The Internet’s African landlord

Date:9 August 2018 Author: Brendon Petersen Tags:, ,

Words 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, 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, 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 building and construction.”

Sounds simple enough, but it really isn’t. 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 is 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 – we end up 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 around the airport grid for the stability of the power. In Cape Town, its right opposite SA Breweries, and the Durban site is in the Umhlanga ridge, right 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 critical infrastructures.” The fact that the Ekurhuleni council is a Teraco client helps the cause and in turn strengthens the 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, Johannesburg offers the best service – Isando is sitting on 16 MVA of power and Bredell is at 24 MVA. There are plans in the pipeline to build a site with 40 MVA of power.

To give you 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 solar and alternate energy sources 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 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 hub of the internet for 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.”

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 just a case of keeping the lights on all the time and keeping everything safe – we’re the dependable part. We’re the boring bit but we’re important.

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