BIG DATA SA

We look at the only neu­tral data cen­tre in Africa

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents - BY CLARE PE­TRA MATTHES

Teraco is the only neu­tral data cen­tre oper­at­ing in Africa, giv­ing ev­ery­one the op­por­tu­nity to link with­out the con­cern of com­pe­ti­tion. Friends and foes are all hosted here and ev­ery­one just gets along. ‘In terms of Teraco, we are what you would see on a Euro­pean ba­sis,’ ex­plains Michelle Mccann, the head of in­ter­con­nec­tion and peer­ing at Teraco. ‘ We’re a pure data-cen­tre com­pany. We look af­ter the space, the cool­ing, the power, and the phys­i­cal se­cu­rity, and those are our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and what we fo­cus on.

‘It’s what we call neu­tral data cen­tres,’ adds Mccann. ‘ That’s why all our re­sources, in­clud­ing our staff are purely fo­cused on data cen­tres. We em­ploy civil en­gi­neers, cable en­gi­neers, elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers and diesel me­chan­ics.’

Es­sen­tially it’s one big IT firm, but with­out em­ploy­ing any typ­i­cal IT pro­fes­sion­als. ‘Our clients are the IT com­pa­nies,’ says Carla San­der­son, head of mar­ket­ing at Teraco. ‘ We are a phys­i­cal prop­erty com­pany fo­cused purely on data-cen­tre con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tion.’

Sounds sim­ple enough, but it isn’t re­ally. A large data cen­tre is an in­dus­trial-scale op­er­a­tion that uses as much elec­tric­ity as a small town, and here in South Africa with the Eskom roller coaster af­fect­ing all prov­inces, is that fair?

‘ Yes, our power source is Eskom. All our power sources and util­i­ties are drawn from Eskom and, to be hon­est, we don’t have any al­ter­na­tives for what we do in this coun­try, be­cause there aren’t mul­ti­ple providers,’ ex­plains San­der­son. ‘Our al­ter­na­tive backup power comes from diesel gen­er­a­tors.

‘Sure, a data cen­tre re­quires a lot of power to power the equip­ment in­side,’ con­tin­ues San­der­son. ‘But Teraco is good for the coun­try. The minute data-cen­tre re­quire­ments are ag­gre­gated, and if ev­ery­one puts their data re­quire­ments to­gether in one cen­tre, the scale means that the power draw ac­tu­ally comes down. That’s what we do – ag­gre­gat­ing many, many re­quire­ments that would need many, many data cen­tres in Gaut­eng and the Cape. Teraco ac­tu­ally draws ef­fi­ciency from its scale.’

In­stead of server rooms for in­di­vid­ual com­pa­nies all over the coun­try that draw huge amounts of power, they’re shut down and moved into Teraco. ‘Here, they get the ef­fi­cien­cies of Teraco, they’re not spend­ing as much, and Eskom and the coun­cil can fo­cus on ser­vic­ing that area bet­ter,’ says Mccann. GUAR­AN­TEED POWER

‘If you look at our lo­ca­tion,’ says Mccann, ‘a ques­tion that of­ten arises is: “Why aren’t you in Sand­ton?”’ It’s all about the power grid. Teraco is built in­side the air­port grid for the sta­bil­ity of the power. In Cape Town, it’s right op­po­site SA Brew­eries, and the Dur­ban site is in the Umh­langa Ridge, near the heart hos­pi­tal.

‘ We’ve cho­sen lo­ca­tions where there’s huge avail­abil­ity of power. We tend to stay on the out­skirts in semi-in­dus­trial

ar­eas,’ adds San­der­son. ‘ The power sup­ply to these ar­eas is ob­vi­ously al­ready higher, and it’s a pro­duc­ing part of the city. But we are con­sid­ered one of the area’s crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­tures.’ The fact that the Ekurhu­leni coun­cil is a Teraco client helps the cause and, in turn, also strength­ens their busi­ness re­la­tion­ship.

De­mand in Cape Town is grow­ing. It is now sit­ting at 3 Mega Volt Amp (MVA) of power sup­plied to the site, but this is be­ing up­graded to 5 MVA. In Dur­ban, there’s a 2 MVA sup­ply. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Joburg of­fers the best ser­vice – Isando is sit­ting on 16 MVA of power and Bre­dell is us­ing 24 MVA. There are plans in the pipe­line to build a site us­ing 40 MVA of power.

To of­fer some per­spec­tive, the av­er­age home draws around 300 KVA per per­son, per month. That’s 0.3 MVA per per­son per month. ‘And we’re still look­ing at draw­ing off of Eskom,’ says San­der­son. ‘ The cost of al­ter­nate en­ergy sources (like so­lar) is in­cred­i­bly high and we’re a com­mer­cial data cen­tre. Our clients pay for prop­erty and power, and it’s not com­mer­cially vi­able yet to charge that pre­mium for a clean source of en­ergy. Also, the space re­quired to pro­duce the so­lar power for Teraco is scary – it’s in the tens of thou­sands of rugby fields in size.’

The re­la­tion­ships be­tween Teraco and lo­cal coun­cils are key. Teraco is seen as a key in­fra­struc­ture point, be­cause it’s the hub of the in­ter­net for

‘WE CAN’T RE­ALLY DIS­CUSS STOR­AGE CA­PAC­ITY,’ SAYS SAN­DER­SON. ‘BUT I CAN SAY THERE ARE 50 BIL­LION SOME­THING BYTES OF IN­FOR­MA­TION’

Africa. ‘ The huge amount of peer­ing and in­ter­con­nec­tion that hap­pens among our eco sys­tems is what drives your Net­flix, your Google and your Face­book,’ ex­plains Mccann.

All that host­ing means Teraco is a prime tar­get for ma­li­cious attacks. ‘In terms of cy­ber attacks, we don’t get in­volved,’ says Mccann. ‘Es­sen­tially, the in­ter­net net­works con­nect here and if an at­tack hap­pens, it hits them first so they can hold that back be­fore it even hits the en­ter­prises. It’s not our thing to deal with.’

From an African point of view, Teraco is in the right place at the right time. ‘ We’re the most ba­sic layer, but also the most key,’ says San­der­son. ‘ We pro­vide some­thing sim­ple, but it’s cru­cial to have us. Our clients do the ex­cit­ing stuff and we get ex­cited about what they do. We en­able what they do. For us, it’s re­ally just a case of keep­ing the lights on all the time and also keep­ing ev­ery­thing safe – we’re the de­pend­able part. We’re the bor­ing bit, but we’re also pretty im­por­tant.’

ABOVE LEFT: Carla San­der­son ABOVE RIGHT: Michelle Mccann

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