Microsoft South Africa has officially opened its local data centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town, aimed at driving public cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) and edge implementations across the African continent.

The two data centres have become part of a 54-region ecosystem that represents and multi-billion dollar investment. This means that customers can decide to keep their data locally, or use the platform to expand globally.

The two new facilities are known as the South Africa North region, based in Johannesburg, and South Africa West in Cape Town.

Natasha Bezuidenhout, Microsoft brand executive at First Distribution points out that the two data centres offer in-country storage and redundancy.

While the locally-based data centres don’t necessarily result in lower cloud costs for customers, there is a lot of interest in them because of the issues of data sovereignty and bandwidth.

Bezuidenhout points out that many organisations that shunned the cloud before may be more amenable to the idea now that they know their data will stay on shore.

Quicker response times is another issue that local data centres solve, she adds. “With in-country data centres you are able to keep your data closer to production and this is important in instances where high availability is an issue.”


Cloud benefits

The Microsoft Azure platform can be used to run a wide range of services, from development and testing to artificial intelligence (AI), analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) at the edge.

“If you look at the market maturity in South Africa, there is still a lot of compute requirement,” says Bezuidenhout. “We are seeing a lot virtual machines of varying sizes being deployed, along with the storage associated it.”

Jason Sharp, director: cloud and hosting at First Distribution, agrees with this assessment of the market, saying compute and storage is still the primary use case for public cloud in South Africa.

“Organisations are starting to migrate these functions to Azure, but we are also seeing more sophisticated services starting to emerge.

“Specialist partners are working on creating machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) services.”

The opportunity with Azure is so much more than just compute and storage, Bezuidenhout adds. “There are well over 300 products available on Microsoft Azure and we are working with our partners to enable the platforms for their customers.”

Sharp points out the independent software vendors (ISVs) can add a lot of value by making their solutions available on the Azure platform. “So Azure will provide the foundation or building blocks for the solution.

Among the solutions already available are popular software programs like Sage, Pastel and SAP on Azure.

“The partner provides the solution relative to the software, together with Azure compute and storage, thus offering the customer the best of software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS).

“This means the customer gets a seamless experience, with the platform becoming part of the solution.”

Bezuidenhout points out that there are a lot of benefits to be had from leveraging backup, replication and disaster recovery (DR) services, whether customers have a hosted environment or not.

“AI and IoT are also starting to garner some interest; and we are seeing the integration of Office 365, leveraging Azure from an Active Directory perspective.”

A new development that holds a lot of promise is ERP systems leveraging AI on Azure, being able to extract intelligence from just about any data source and using it in decision-making.

Bezuidenhout explains that there are also services available to help customers with their Azure migration, taking either workloads or entire data centres into the cloud.

“I think the power of Microsoft as a brand is the fact that, from the users right to the mission-critical environment, everything sits on the same platform: Azure.

“This empowers users and drives cost-savings, because there is one environment that brings everything together.”

The Microsoft Azure platform empowers partners and customers alike, Bezuidenhout adds.

“It’s important to recognise how the partners come into play. The platform provides the opportunity for partners to provide a wealth of different services.”

Sharp points out that public cloud is also proving popular for ISVs looking to grow their businesses, with infrastructure that scales as their business does.

“There is also an opportunity for partners to white-label services on Azure,” he says. “This can add significant value and allow them to grow the share of the end customers’ spend.

“It benefits customers too, since this is great technology when it comes to return on rands spent.”

Bezuidenhout says the many benefits put to rest any fears that cloud will disintermediate the partner. “In fact, the cloud allows partners to start playing a much bigger role in terms of service provision.”

Partners can also work with one another to provide a full suite of services to customers, Bezuidenhout points out.


Solutions for all

It’s also important to realise that cloud computing is not just a useful facility for enterprise customers, she adds.

“This service is not focused on the enterprise alone – it is for everyone. The smallest business can leverage it, and so can every organisation right up to the biggest.

“This is a message we are driving extensively. We even have a slogan for it: ‘Cloud for all; large or small’,” Bezuidenhout adds. “It can start with a small plumber using Microsoft Dynamics to run his job cards, right up to the biggest organisation running the whole company on SAP.”

For enterprises, the journey to public cloud would typically start as a solution to operational sprawl, she says.

Enterprises often look to the cloud when they want reduce their investment in infrastructure.

“Does this mean that their own infrastructure will disappear? No: but they need to start reining in operational sprawl, for instance where organisations over-invest upfront on things like servers and storage to cater for the full life of the product.

“Organisations may well still want to invest in new infrastructure, depending on the environment, but there are probably workloads that they can start moving to the public cloud now; and they could well result in cost savings and efficiency gains.”

Bezuidenhout recommends that enterprises engage with a reseller partner that has the relevant competency from Microsoft, who can help them with scoping and then moving their environment.

“From First Distribution’s perspective, we have solution architects that can help them free of charge,” she adds. “The partners will do the actual migrating and deployment and we have a programme that will help them to do this effectively.”


