PRASAD KALYANARAMAN, vice president, AWS Infrastructure Service has worked with Amazon for about 18 years, starting at the supply chain and fulfilment centre systems before moving to AWS. In this interview with CALEB OJEWALE at the 2023 re:Invent in Las Vegas, he speaks about the company’s infrastructure present in Nigeria, and the prospects for more innovation across Africa. Excerpts:
When the decision to establish an AWS local zone in Lagos was made, can you give us some insights into what factors informed the decision, and more importantly, how it aligns with the broader AWS expansion strategy?
I’ll first give a little bit of an overview of how AWS is built as well as our infrastructure. It will provide a good overview of why we build it that way and why local zones and our edge locations in Nigeria make sense, and what kind of services we bring to the country.
An AWS region is a location where we actually have at least three Availability Zones. This is a fairly important concept because sometimes other cloud providers think of it as a single data centre, as a region. But for us, when we say an AWS region, we always have about three Availability Zones at a minimum. And many of our larger regions have more than three Availability Zones.
An Availability Zone is basically a fault domain for us, which means it allows customers to run redundantly across these different Availability Zones. And every Availability Zone has multiple data centres associated with it. That’s our concept of our AWS regions. Then beyond that, we start getting infrastructure closer and closer to end users as well. So our Regions actually have a large number of services. We have over 240 services across AWS. And as you go closer to end users, you have what are called Local Zones. And local zones are extensions of our AWS regions. You can run compute services, our block storage services, and a bunch of other capabilities in our Local Zones as well.
All of this infrastructure uses the same set of AWS API, so it makes it much easier for customers to run in any one of these particular infrastructures, depending on their use cases. So, when we thought about Nigeria, the reason why we actually invested in our Edge locations as well as our local zones is because we have lots of customers across many different industries, between financials, media and entertainment, local and state governments as well, many of whom wanted low latency for their applications.
We actually say this at AWS, more than 80% of our roadmap is driven by what our customers tell us; what they want to build. We’ve been having long term customers on our infrastructure for a long period of time. Some of these customers wanted capabilities in terms of lower latency for their applications, and so it made sense for us to invest in local zones in that location (such as Nigeria).
Since you’ve launched these services, what feedback have you gotten in terms of how they have impacted your local users and customers in Nigeria? Practical examples would be great, especially.
First, we’re very excited about the kind of adoption that we’re actually seeing across the world for AWS. For example, you may have heard about Hurone AI, which is super impressive. It is a very impressive real world example where we’re using things like Generative AI to be able to provide healthcare benefits in these locations. Media and entertainment is another one that we’ve actually been able to make a significant number of customer stories and progress. IbakaTV is another use case, and there are customers using our infrastructure at the government level.
In setting up these infrastructures in Nigeria, what was your experience in terms of getting local capacity that could support the work you needed to do, and how did you overcome those challenges?
At AWS, our number one job is security. This is because we need to have a strong, secure foundation so that you can run the vast majority of workloads that we run.
Think of all the different kinds of businesses that I talked about. And so we need to make sure that we have good, secure connectivity. That’s one thing that we have to actually start with.
Then there’s having access to land to be able to build our data centres, access to power for our data centres. I should state that we have a commitment to be 100% renewable by 2025 and net zero carbon by 2040, which is ten years ahead of the Paris Climate accord. And then we need to have access to water to be able to actually cool our data centres, as well as secure networking between our different availability zones and between our local zones to our parent regions as well. So those are the things we needed to do but I wouldn’t call them challenges.
I would call them things that are required for us to build a really robust infrastructure. And we’ve been able to work with local authorities to be able to achieve this. And because we bring in so much infrastructure and investments into Nigeria to enable innovation, we’re very happy and we’re very fortunate that the local governments are able to work with us and actually enable this.
Looking at power, for instance, Nigeria is not known to have great power supply, also, when it comes to water in a place like Lagos, it’s quite limited because of the population, so how come there aren’t challenges?
This is the part where we believe that we’ve actually innovated so much in terms of our ability to operate in these constrained locations and still be able to offer services for customers. We have developed technologies that don’t consume much power. Our biggest innovations are things like Graviton, where Graviton Three is 40% better than the previous version, and Graviton Four, which was just announced is 25% better than the previous generation.
