This building site will be Africa’s largest data centre

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It took Facebook over three years from its initial announcement that it intended to build its first data centre in Prineville, Oregon, to cutting the ribbon.

By comparison, Teraco sent the bulldozers to clear the way for its second site in Isando, Johannesburg last October. The first customers are expecting to switch their servers on by December.

Nearly two and a half thousand cubic metres of concrete and 800 tons of steel reinforcement later, and the two basements and ground floor of Johanesburg 1 West, technically an extension to the existing Johannesburg 1 East facility rather than a standalone data centre in itself, are recognisable structures, if not actually complete.

When finished, there will be a total of 17 500 square metres of space in “Battlestar Galactica” (as the conjoined buildings have been affectionately nicknamed). The new wing will be four storeys tall above ground and ready to stake its claim as the largest data centre on the continent.

JB1_West Feb_2016-10True, the Facebook comparison isn’t really a fair one. Not only is the Prineville centre larger, 13 656 square metres against Teraco’s 9 000, but the challenges are different too.

Facebook’s cavernous centre contains rack after rack of identical servers designed to deliver content and services to the firm’s billion or so users. Teraco’s model involves selling space, connectivity and reliable power supply to its customers who provide their own racks, but it helps to put in the ambition of the project into perspective.

Not that Teraco has much choice but to push on as fast as possible. Joburg 1 East is expected to run out of capacity at around about the same time Joburg 1 West is turned on. It’s “just in time” planning, says Head of Operations Gys Geyser, although it wasn’t intended to be quite such a tight deadline when planning began. The fact that there’s a hurry on is testament to the firm’s exceptional growth over the last few years.

JB1_West Feb_2016-13When I first visited Joburg 1 East, this annexure (which will dwarf the original building) was already being talked about. NAPAfrica, the internet exchange Teraco hosts, had just overtaken the Johannesburg Internet Exchange (JINX) in Rosebank as the busiest in South Africa.

At the time, 19 months ago, JINX’s throughput was around 10Gbps during the day, and NAPAfrica had recently hit 13Gbps. NAPAfrica and Joburg 1 East are directly connected to all the major South African networks and the international undersea cables, and a rapid drop in the price of broadband combined with the growth of bandwidth heavy services like Netflix and ShowMax has seen demand for international data boom.

Today JINX traffic peaks at around 12Gbps. NAPAfrica hit 50Gbps around the new year and now peaks in the mid 60s.

It’s not just international traffic that has fuelled Teraco’s growth. Pretty much every major national and international networking, content and financial firm you can think of has taken space in Joburg 1 East in order to minimise latency on their connections to other networks, and Teraco has grown exponentially off the back of their needs. Geyser says there are more than 5 500 physical interconnects between servers already, and more than 200 are being added every month.

Hence the need for Joburg 1 West. And, once that’s complete, Joburg 2 is on the cards too.

The current building site is massive: so big, in fact, that Teraco is moving the nearby road to go around it. Geyser says that Ekhureleni council has been incredibly accommodating during the planning phase and very supportive of the investment.

As part of the build, a second power line will be brought in from Isando East substation. Geyser jokes that Teraco is really a power company – so long as there’s an unbroken energy supply to keep their servers up his customers are happy. The current mains supply is already good: Isando was chosen for Joburg 1 East because it sits on the same grid as the airport. A second line from a separate substation will give extra reliability and resilience.

JB1_West Feb_2016-23That’s important, because while Geyser boasts that the new building follows a highly efficient design which includes natural air cooling for the server rooms at night, it still requires some 5MW for the air conditioners alone. Each of the five server rooms (which are between 949 and 1076 square metres apiece) will have two 2kva generators attached for back-up power, and there’s storage planned for some 210 000 litres of diesel. That’s enough to keep Joburg 1 running off-grid for 40 hours.

One of the curiosities on the site at the moment is a large, circular pit in the middle of the lower basement. According to Geyser, after construction had begun it was discovered that the water table under the site was unusually shallow – probably as a result of a hard layer of non-porous rock running under the foundations. To stabilise the land, over 150 piles had to be drilled out and filled, and the water is currently being pumped into the hollow sump ready for disposal.

JB1_West Feb_2016-52The good news, says Geyser, is that it once building has finished and the dust has literally settled, the water might be clean enough to use in the building itself. Tests at this stage suggest it’s almost drinkable; with less debris in the air you might be able to sip from the spring.

In total, the cost of the new build will be R500m, part of which has been put up by ABSA. If Joburg 1 East is anything to go by, the bank’s made a safe investment.

[Images – Supplied]

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Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar,, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.