Icolo builds a state of the art data center in Nairobi

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Ranjith Cherickel, CEO ICOLO converses with Molly Wasonga during the data center interview at the icolo office n Nairobi. (photo by Artur Kuwashima)
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A large group of networked computer servers, used by organizations for the remote storage, processing and distribution of large amounts of data is called data centers. For a long time, there has been not a need for such in the Sub-Saharan Africa, or maybe just the need to justify it.

Ranjith Cherickel, the CEO icolo on a Q&A, talks about his vision for building state of the art data centers in Kenya and why Kenyans just like any other internet consumer worldwide, must not have anything short of the best.

He starts by explaining that when mobile phones connect to servers, the servers are eventually housed in big wares called data centers. “So it is like a housing colony for servers and software’s, that can thrive and talk to each other. Usually, it’s a very large room filled with servers. Ranging for 1000 servers to 10,000 servers,” he says.

Q- What is the need for data centers?

As we move more content to online platforms, people would need digital access, storage, there is a lot of interdependence between different services. For example, the web guys need other web services to be able to function, as well as the hosting guys needing hosting services. All of these people talk to each other, for example on WhatsApp, it doesn’t go to the other persons phone, it goes to one server which goes to another server before it finally connects to your friend.

Similarly, when you are at the bank, doing an Mpesa transaction through the bank, the bank is talking to an Mpesa server. So, why you need data centers is because you want to get everybody, not necessarily to be in the same place, but very near each other. In the old days, it didn’t matter if the servers were sitting in Europe, because there was not such a need to connect, buy, sell and even speak, but today everybody buys, sells, transacts. Which fundamentally means that the servers should be brought closer to where the people are doing all these things so the experience is better.

That’s why data centers are very important to develop digitally. They are the bed rock of online infrastructure.

Q-  What other advantages are present through data centers?

In general, a great advantage, apart from seamless communication is security. Where your data is sovereign, protected and in order for that to be done your data needs to be in a place where it is secure, wherever data Is being exchanged. That’s why, when you have a well-built data center, they follow internationally accepted screening procedures. For example, the card payment industry protocol says “this data center is safe enough to handle transaction data” and that’s very important because somebody can break in and take all your data.

Q- Why did you choose to have data centers in Nairobi?

So, our first data center is actually in Mombasa. Traditionally, we are about four years old. When we started, we were advised to build our data centers in Nairobi, because that’s the epicenter of all the action in Kenya. Mombasa was a better location, for two reasons, first is, that’s where the internet starts. All the undersea cables land in Mombasa. Which of course means if there’s little infrastructure there, there’s less transactions happening. The second reason is, to bring data to Nairobi, and process, then send back would incur an additional cost. But we are building our second data center in Nairobi and it opens in about 10 days.

Why Nairobi, the market is Nairobi is different. We are focusing on enterprise customers in Kenya, and for the first time, we carry a neutral data center. Our philosophy is, the internet for the average user in Kenya is not less than the average user in London, or Frankfurt. It is the same internet, so people are still expecting it to be fast, reliable, accessible and the access to that has to be cheap.

In order for that to happen, you need world class infrastructure. Which also means you need world class data centers. When we build our data centers, it is as per as anything else in the world. We have had over 150 customers come and go, cloud hosting companies, online payment companies around the world and I think, for many, it shocks them that they are able to find world class facilities in Kenya. Internet is internet, why should it be any different, so this is the philosophy driving the building of our data centers.

Q- So who is your client?

In Mombasa, we have 23 different and localized clients. Today, we are expecting that number to go to about 40 by the end of the year. Which now starts making our data center in Mombasa one of the most connected sites in Africa. We have content delivery networks, four undersea cables, search engines, people you connect with on your phones, that’s a large portion of the traffic that drives the internet in Kenya.

So if a user wanted to connect to google, the information would have to go and connect to a server in Sweden, now it goes to Mombasa instead. So now the infrastructure is coming closer to us, so in the last 3 years, internet speeds have really gone up. So, the next step is, people in Kisumu will have a data center, and Eldoret in some stage, because of the volume of information. Another client is enterprise markets, comprised of local IT companies, all financial bank services, the payment processors and the universities, regional companies too, wanting to set up and access different kinds of data.

So it is broadly, everybody who uses the internet and has a requirement to work with services, and has the need to use servers in their offices, would be one of our potential customers.

Q- The minds behind the data centers, what was one big vision that you had, to revolutionize bringing data centers in Kenya?

When we started thinking about what we should do, there were two things that came to mind, data centers are very expensive to build, they cost around a billion Kenya shillings to build. You can build a smaller one, so it costs you less, you can build lesser quality, so it costs less, when we were having these discussions, the tagline was “why do we need to build such a good data center for Africa?” We are not talking about food or clothing, but something we can consume, like water and electricity. And users expectation is, that it should be the same.

So my question back was “Why should we build anything less?” Well its expensive, it took me two years to convince my investors, that we should indeed build a word class, large data center. When we open in Nairobi, which will be in 10 days, we will have the largest data center. So we will have the largest data center carrier company in Africa, outside of the south Africans. We will be bigger than the North Africans and Nigerians too. And with a completely Kenyan team.

So to answer your question, my vision was to build something that is not less than anything else, and effectively make sure that we are able to build and give the same level of service that is expected. Worst case scenario, we are looking at 16 minutes’ downtime, and that is in a year. Which virtually means there is no downtime. Contractually committing, that there will be no down time is something we are beginning to do here.

Q- What’s next after Nairobi?

We’re looking at building a few more data centers outside of Kenya. Some along the west coast, some along the east coast. In Kenya, we have bought the second plot of land in Mombasa, we are now developing plans for that, it’s now being specifically designed for the cable systems coming into the country. There is a gigantic leap in capacity, for cable systems hitting the east of Africa in the next 3 years. We are going from a couple of terabytes, to hundreds of terabytes per system.

So effectively, they need the kind of infrastructure to host and manage the volume. We are building our second site, in anticipation of the demand. We want to build in Nyali, we are at the 30% design stage for that data center and by second quarter of next year, we will start construction. It will take about 15 months to bring that online, so by the end of 2021 we will have another data center which will be double the capacity of what we have built in Nairobi.

Icolo envisions that in 2023 they will be in operation in 5 other African countries. The Nairobi data center will be operational soon.

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