So we’re constantly innovating on reducing the power that we have to consume per chip that we actually use for general purpose compute. And we’re doing the same thing on ML as well, right. Our Trainium chips are actually better compared to any other provider out there in terms of its power consumption by 29% or so. Then there is water, where we have a goal to be water positive as well by 2030. And in the work that we’ve actually done in Africa, we’ve been able to reclaim water from our data centres. We primarily run our data centres on air cooling, where we use outside air to be able to cool as much as possible for very small periods of time.
There are data sovereignty and compliance issues that apply to Nigerian customers in using cloud services, how does having an AWS region in the country address this?
If you look at our design on AWS, we call it Sovereign by design. What that means is that we’re making sure that the data sovereignty rules of any particular country are always obeyed, including Nigeria. Every single country has data sovereignty requirements which requires them to actually host data, and there are different levels of it, depending on what is considered sovereign data, what is considered public data, and so on. So there are lots of classifications of that. Local zones and our Edge locations absolutely helps with that. Because our design is based on sovereignty from the start, it’s easier for us to actually support those things.
Are there any plans to expand the current infrastructure footprint in Nigeria, and if so, what is the roadmap for future investments?
As I said before, 80% of our roadmap is driven by what our customers tell us. And so we’re constantly looking for opportunities of where we will actually expand. In Africa, our investments date back all the way to 2005, when we started off with our development centres in South Africa. Today, we have offices in Nigeria since 2022. We put infrastructure with our local zones and our Edge locations as well, in 2023. So we’re constantly actually looking at what our customer needs are and what our customer demands are, and we’ll constantly start actually building infrastructure there.
Beyond Nigeria, how does AWS envision its cloud infrastructure contributing to the digital transformation of other African countries and regions?
Look at our long history in the African continent.
And beyond that, we’re so committed to things like sustainability and water positive initiatives, as well as enabling the local communities there through our various programs that I think that our investments in the African continent will continue for many years to come.
What would make more African countries attractive to host new AWS locations?
If you want to actually run infrastructure of the scale at which we operate, access to land, access to cheap power, and being able to support the infrastructure with network capabilities are important ingredients for us to be able to run infrastructure in a particular country.
We’re very fortunate that we have customers across so many different areas that we don’t believe that there is going to be a dearth of opportunities for us. And we’re so early in that business right now. It’s so impressive to actually see some of the innovation that’s actually coming out of Africa.
Can you tell us about AWS’s efforts in promoting local skills and knowledge transfer in Nigeria as it pertains to cloud technology and AWS services?
We have a lot of programs, and we’ve invested deeply in Africa for that. There is the AWS Activate, which enables start-ups and gives them credits to be able to run on AWS. As of today, we’ve provided credits close to one billion dollars to all these start-ups.
In terms of education, we actually go to the universities and we have cloud education as well. We have this program called AWS Restart that tries to reskill labour and reskill people in the local communities to be able to actually know that.
We also have what we call Think Spaces, and we have 72 throughout the world today. And we will probably start investing in the African continent as well. These are for early learners, especially high school students and middle school students, where we bring them into our facilities. These are small spaces where we teach them about technology and teach them about computing and how to think about AI generally as well.
In terms of sustainability and environmental responsibility, what initiatives are being implemented in Africa to minimise the environmental impact of data centres and support for renewable energy sources in the region?
An example of this is our 10 megawatts solar power infrastructure in Cape Town, South Africa. Also, we are constantly looking for renewable energy sources. In fact, we are the largest procurer of renewable energy in the world today. And that’s actually quite impressive for a cloud provider to be the largest procurer of renewable energy.
There’s also our water positive program as well, and we’ve been able to reclaim 15.9 billion gallons of water in the African continent that can then be used for agriculture and for other uses.
Any additional thoughts you’d like to add?
We’re very excited about our presence in Nigeria, as well as the African continent generally. We’re very excited about the possibility of helping to build innovations in the continent. Also, there’s a burgeoning population there that we’re very invested in reskilling, which I believe will actually drive more innovation.