28 September 2018

Djibouti Data Centre's John Melick III On Two New International Cable Connections for the Region and Operating Neutral, Third Party Combined Landing Stations and Data Centres

interview

London — With the recent peace initiatives in the Horn of Africa, the region has suddenly become much more interesting: new fibre links may be built between old enemies. Also someone will eventually build a cross-continental fibre to West Africa and Djibouti would be a logical end point in East Africa. Russell Southwood interviewed John Melick III, Chairman, Djibouti Data Centre.

Q: How did Djibouti Data Centre (DDC) came about as an idea and how did it get built? Why locate in Djibouti?

A: Arguably, Africa is the fastest growing region in the world. Djibouti is a small country strategically located on the east coast in the Horn of Africa, and boasts one of Africa's most advanced international telecom networks. Djibouti Telecom, the incumbent fixed, mobile, and Internet service provider, operates state of the art fiber cable landing stations serving eleven (11) international and regional fiber cable systems, and more are planned for the future.

The DDC was conceived as a carrier neutral data center - I call it an ecosystem - which serves as a strategic gateway hub to the region. It is complimentary to the many fiber cable systems landing in Djibouti that connect Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific regions with Africa. One of the many historical challenges in Africa is that digital super highways (submarine cables) have been able to bring "buyers and sellers" to the region, but there have been few shopping malls (neutral data centers) to sell and buy once the buyers and sellers get there.

Our vision when we conceived and built the DDC was to change this in east Africa. Over the last five years, the carrier neutral DDC has played a significant roll in enabling a key regional ecosystem - shopping mall if you may - that enables network operators, MNOs, ISPs, and large content providers to establish a physical presence "in-region" with direct access to all major international and regional fiber optic cable systems. Fiber cable systems in conjunction with neutral data centers are now beginning to work in harmony to provide platforms for expansion to many of the fastest growing and emerging markets in Africa.

Q: What are the specifications of the data centre? (sq m, racks, tier status, etc)

A: The DDC building is located adjacent to the newest of Djibouti Telecom's two submarine fiber optic cable landing stations. It is a dedicated, purpose built telecom and technology building that was newly constructed in 2012. The DDC was designed and currently operates at a Tier 3 level standard, and is 700 sq m, of which 550 sq m is for rack space. Each rack provisioned has a 3.5KVA average power availability of both DC and AC power, and customizable options for increased power are available.

To enhance operational efficiency and reliability, the DDC's main power supply is generated from renewable hydro sources located in Ethiopia. To ensure maximum power stability, the DDC draws power directly from the same dedicated substation power distribution facility that feeds the two submarine fiber optic cable landing stations operated by Djibouti Telecom. On a quarterly basis, representatives of the various submarine fiber cable system consortiums independently audit these facilities for power and operational compliance. Additionally, and to further ensure uninterrupted service should there be a substation outage/failure, the DDC operates backup power (UPS - 8 hours of battery power) and 2 standby SDMO Gen Sets each in redundant mode (N+1). Air conditioning systems are N+2, and are monitored on-site and remotely 24 X 7.

The DDC's "uptime" since its inception in 2013 has been 100%. No power outages have been recorded to date for the DDC. The DDC is operated and manned 24 X 7 with on-site technicians and remote monitoring support.

Q: Who are your existing customers? Outside carriers what other type of customers are using DDC?

A: Since the inception of the DDC, we have experienced an evolution of the profile and types of customers we serve. Prior to the launch of the DDC, companies were obtaining similar services at data centers in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The DDC changed this dynamic as service provider companies can now obtain critical collocation and cable head access locally and regionally, thereby improving fiber cable bandwidth efficiencies, network diversity, reducing network costs, and improving network latency and performance.

Initially, the profile of our customers was largely regional mobile and other international and regional network operators seeking a hub in east Africa for collocation, international submarine and regional fiber cable head access, cross connect, backhaul, and collocation services. Among others, initial customers included MTN, Telkom South Africa, and Belgacom International Carrier Services (BICS). These large network operators are now joined by other large global network operators including Tata, China Mobile International (CMI), China Telecom, Emirates Integrated Telecommunication Company (Du), China Unicom, and PCCW to name a few.

As demand for Internet and other services has grown in Africa over the last several years, the profile of DDC customers has expanded to include content service providers including among others Verisign, Cloudflare, Hurricane Electric, Akamai, and Facebook.

Q: Do you have any local Djibouti customers or customers from within the region?

A: Yes. The DDC currently serves local and regional customers in Africa. Among others, they include Djibouti Telecom, MTN, Telkom South Africa, Botswana Fibre Networks (BoFiNet), Expresso Telecom Group (part of the Sudatel Telecom Group), EXIM Bank, Hormund Telecom (Somalia), and WIOCC.

