinning Africa’s cloud; one that supports rich interconnection between data centres and internet exchange points across multiple countries, enabling truly integrated cloud ecosystems throughout the continent,” Wood explains.

Leveraging the network

A key element of OADC’s strategy leans on WIOCC’s established capability to offer connectivity to more than 1,000 locations across 30 countries in Africa alone.

Prior to the launch of OADC, more than 30 PoPs were deployed on a new 1,700km terrestrial link between Durban and Cape Town to extend South Africa’s national hyperscale network. This was integrated with WIOCC’s 16Tbps-ready optical transport network-enabled hyperscale national backbone network and its wholly owned metro networks.

There are now plans to make further enhancements in key locations, including West Africa, where one of OADC’s first two data centres will soon go live.

“The nationwide extension of our existing network in Nigeria is a key focus for us today, particularly given the construction of OADC Lagos, which is due to go live in June this year,” says Wood. “We expect to be able to announce similar initiatives in other countries in West Africa later this year, as agreements are finalised.”

Supporting this there have been strategic investments in multiple subsea cables serving Africa’s west coast, including Google’s Equiano and the Facebook-led 2Africa West, both of which will have landing points in OADC facilities.

“For in-country termination, we either partner with domestic operators to offer our end-to-end international solutions or, where opportunities exist to acquire or deploy metro and domestic networks and the appropriate licences, we do so,” Wood says.

Although OADC was largely kept under wraps prior to its announcement, construction is well underway at the first facilities, with the Lagos site tipped to be the largest data centre campus in West Africa when launched. Wood says both are on track to complete on schedule as OADC seeks to address the continent-wide shortfall in availability. A third, in Mogadishu, will be ready before the end of the year.

WIOCC network expansion.jpg
WIOCC's 2021 network extension

Getting ahead of the game

The launch of OADC certainly aligns with the heightened, continent-wide activity witnessed over the course of the last year.

Since the ADCA report was published, the likes of Liquid’s Africa Data Centres, Teraco and MainOne (see page 27) have all confirmed expansion and strategy plans, while Digital Realty – which now owns Teraco (see page 78-79) – and Google, with its billion-dollar pledge, are just two of the major international names to have made headlines.

“The level of financing going into African infrastructure demonstrates that the continent’s ICT markets are now being seen as a serious opportunity for investment returns,” says Wood.

“As a capacity wholesaler, investment in data centres means greater opportunities for selling hyperscale connectivity solutions, since data centres are not stand-alone facilities but instead represent individual ecosystems that need interconnectivity to perform optimally. Put simply, more customers in more data centres means greater dependence on reliable, high-speed pan-African connectivity,” he continues.

The forecasted customer growth will certainly be enough to go around. But OADC and WIOCC are not the only ones playing in the hyperscale-cable-data centre space, and while they host some of the cables deployed by the hyperscalers, theirs is a relationship that divides opinion in more developed infrastructure markets.

For Wood this is history repeating, and it comes back to the simple fact that “whoever has the traffic and the money builds the cables”.

Before the deregulation of the 1990s and 2000s, “all cables were owned by the national PTTs as they had all the traffic and there was no competition”, Wood recalls. Deregulation saw the formation of new, privately funded telcos, “which had serious capital behind them and grabbed market share, naturally resulting in them building subsea cables and driving other projects”, he continues. Then came the tech giants with their iron grip on the internet and its traffic, and their inevitable step into deployments. What the next chapter brings, who knows. But those who deploy projects in isolation will likely be far less powerful than network experts with data centre capabilities.

“At each phase of evolution in the market there have been those who have argued that the new guys on the block shouldn’t be allowed to move in on their turf. It happened in the move from consortium to private cables and it’s happening again as we see the tech giants dominate infrastructure deployment,” Wood says. “I have always taken the view that in order to be successful you need to remain relevant and show that you have something to offer,” he adds.

There is little point “sitting on the sidelines and complaining that someone has taken your ball, taken over the game, and now won’t let you play”, Wood continues. Instead, the tactic should be to “get back in there, prove that you add value and fight for a place on the pitch”.

“The tech giants know that they can’t do everything for everyone – they’re looking for trusted, flexible partners who have capability on the ground in Africa,” he reasons.

Leading on edge and 5G

Proving that finance and fibre are not the only ingredients for success, Wood says local knowledge, expertise and experience are vital in understanding how best to serve each of the continent’s more than 50 individual country markets. So too, is the continuous innovation of one’s business proposition.

For the next trick, a network of edge data centres will be deployed throughout South Africa to meet the burgeoning data demands generated by 5G, IoT and other services requiring low-latency content delivery which, of course, includes gaming.

Branded EDGE DC, the network will be formed of 12 facilities that are already operational, 14 under construction and an initial 50 facilities that will go live by the end of the year. Each will range in size from 10 to 100 racks.

“This is a game changer for ISPs, 5G operators and businesses across South Africa, as content can be brought closer to the user. Edge caching enables content owners to reduce transit costs, deliver high performance and minimise the latency experienced by their customers – all critical for enabling the deployment of IoT, 5G, big data, cloud and a variety of streaming services. For this reason, I believe that edge data centres will quickly become critical to Africa’s continuing digital evolution,” Wood says.

Despite its prominence and reach across Africa, WIOCC still has new locations across the continent to connect and with the launch of OADC, it has more reasons than ever to expand the network.

Wood says: “Further expansion of our data centre footprint will take us into the markets which are most important to our clients and some of these will be new connectivity markets for WIOCC, offering a host of new opportunities.”

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