Exa homes in on transatlantic data centre connectivity market
Capacity’s Natalie Bannerman speaks to Exa Infrastructure CEO, Martijn Blanken and CCO Nicholas Collins, on the company’s big push for growth and expansion ahead of Capacity Europe 2023.
The past 12 months for Exa Infrastructure has been a flurry of network expansions, investments and strategic hires, all of which contribute to the company’s ultimate goal.
“We'd like to be the pan-European, transatlantic data centre to data centre connectivity market provider,” said Martijn Blanken, CEO of Exa Infrastructure.
“That means that all the traffic that flows between data centres in Europe and the east coast of North America, Canada and the United States, we'd like to facilitate the traffic between those data centres. On top of that, we also want to facilitate traffic coming in and out of Europe, going to and coming from Asia Middle East, Africa, South America, when it hits the European shores.”
In the knowledge that this goal will take a few years to realise, all of Exa’s recent network investments are aimed at building more connectivity between existing and future data centre hubs across its geographical footprint.
One example of such expansion was the partnership between Exa and Ellalink that was announced during ITW 2023, on a joint transatlantic service agreement that will connect South America with Europe’s main business centres.
Speaking on this collaboration, Blanken explained, “it so happens that all traffic coming from South America and the West Coast of Africa lands in the Lisbon, Sines area. So, we are striking partnerships with all the cable operators who land their cables there.”
Given that only a small percentage of the traffic on those cables have the Iberian Peninsula as a termination destination, the vast majority has to be carried on to Paris, London, Amsterdam, and so forth. Creating an opportunity for Exa to “make it as easy as possible for them and their customers to take that traffic wherever they need it to go”.
There are also opportunities to connect the Mediterranean to transatlantic traffic via these newly established routes.
“There's two sorts of traffic,” says Blanken. “One is traffic coming in and out of the Middle East and Asia, and the second is the intra-Mediterranean traffic that traditionally, most of the subsea cables land in Marseille.”
This is where you start to see a diversity play, so that cables have multiple landing points on the way from Egypt mostly, and they start to increase in place south of Italy, Sicily, Genoa, Marseille and Barcelona etc.
“Our job is to facilitate that and make it as easy as possible. Soon you will start to see the first land crossings across the Arabian Peninsula coming out of Israel and then on to places Crete or Italy or other parts. You create more diversity this way.”
Essentially, he says we will see more using the Mediterranean route as an alternative to the terrestrial routes. “
The downside for submarine routes are that they are more expensive on a per megabit, or gigabit switch cost, but from a diversity perspective, that can be quite attractive,” adds Blanken.
This ease of connectivity that Exa is aiming to provide is comprised of firstly a vast coverage of network, in other words, having physical footprints in many data centre facilities, giving customers its choice.
“Secondly, we have started on a journey to make the interaction as seamless as possible,” says Blanken. “That is more of an IT play.”
Lastly, is more of a cultural exercise inside the organisation ensuring Exa is easy to do business with.
Interestingly, it isn’t seen as digital transformation in the traditional sense as that usually refers to software-defined networking, there's an orchestration layer and most which occurs at the IP level, which Exa doesn’t operate.
But there is still an element of transformation that occurs at the infrastructure level, “you can publish your API's,” says Blanken, only as he points out “no one’s APIs are very open, most are proprietary” requiring the writing of different interfaces for each.
“There is certainly an element of digital transformation, but in the infrastructure world, there is still a physical element, we still need to have a duct with physical fibres through it and these fibres need to be terminated into equipment with cards and these cards are expensive,” he adds.
“You also need to optimise your financial model as well. Therefore, I don't think at a at an optical level it will always be as seamless as you can achieve an IP level.”
Echoing these sentiments, Nicholas Collins (pictured above), Exa’s chief commercial officer reminds us that “we're [Exa] not weighed down by any legacy IT systems”.
“Everything came new when we created Exa. Right from the finance systems, the CRM, to the billing platforms. Whereas a lot of legacy telcos have got complexity in their IT environment, we're actually unshackled from a lot of that.”
Another key announcement was the launch of Exa’s Trans Adriatic Express (TAE). a joint venture between Exa and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), a fibre route between Italy, Greece and Turkey.
The partnership with TAP came about as their job is to transport gas from the Greek Turkish border to the south of Italy and alongside that pipeline, on both sides, they built conduit or duct with fibre through it and they weren’t monetising said fibre.
“They were looking for a partner to help them to monetize that fibre and that partner turned out to be Exa. We have set up a joint venture and both parties have contributed assets to the joint venture,” says Blanken.
For its part TAP contributed the high fibre count duct from the Greek Turkish border to the south of Italy - roughly 1100 km. While Exa have done is contribute fibre from Marseille to Bari from Athens to Thessaloniki, from Sofia to Thessaloniki from Tirana onwards, from Istanbul to the Greek Turkish border.
Exa has also built over 11 in line amplifying stations from the Greek Turkish border all the way to Albania, to light all the fibre.
Admittedly only 18 months old, since buying the company from GTT, Exa as a company has the agility of a startup, enabling it to ‘hit refresh’ on it working culture and define from the ground up what the future of the business will be and the people required to do.
“We want to think bolder. We want to grow faster, and we want to connect further. Those are the values that resonated most with our teams,” says Blanken. “We're going to be nimble and we are a very flat organisation – we don’t employ many chief of staffs in our organisation.”
“The heritage of this business is so rich,” adds Collins. “When I came into the company it was clear that everybody associated with where this business came from and how they entered the business.
“We had an opportunity to do something around the culture that was incredibly special. All of the values Martijn has mentioned was crowdsourced. We actually went to people and actually got them to contribute to how they wanted to see this as well.”
While experience of the existing team is highly praised by both Blanken and Collins, as conversation turns to talk of talent recruitment and retention, Collins shares his views on how best to do all three.
“While its about how we attract younger people into this industry, but also how do we attract and retain them because that’s also a challenge sometimes,” he says.
“It about how you create interesting opportunities and interesting roles and enriching roles where they can work on interesting projects. But also, events like this one [ITW] where we've been encouraged to bring younger members of our team into these sorts of coaching mentoring groups. I think we are we're fully on board with, we support and we actively participate in those initiatives.”
The next phase of development for Exa its highest level will be what Blanken describes as a change in dynamic.
“We're going to go from a period where we have identified a series of projects into a phase of deploying them and implementing them,” he says.
“On top of that, identify new projects to invest it, but from a monetary perspective, the good news is that we have the capital to continue to invest in this space for the foreseeable.”
Next month Blanken will be taking part on the Keynote Panel: Preparing for the Next Wave of Disruption at Capacity Europe 2023. A session powered by Capacity’s Power 100, a list that Blanken has been a part of for the last two years.
Speaking to him ahead of the session on his thoughts on where he’s seeing the biggest technological opportunities in the space, he shared:
“The telecommunications industry is poised for unprecedented growth as we harness emerging technologies like 5G, edge computing, and AI-driven network optimisation.”
“These innovations will not only revolutionise connectivity but also enable new services and industries, unlocking limitless opportunities for our customers by shaping the future of connectivity and communication which is a top priority for us at Exa.”
Don’t miss your opportunity to see the Exa team live in London next month at Capacity Europe, an event that Blanken himself describes as “one of the most important gatherings of the leading players in the telecoms sector, and one of the most anticipated dates on the calendar. It takes stock of what really matters most in our sector and helps to set the agenda for what comes next.”