Data centres: Inside the cloud

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They are integral to the digital world, but data centres — which house all the details of our personal and business lives — are surprisingly nondescript.

Visitors expecting a futuristic building managed by an army of technicians in white lab coats, and containing humming mainframe computers, would be sorely disappointed.

Most data centres are nothing more than a few racks of computer hardware in a corner of an underground parking lot, says BMI-TechKnowledge MD Denis Smit. In fact, with a bit of work, even a home PC can be turned into a data centre of sorts.

But the importance of these centres cannot be overstated. They are the meeting and storage point for an increasingly connected world. “All the pipes that connect us together have to connect at some point,” is how Smit puts it.

In the past, exchanges that belonged to Telkom were the sole connection point available to South Africans.

But growth in the demand for broadband connectivity and investments in high-speed fibre infrastructure have created the need for more of these “meeting points”.

Today, there are about 20 data centres in SA. They may be invisible to the average Internet user, but they are the meeting point for “content creators” and “eyeballs”, says Andrew Owens, Teraco Data Environments’ senior product development engineer.

In this context, “content creators” include entities like YouTube, Facebook and ShowMax, which offer content (even if they aren’t the original source) and require a place to store it; and “eyeballs” are Internet service providers and mobile operators with access to large pools of people who access content.

Teraco Data Environments owns three centres, and is building a fourth — which will be Africa’s largest.

Other major SA data centres offering outsourced services are managed by Telkom, its subsidiary Business Connexion, Vodacom, MTN, Neotel and Internet Solutions.

Teraco is the only major company that is “vendor neutral”, or independent of mobile operators and service providers. Because of Teraco’s neutrality, it does not sell bandwidth as network operators do. It is a landlord for computers. It rents out physical space.

Teraco’s data centres may not be something out of a Mission Impossible movie but they are impressive nevertheless. The room that houses the computer stacks is protected by fingerprint access. (That is after signing in at security.) The need for access control is understandable given the sensitivity of the information flowing through the centre. It transmits all Internet searches, and would contain confidential information such as your banking and credit-card details.

Security is also tight within the room. The computer stacks that contain the information of “content creators” and “eyeballs” are locked in separate cabinets. In some cases they connect only through a separate computer stack known as a carrier hotel, which is locked away in a cage of its own.

Access is not the only thing that is controlled. Care must be taken to manage temperature. The computers need to be cool to operate effectively and they generate a lot of heat.

The data centre also needs specialised fire safety systems.

The biggest challenge for data centres is power. Aside from its high electricity consumption, a blackout could have disastrous consequences. Like most other centres, Teraco has diesel generators — which can provide power for up to five days in the case of an interruption to the main power supply.

Owens says Teraco also runs regular tests to see if its backup systems can deal with a prolonged power cut. Its investment in maintaining constant power enables it to guarantee an uptime of 99.999%, he says.

But glitches do occur. Last year, a network failure at Telkom’s Centurion data centre temporarily caused Telkom stores and call centres to go offline. Customers, who were unable to load airtime or make Telkom-related transactions, were also affected. However, SA has a good record and data centre outages are infrequent.

Despite the spike in demand for data, SA’s data centres still have capacity, Smit says. Data prices have come down and demand has gone up five-fold.

But Menno Parsons, CEO of Master Power Technologies, says demand has recently slowed. He puts this down to the shortage of hard currency in Africa and a sluggish SA economy. Parsons says demand for data will increase once economic conditions begin to improve.

Master Power Technologies has built data centres for companies such as MTN and Vodacom across the continent

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