The sun is shining in Africa

Of course the reason why it’s so sunny is that “The Cloud” is not on the horizon. For those who have missed all the discussions floating around about Cloud computing lately, you can get a rundown on a good post from David Sasaki here. You can read what I feel to be a more meandering one here. There are plenty of others floating around as it’s about the only thing people have found to be worthwhile to talk about lately other than updates to the Twitter logo.
While it’s definitely true that we are shifting the way our data is stored, all of these talks miss a few points. First, there’s the point that The Cloud is actually nothing new. Centralized storage and computing has been around in some form or another since we started using mainframes in the late 1960’s. The model of how the interaction between end user and centralized core has changed around a great deal over the years, but it’s nothing new. The technology has definitely evolved, but the way everyone is talking about it, you’d think they finally figured out some way to combine jamón and Zinfandel in to one megadrink that has all the best qualities of both.
The other big point missed in all this Cloud business is how it’s screwing the rest of the world outside of well, the US, and maybe Europe. This is the problem in how when people who proselytize a new technology don’t know understand the underpinnings of it, they often miss big gaping holes in the actual implementation of it. You see, there are several cornerstones to all things Cloud that make realtime server interactions possible. One of those is AJAX. Another is low latency. Yet another is high bandwidth. And yet one more is a stable connection that isn’t affected by power variance. There are others as well, but for the sake of discussion, I find these to be the key ones.
When it comes to a continent like Africa, these are all huge issues and they act as massive barriers to people there, impairing their ability to actually use all the benefits of Cloud-based systems. So, just as new cables are being deployed around the continent so that they will be allowed the same level of access that a great swath of the world currently enjoys, this new level of entry is being introduced. But let’s look at why each of these issues a problem.

AJAX

This is what makes Google Maps work. It also is what makes GMail and Twitter work. Even Maneno makes use of it to some extent. Used properly it can actually work quite well to improve user experience in low bandwidth settings as it reduces overall page load volume. But it’s often the case that it’s not used in this fashion. It’s used to make rich applications which don’t work well on older browsers and there are literally millions of installations of old browsers on old machines that won’t work well with AJAX. Obviously, the simple solution around this is to upgrade the browser (as that’s free) and hope that the machine can be bumped up with it. The only issue, is that even with the client being able to handle how an AJAX-rich and Cloud-interacted system is built, there is still the next issue.

High Latency

This is a killer. You can’t work around it because it is physically inherent problem. When a user is thousands of kilometers from the Cloud host, they see things load slower or not at all, even if they’re on a fast connection. Hell, even something basic like the Google homepage takes three seconds to load from Accra, Ghana when it’s instant in the US. This is a problem with distance, but it’s also a problem with DNS lookups as so much of this infrastructure is centralized in the US.
This is the reason an iPhone is so powerful. It has constant access to low latency, high bandwidth connection, and is near the servers. Take that away and an iPhone is just a very expensive, low battery life phone. Why do you think they’ve wanted to control the countries to which they are released?
The solution to all of this is a massive investment in infrastructure (primarily in the form of more datacenters and DNS root servers in Africa) which will come with time. Until then, high latency blows the Cloud away from Africa.

High Bandwidth

Obviously it’s getting better in Africa, but as shown with the previous two points, it’s not the magic bullet to use Cloud applications. It does help with current website designs, which is why widespread Clouding is so treacherous in that it takes messes with the new access slowly being opened up to East Africa.
There still is a problem with the interior of Africa at they use a lot of satellite connections and again, it’s going to be an issue of infrastructure build up.

Stable Connections

You can’t have a connection that goes all over the place in terms of bandwidth speed as it hosing client-server interactions. This is tied in a great deal to a) not using VSAT connections and b) having a stable power grid. Much like High Bandwidth issues, it’s part of the issues in infrastructure.

