Cloud Computing in Africa

Cloud computing has quickly taken off in the US, and is in large part changing the way organizations here use technology.  What issues come up when the cloud computing model is used in less developed parts of the world?

Services such as Amazon AWS and Rackspace Cloud offer great computing and storage services at flexible prices.  In addition, they allow users to take advantage of first class datacenters and connectivity.  The reliability and ease of use that these services offer make them attractive to many organizations, including non-profits and university sponsored partnerships with locations spread across the world.

However, the limited connectivity options available in many parts of Africa (particularly where I visited in Malawi and Moshi, Tanzania) make utilizing cloud computing services difficult.  Satellite based connections are typically quite reliable (as long as you have power).  Their high latency and somewhat limited speeds however, effectively make them a long narrow road between you and your resources in the cloud.  Local Internet service providers may provider faster speeds and slightly lower latency, but in my experience aren’t yet as reliable as they need to be.  This will change in the future.  More upstream providers will be available soon (see EASSy) and existing providers like SEACOM are becoming more reliable as the kinks are worked out.

For organizations in regions with limited connectivity, cloud computing is best used in situations where:

  1. The service is used mostly by people offsite, in the US, EU, etc, or
  2. The service uses little bandwidth, and will work with high-latency or unreliably connectivity

In the first situation, these services might include websites targeted at people in the US / EU (such as websites to encourage donations, raise awareness, or provide information to volunteers who will be traveling onsite).  If data collected on the ground will need to be analyzed, or accessed by staff here in the US, cloud storage might be a viable option as well.  Cloud computing systems like EC2 make it easy and inexpensive to temporarily use large amounts of computing resources to analyze data. 

Everyday examples for the second situation are a little harder to come by.  Cloud storage services can be effective for offsite backups, if the amount of data can be easily copied in bulk overnight.  On a satellite connection with 512 kbps of upstream bandwidth, around 2.5 GB of data could be uploaded in a 12 hour period.  That is likely large enough to back up a single day’s worth of data.  It’s the initial full backup of everything, and a full restore from scratch that would pose the biggest issues.

If you’re in a situation like this and need help deciding what options are best for your site with limited connectivity, I’d love to help.  We can also help tweak your network to make sure it allows your cloud computing service to perform optimally.  Comment, give me a call, email me, or message me on Twitter if I can help in any way.

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