An increasing number of Kenyan individuals, households and organizations are now connected to the Internet. The Internet penetration in Kenya was 64.3% representing 26.1 million users according to the Communication Authority (see http://www.ca.go.ke). Mobile Internet subscriptions were about 16.3 million which is over 99% of all subscriptions in Kenya. But there were 81.243 fixed fiber optic data subscriptions and 17,537 terrestrial wireless data subscriptions.
Although this fixed Internet subscriptions at only 98,780 appear to be few, they connect urban households, public and private organizations, educational institutions and businesses with large number of users and generate high Internet traffic. Schools, higher education institutions and government offices (including county offices) continue to get connected to the Internet in Kenya and Internet penetration is expected to continue to grow to even higher percentages.
Most of the Internet users access one or more cloud services. For example, many users have a Google, Yahoo, or Hotmail Web-based e-mail account. These are what would be called global cloud services because they are hosted by data centers outside of Kenya. Other Global Cloud applications popular in Kenya include Whatsup, Twitter and Facebook. All of the leading Websites in Kenya like Nation Newspapers, Standard Newspapers or Kenya Airways are also hosted in data centers outside the country and therefore are global cloud services.
However, there is an increasing number of Mobile or Internet applications that are being hosted in Kenya. For example the iTax system operated by Kenya Revenue Authority and some of the new Mobile Pay services provided by the Nairobi County government. These cloud services are possible because of the availability of a stable Kenyan Internet Infrastructure described in the next section.
2. The Emerging Kenyan Internet Infrastructure to Support Cloud Services
Figure 1 illustrates the Kenyan Internet Infrastructure that is supporting private, public, community or even government cloud services (sometimes also called shared services). It consists of:
1. Pervasive Mobile Internet provided by 3G mobile operators
2. Fixed access to the Internet over broadband optical fiber links or broadband radio that provide the broadband links at 100 Mb/s, 1 Gb/s or even 10 Gb/s speeds.
3. The Kenya Internet eXchange Point (KIXP) operated by the Telecommunications Operators Associations and that allows Internet Services Providers, Cloud Services Operators or Content Providers to exchange local traffic without the need for international links
4. Data Centers that are private, community-owned, and Government-owned or Open Access Data Centers operated by private companies.
Figure 1: Kenyan Internet Infrastructure for Cloud Services
Banks and most mobile operators have always operated private data centers that host their applications for their users or bank branches. Community data centers are a new phenomenon in Kenya with the best example being the data centers operated Kenya Education Network for the higher education and research.
But it is the Open Access Data Centers, such as the East African Data Center, that will drive the uptake the Cloud-based services in Kenya. An open access data center allows any organization or business (including small businesses) to move the servers that support their applications from the private server rooms to open access data center. This ensures that their applications and services have high availability and high-speed access from secure open access data centers that provide clean and stable power as well as cooling.
The availability of open data centers makes it possible for some companies to start providing cloud services at relatively low cost by simply leasing space. This is indeed the business model of open access data centers – to host a large number of servers of many organizations at low monthly costs. Angani is one such Cloud services provider that was launched in April 2015. The cloud services include corporate hosting e-mail and corporate websites, backup and storage services, mobile pay services, and video content providers in the new era of digital TV. Companies or organizations that provide cloud services on leased servers use a technology called virtualization. A new generation of engineers, often cloud engineers, who manage cloud services, are now in high demand in Kenya and Africa.
In the following sections, we explain the technical meaning of virtualization and highlight some of the virtualization platform in use in Kenya.
2. Understanding Cloud computing and Virtualization
While the term “cloud computing” means different things in different contexts, it is generally acknowledged that, in the enterprise arena, cloud computing refers to the enabling technology that allows a physical host to run multiple, isolated and concurrent copies of an Operating System.
While it may appear paradoxical, multiplexing multiple Operating Systems on a single host actually increases business efficiency and reduces cost. The primary reason for this improvement is attributable to the fact that virtualization increases the physical utilisation of
hardware, which, in turn reduces per-service capital and operating expenditure leading to increased overall IT efficiency.
It is no longer necessary to maintain multiple machines, each with duplicate physical resources (CPU, memory, and storage) and consuming rack space, power and a networking port. Because multiple services can be physically co-located on a single host and provided the illusion they are running on dedicated hardware, it is possible to achieve efficiencies of capital and operational costs.
Technically, the ability to run multiple Operating Systems on the same hardware is made possible via virtualization — control primitives added to the software and/or hardware that support multiplexing. There are two major techniques for achieving a virtualized server. In particular, Paravirtualization and Hardware Assisted Virtualization. Paravirtualization works by modifying the source code or compiled output of the Operating System to remove or modify instructions that assume dedicated use of the hardware while Hardware Virtualization
provides a hardware interface that provides an illusion of dedicated access to the Operating System.
