The boost in increased bandwidth provision to Africa is enabling the continent to expand its use of the internet and explore the latest innovations in the IT world. Cloud computing is the new buzz word. What is it and how can it benefit Africa?
With bandwidth provision increasing across the African continent, growing attention is being paid to how new technologies can be applied to automate and simplify business processes. Cloud computing is one of the latest IT innovations, and exploiting it has the potential to benefit Africa.
Still a rather nebulous concept, cloud computing can be described in various ways. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), defines it as “a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources, for example, networks, servers, storage, applications, and services, that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction”. IT resources are organised to provide services in which computers are pooled to work together so that applications can take advantage of all the computing power, as if they were working on one powerful machine.
This allows for greater flexibility: resources can be increased and decreased on demand, without the need to assign specific hardware for a given task. The idea is to rent, and not own, space, so that software and services are available on demand and end users no longer need to have specific IT expertise or the expense of owning the technology infrastructure.
Despite the recent hype, it has been around for a while. Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) use clouds to deliver applications known as Software as a Service (SaaS), which can be accessed through computers or mobile phones. A well-known example of SaaS is Gmail, which is an email application that runs in a Google cloud data centre.
It is estimated that around 35% of IT departments globally started implementing a private cloud last year and another 30% will be operating on a cloud before the end of 2011.
The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2015, cloud computing could represent a $70-$85bn market, set to double every two years. Technology experts forecast that by 2015, cloud computing infrastructure and applications could account for 20% of the total spend in these areas, and their impact could reach 20-30% of the total IT budget for businesses willing to leverage this new technology. Deloitte, the second-largest professional services organisation in the world, has identified cloud computing as one of the top-ten tech trends for 2011.
Because of cloud computing’s complete dependence on the internet, infrastructure is the biggest hurdle, but a solution is being implemented, as new fibre-optic cables continue to bring better bandwidth to Africa. The telecom sector’s highly competitive environment is also pushing prices down and giving many people affordable bandwidth that would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Reduced cost is one of the clearest advantages, as companies and governments no longer need to have complex IT systems.
This provides additional motivation to international companies wishing to set up base on the African continent, offering them a chance to avoid the capital expenses of tangible IT infrastructure. The entire infrastructure is in the cloud and follows you wherever you go – you no longer need always to be in the same place to use these applications.
Taking into account adequate bandwidth, perhaps the biggest challenge is a change of mindset. Security concerns have been raised, but this need not be a reason for avoiding using a cloud, as many very secure solutions exist.
Cloud computing allows for easier collaboration. African developers and entrepreneurs can now be part of an enhanced global network. A good example is the development of mobile applications, whereby a developer in Africa can create and test an application for the iPhone and post their work on Apple’s App Store, at which point anyone in the world can purchase the app and download it.
Another is e-education or e-learning. This could prove a vital tool for the developing world since every student can have access to the same learning materials as anyone anywhere else in the world, irrespective of income.
IT experts expect that cloud computing will have a profound effect on business, transforming its organisational structure forever. But a large proportion of the continent is still not connected and, whether it is smartphones or laptops, they may also be out of reach, in practice, for many ordinary Africans. But it also seems that the possibilities that cloud computing offers are such that it would be foolish to neglect their potential.