The insatiable demand for data across the globe is driving a huge upsurge in data centres – and South Africa is among the nations seeing explosive growth. What’s driving this demand and what opportunities does it create for the electric power sector?
Since big data entered the public consciousness a decade or so ago, it has grown virtually beyond imagination. A recent report1 suggests our entire digital universe will reach 175 zettabytes by 2025. Just one zettabyte is enough storage for roughly 30 billion 4K movies - and if you wanted a zettabyte of storage in your living room, you’d need to connect a billion 1 terabyte hard drives.
This voracious appetite for data is driven by several factors; society’s ever-increasing digitisation, growing connectivity with cloud services, global social media usage, and the emergence of technologies including artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.
It’s not only the volume of data that has increased, but its value too. Large data sets have become vital currency for both individual enterprises and economies, helping them optimise decision-making, create differentiation and drive efficiency.
As data expands, so does demand for the capacity to store and process it. This has played out as an explosion in the number of data centres being built and operated both in established nations and emerging ones.
Other factors are accelerating the proliferation of data centres. First, governments and businesses are swapping the cost and complexity of operating their own on-premises data centres for outsourced co-location sites. At the same time, many hyperscale companies are investing huge sums in data centres as they develop infrastructure capable of supporting hundreds of millions of customers.
While required capacity has traditionally been met by data centres in the developed world – most notably the US, UK and Germany2 – a huge expansion is now being seen across the world’s emerging markets.
Among the regions experiencing high data centre demand is Africa. In the three years to 2020, capacity doubled on the continent3 – and South Africa is leading that surge.
Only last year, Amazon opened its first African cloud data centres in South Africa4 and the country is now bubbling with new projects. In Johannesburg alone, four large-scale centres are set to be developed in 20215, with many further projects heading for fruition in and around Cape Town and other major urban centres.
According to Andrew Pigott, business development manager for generating set manufacturer A J Power – a long-standing engineering business that supplies power solutions in South Africa and worldwide – demand for data centres will continue to grow in South Africa, creating commercial opportunities for the electric power sector.
“As the most advanced economy in Africa, fuelled by a highly educated workforce, South Africa is an attractive place for investment in its own right,” says Andrew. “In addition, investors see it as a stepping stone into the wider continent, which goes some way to explain why the country is such an attractive location for data centre growth.”
But it’s not all plain sailing for data centres operating in South Africa. Reliability issues with the power grid, even in affluent metropolitan areas, means data centres must invest in alternative power solutions to protect business continuity. Fail to do so and their reputations are on the line.
“Data centres are a very power-hungry animal, yet the grid in South Africa often can’t match demand with supply,” says Andrew. “As more data centres go up, opportunities will expand for companies with solid engineering credentials who have the dependable products to plug those power gaps.”
Andrew’s contention that South Africa’s data centre market is booming is more than a hunch. A J Power has already completed many installations in the country and is seeing an increasing number of enquiries.
“Previously we supplied the bulk of our generating sets to factories and farmers, but we’re seeing a clear shift in the sector we’re supplying to as data centres look for back-up power solutions that safeguard their commercial success and reputation,” said Andrew.
Among the projects delivered by Andrew’s team in South Africa was a large-scale installation of generating sets for a major colocation data centre in Cape Town. The site houses critical data and infrastructure for some of the country’s most eminent enterprises and government departments and needs to ensure data flows without disruption, 24/7.
With power outages commonplace in the local area, they required a high-spec standby power system that was powerful and dependable enough to pick up a new segment of the building’s load, in a dual redundancy arrangement – providing a total of 5000 kVA standby power – whenever the grid failed.
A J Power met that challenge by manufacturing, supplying and installing two AJ2500 generating sets, fitted with two Perkins® 4016-61TRG3 engines, so as the data centre can maintain constant uptime for its customers.
“The project was a big success and gave our customer peace of mind that they could provide consistent uptime to their customers, whatever shape the local supply was in. We look forward to sharing our expertise with more data centre clients in South Africa as the market continues to expand over the coming decade,” concludes Andrew.
1. IDC: Data Age 2025. The Digitization of the World from Edge to Core
2. Statista: Number of data centers worldwide 2021, by country
3. Financial Times: Africa’s cloud computing boom creates data centre gold rush
4. Techpoint Africa: Amazon launches its first cloud data centres in Africa
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