Q: Does DDC have a role as a meet point?

A: Yes. We position the DDC as a carrier neutral data center "ecosystem" in east Africa that serves as a "strategic gateway hub" to the region. The DDC is the most connected carrier neutral data center in the region, and is complimentary to the many cable systems landing in Djibouti that connect Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific regions with Africa.

Separate of core collocation, cable head access, cross connect, backhaul and vPoP services, the DDC provides meet-me-room type services where both regional and global operators, enterprises, ISPs, CDN, and content providers can cross connect with one another and manage their end user services directly in east Africa.

In 2016, the DDC launched the Djibouti Internet Exchange (DjIX). The DjIX is collocated at the DDC facility, and is an open and neutral Internet peering point where each network operator and participant is treated equally. Before the growth of IXPs in Africa, network and content providers, as well as ISPs, had to exchange Internet traffic outside of the region or use higher cost IP transit options in the region. Meeting and peering at a neutral IX can keep local Internet traffic local and in region. This can significantly reduce costs for network operators and content providers, and add material value by being a vehicle to reduce latency and improve the resilience and performance of their networks. All of this results in an improved end-user experience in Africa.

Q: Which international fibre pipelines are present in DDC and are there other planned pipelines in the next 3-5 years?

A: Djibouti hosts one of the most connected international submarine fiber optic cable networks in the world, and is a landing point for eleven (11) international and regional fiber optic cable systems linking Africa to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific regions. All transoceanic and regional cable systems landing in Djibouti are connected to the DDC facility on diverse fiber paths. Cable head access, cross connect, and backhaul services can be ordered directly from the DDC. The list of international and regional fiber optic cable systems landing in Djibouti includes AAE1, SMW5, SMW3, SEACOM, EIG, EASSy, Yemen-Djibouti, Djibouti-Ethiopia, and Djibouti-Somalia.

There are several new international and regional cable systems in the planning phases to meet growing demand that will land in Djibouti. Two of the most advanced ones are:

DARE - http://www.te.com/content/dam/te-com/documents/subcom/global/DARE_CIF_DjiboutiTel_TE_SubCom_21DEC2017.pdf

This cable will go Djibouti-Berbera-Bosaso-Mogadishu-Mombassa-Dar es Salaam.

PEACE - and Huawei-Marine-Peace-Project

This cable will start from Gwadar and Karachi in Pakistan and go to Djibouti and then on to Kenya. Two other branches - one to Egypt and the other to South Africa - are under discussion. (There have been reports in Pakastani media that PCCW will manage the cable).

Q: Where is there future growth potential? Routes to West coast of Africa? Further routes to Asia? Additional East coast of Africa routes?

A: The global Internet is growing at an exponential rate - Africa included. In Africa, Internet use is now rapidly accelerating. The Information Technology (IT) industry has been one of the major drivers of economic growth in Africa, growing by 40% in the last 10 years. Mobile subscriptions in Africa are expected to surpass 1 billion this years, and mobile broadband access accounts for more than 90% of Internet subscriptions. The growth in both these areas is ushering in increased demand for both international and regional fiber cable capacity and connectivity.

The growth in IT and availability of Internet access is increasing the demand for additional bandwidth and data center services across Africa. This is largely due to the increased demand for content, improved network performance, lower latencies, and cheaper Internet prices. Data centers are the primary source of collocation and international, regional, and local connectivity for content mobile network operators, content providers, ISPs, governments, and others who aim to serve growing user communities in Africa.

We see several new significant opportunities for growth. First, fiber cable system investors and consortiums planning new systems are seriously revaluating the traditional model of landing new cable systems in incumbent or dominant carrier operated cable landing stations. By identifying neutral third parties who can build and operate a combined cable landing facility and a carrier neutral data center - especially in many markets in Africa where carrier neutral data centers do not exist - they can develop and create a commercial and operational environment that will be very attractive to potential network operators and large content providers who are building, investing and acquiring capacity on these systems to meet their needs.

As noted above, several new international and regional fiber cable systems are in the discussion, planning and development stages in Africa. They will add additional capacity and connectivity between many of the largest markets in Africa, and enable even greater connectivity to other major regions in the world. These systems can benefit greatly if they land in or close by neutral data centers, and help change the data center landscape in Africa. We believe that the DDC (and even a few others) have a special opportunity to deploy a pan-Africa network of combined neutral data center and cable landing facilities that will result in more efficient economies, lower cost structure, and will streamline processes that will improve productivity and performance. All of this will be to the benefit of customers and end users who will see significant improvements in service options, all at a reduced cost.

Q: Who owns Djibouti Data Centre?

A: The Djibouti Data Center (DDC) is a privately held company, which launched commercial operations in Djibouti in 2013. Both local Djibouti and international shareholders own the DDC.

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