Conclusions

The Cloud is predicated on having an “always on” connection to function. While it’s fine to design a web architecture that centrally stores user data and handles all the heavy lifting when it comes to processing, the issue of access is going to block off Africa and whole lot of the rest of the world because of this. Designers (if they can be nudged to care) need to build applications with this in mind for probably the next 5-10 years. It’s building in “graceful degradation” to a system, which is something I think a lot of us have gotten lazy to do. Google hasn’t though and they build their systems to pull back features if it looks like the end user won’t be able to make good use of them. I think it’s part of the reason that Google stands the best chance to get a solid footing in the African market, which is going to explode over the next decade. If you want it, follow their lead.
The sun is shining in Africa

8 Replies to “The sun is shining in Africa”

  1. Compelling and insightful post. Couldn’t agree with your assessment more. The “appropriate technology” banner is thrown around way too loosely. I’d argue that field-based solutions which *need* the Internet to function are largely inappropriate, unless your audience are large resource-rich governments or large NGOs

  2. @kiwanja The other question about appropriate technology is appropriate to whom? Too often, it’s the provider and/or supply chain.

  3. @changeist – Totally true. Many appropriate technologies create dependence and are more about maintaining organisations and the people behind them. I’d say that if your target audience are the majority of NGOs in the developing world then your tools and/or services need to work without the internet, not require a degree in UNIX to install or use, and be easy to get/install/understand. Despite what you read, a simple test of what’s available today shows that most tools fail in most of these areas. So, yes, who are they most appropriate for?

  4. While the author made some good points, Cloud computing (which doesn’t mean AJAX everywhere and RIA but rather the possibility to externalize useful, critical apps like email) is IMHO, african companies savvior as it provides them data protection in a continent where life expectancy of a server is near 0 due to frequent blackouts and poor quality of electricity. Don’t mention the lack of data protection and network security in a big brother style country (Actually the majority of african countries ruled by tyrans).

    Gmail degrades beautifully to a non ajax interface when low bandwidth is detected and users don’t complain at all as they still perform their basic tasks.
    Businesses in Africa (at least in Senegal and Cameroon) are embracing Cloud Computing (once again don’t limit it to AJAX stuffs) for Storage, Email, Groupware and their websites (Ecommerce, Newspaper, basic CRM, etc..).

    While waiting for a hypothetical grid like infrastructure to be built by corrupted governments who know very well the danger of an universal, cheap and first class internet, Cloud computing is offering the perfect solution to escape the unreliable environment and help businesses in Africa afford a top-notch infrastructure at a fraction of the cost.

  5. Deush, you’ve stated a number of things that are quite broad in scope. For one, everyone talks about the fact that you don’t need to maintain your own servers in a Cloud setup, but still, servers need to be maintained and when they go down (as has happened a number of times with Google’s system recently) you have access to nothing. The Cloud ceases to exist.
    GMail does indeed degrade quite well, but it is not “beautiful” in this process by any means. If you’ve tried using it on a VSAT connection, you will have experienced this. When trying to check mail from Congo, it was a very, very painful process with GMail.
    Businesses in Africa will embrace “cloud-like” systems because currently the cost is incredibly favorable for them even if the access can be hit and miss. And if it’s for email and they’re not using some AJAX system, then this is just hosted email which we’ve had since the dawn of the internet and is nothing new. The AJAX component is quite key to making it a Cloud application.
    As for the issue of censorship, currently the vast majority of servers hosting Cloud systems are in the US. That’s terrifying. This is a country with some extremely viscous terrorism protocols in place and your data is quite honestly not your data, and can be taken from you at any point, especially if you are not a citizen. While this will (and is) changing with time, you are still entrusting your data to one source.
    Don’t get me wrong, some form of Cloud systems is what the future holds, but I still stand by the fact that it is nothing new and it is imposes a brand new barrier of accessibility on those in non-high bandwidth regions of the world; especially Africa.

  6. On this last idea then, what would an African “cloud” look like if it was optimized for local needs and conditions? Think broadly—”no cloud” isn’t an answer for this question. I think this is an interesting point that needs to be drilled down into.

  7. It looks exactly the same as it does for anyone else, but is only fully usable (in this new sense) once broadband and latency issues have been properly dealt with. The internet is a “cloud” by its very creation and we’ve been using it for years already. These new concepts really aren’t anything new at all, just a rehashing of what we already have because there isn’t much else to talk about in technology at the moment and they set an entry point for information technology that excludes the vast majority of the world.

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