Both techniques have associated advantages and disadvantages. Paravirtualization usually has better performance properties but requires the modification of (and subsequent maintenance) of Operating System source code. Hardware Virtualization is transparent requiring no Operating System changes but has a higher runtime overhead.
Regardless of the virtualization technique used, a thin Operating System agnostic control-plane layer known as the hypervisor is responsible for coordinating access to physical resources as well as the more mundane tasks of management such as starting, stopping and
creating instances of Operating Systems.
Multiple services are run by starting each service in its own copy of the Operating System, generally called a virtual machine. Virtual machines are a useful abstraction as they allow administrators to decouple physical and logical resources. No longer does the administrator have to think about things in terms of physical servers, he can now reason about provisioning in units of virtual machines.
Virtual machines, however, are limited in scope. Business processes may require multiple services running on multiple machines and physical, market, technical and legal constraints may require multiple services, which are treated as and managed as a single atomic unit. It therefore becomes necessary to be able to address a set of one-or-more virtualized hosts as a single unit, or, as is more commonly known, a cloud.
3. Cloud Services Hosted in Kenya
While on first glance it may appear that cloud computing poses a threat to the traditional model and role of the IT service provider we advocate that this is a false conclusion. Clouds extend the virtualization concept from a single host to a cluster of hosts, inclusive of storage and networking. This opens up a range of opportunities for developers, administrators and IT infrastructure managers. In particular, we highlight the following immediate opportunities in the Kenyan and East African Markets:
1. Cloud Adoption For Businesses: As the field matures it is inevitable that more and more software will run primarily on the cloud. Given that most businesses in Africa are entrenched in non-IT fields and that it is imperative that these businesses embrace the cloud in order to continue to function, there is tremendous opportunity in specialising in cloud platforms and applications and applying this skill to helping businesses become cloud compliant. Activities in this space generate revenue as one-off projects, products and support contracts and can be extremely lucrative provided you are responsive to and understanding of customer needs.
2. Localised Cloud Apps: Building new applications and services on cloud platforms means the applications are instantly available to the entire region from inception. It is no longer necessary to do a staged country-specific roll-out. Moreover, scaling the application up or down depending on demand is a simple and straightforward process. The process no longer involves or is limited by the long lead-time of physical hardware deployment.
3. Cloud Education: Given that the next wave of software and hardware platforms will be cloud-specific, there is an opportunity to educate new and existing developers, IT administrators, and engineers on cloud specific technologies and infrastructure. This education is an on-going and comprehensive process capable of generating revenue on periodical basis.
4. Local Platforms: The legislative and operation environment in Africa differs from elsewhere. In particular, Africa has different laws to other regions with respect to data retention and storage. Similarly, technical properties of the environment differ, e.g. average network speed is lower and inter-network connectivity on a regional level is sparser. There exists an opportunity to localise platforms for the African environment.
5. Porting Business Critical Applications: There exist a number of business critical applications in all manner of industries that are not Cloud compatible. For example, African insurance companies tend to use bespoke risk assessment software written in the mid 80s running on MS-DOS. The astute engineer will be able to leverage his or her abilities to port such applications to the cloud, making them available online.
6. Developer Operations: DevOps is an amalgamation of Developer and System Administration skills, enabling engineers to not only write applications but also to scale them, maintain them and improve them. DevOps differs from traditional software engineering by emphasising a more agile environment in which the software is continually being evolved and improved and operations are made more reliable and performant.
7. Country-wide healthcare provision: While healthcare is an application vertical on the cloud, it is important enough to warrant separate mention in an African context. Cloud based applications make advanced healthcare facilities (e.g. telemedicine and teleradiology) available in even the most remote places at very low cost and with a low access barrier. This model has the potential to revolutionize healthcare in African states.
The cloud is here to stay — it forms the baseline platform on which all modern applications are built and will form the basis of all software used in the future. It is no longer necessary to install multiple copies of the software on every desktop or server and co-ordinate and synchronise access to the applications, it is now possible to access applications remotely over the cloud. This, in turn results in capital and operational efficiencies.
In order to operate the cloud services infrastructure, Kenya needs a critical mass of engineers and systems administrators proficient in server virtualization, cloud applications developers, storage systems, network engineering, and power systems engineers to operate the clean power systems required by data centers. The foundational training for such ICT professionals is electrical engineering (and its variations), computer science and information systems degree offered in some of Kenyan universities. However, it might be necessary to update the curricula of such degree programs to include topics in Internet and cloud computing and engineering.
It is expected that in the next few years, there shall be increased uptake of Cloud services in Kenya by educational and research organizations, the governments, small and medium-sized companies because of the lower total cost of providing ICT services. Companies like Angani (http://www.angani.co.ke) that have focused on providing cloud services are expected to grow rapidly to become the new large ICT services companies. We note that even mobile operators are now moving into the cloud services business in order to diversity their revenues. This will be a huge advantage for Kenyan organizations and businesses.