Working with First Distribution

Moving to the cloud isn’t a trivial task, and can tax both customer and partner. First Distribution offers Go First Cloud programme to help alleviate issues that may arise.

The programme brings partners with different skills sets together to solve whatever issues a customer might have.

“If the partner that a customer is working with doesn’t have a particular set of skills or resources, we can get other partners within the ecosystem to assist,” Bezuidenhout says.

“More and more, we are seeing that one partner cannot do it all. They are starting to recognise that there is a lot of benefit that can be delivered by associating themselves with other skilled Azure partners.”

First Distribution has also had to re-invent itself to maximise the cloud computing opportunity, and help resellers to do the same.

“Our role is not just finding partners to sell public cloud,” says Bezuidenhout. “We are also heavily involved in business enablement. We are able to look at all the requirements for cloud solutions, and enable the partner who is selling it, facilitating the costing model and building solutions on public cloud that they can take to market.

“It’s important to realise that, with public cloud, we are not selling just resources anymore – the conversation is not about infrastructure as a service (IaaS) on its own,” she adds. “It is about capabilities and building out solutions; about solving customer pain points with an application.”

There are many public clouds on the market, enabled by global partners like Amazon, Oracle, IBM, Google and Microsoft.

“At First Distribution, we support four of the top five cloud providers, so we can offer our partners a range of opportunities,” says Bezuidenhout.

First Distribution offers of portfolio of services on Microsoft, AWS (Amazon Web Services), IBM and Oracle.

“The model is changing to where we don’t see ourselves as a distributor when it comes to cloud but more as a provider of cloud,” she adds. “The Microsoft CSP model calls for us to be an indirect provider: we provide the platform to the reseller partner and they have the relationship with the end customer.”

“We don’t touch the end customers directly; but rather find partners that want to move from traditional hardware business and help them to include cloud as part of their stack.”

“From our point of view, it is important for us to help enable them.”

The team at First Distribution does this by understanding their partners’ cloud strategy, helping them to unpack it and assisting their sales teams to have the cloud discussion with their customers.

“In some cases, we can accompany our partners to their customers, wearing their hat, to get the message across and even to close the deal.”

Sharp explains that First Distribution is one of the leading Microsoft Cloud Solution Programme distributors in South Africa and Africa.

“We are one of Microsoft’s largest partners focusing on the channel and route to market,” he says. “We identify and recruit new partners to the programme, prepare them for self-service operations, and enable partners with the various tools and programme elements.

“We assist with demand generation, and are able to help partners to fulfil transactions on various Microsoft platforms and cloud offerings.”

Among the support services First Distribution offers is digital marketing, events, building solutions and bringing them to market.

“We also offer an e-commerce solution,” Bezuidenhout says. “It is home grown and one of our key capabilities to help partners scale. We can help them to create another channel through the web site, and further help them to drive traffic to that environment.”

Managing cloud licences is made easier through the self-service First for Cloud portal; and partners can also set up their own web stores to help their customers to pick the cloud services they want to use.

Bezuidenhout explains that partners can either have a semi-automated experience that includes price lists, content and the ability to assemble solutions, as well as having application programming interface (API) integration to Microsoft Azure.

“What we prefer is for partners to have a web store. They can use this to manage their customers, reducing, adding or spinning up licences on the fly.”

“Alternatively, they can expose the web store to the world and customers can help themselves, creating and tenanting their own solutions, with direct integration into Microsoft licensing.”

First for Cloud effectively lets partners offer their own products, services and solutions on the web store. “They would start off with our products and services on their own portal, and then add to it as they develop their own solutions. It’s very flexible from the customer creation perspective.”

Partners can also sign up as vendors on the web store, Bezuidenhout points out. One example of Pastel on Azure, which is enabled on the web store and available to all partners.

The First for Cloud offerings are part of First Distribution’s way of enabling Microsoft’s SureStep programme and recruiting and growing partners through their lifecycle.


What is Microsoft Azure?

Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing service used to build, test, deploy and manage applications and services through Microsoft-managed data centres.

It provides software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and supports many different programming languages, tools and frameworks, including both Microsoft-specific and third-party software and systems.

There are currently more than 300 Azure services, with some the most popular being:

  • Internet of Things – Power your digital transformation, collect untapped data, and find new insights by connecting your devices, assets, and sensors.
  • Artificial intelligence – Artificial intelligence (AI) productivity for virtually every developer and scenario.
  • SAP on Azure – Bring cloud scale and agility to your mission-critical SAP workloads.
  • Blockchain – Quickly develop and deploy distributed apps on the blockchain of your choice.
  • Hybrid cloud applications – Maximise productivity by empowering developers to build and deploy applications the same way, whether your app runs on Azure or Azure Stack.
  • Decentralised identity – Explore how distributed ledgers are being used to create identities that enhance personal privacy, security, and control.
  • DevOps – Bring together people, processes and products to enable continuous delivery of value to your end users.
  • Mobile – Reach your customers everywhere, on every device, with a single mobile app build.
  • E-commerce – Give customers what they want with a personalized, scalable, and secure shopping experience.
  • Azure governance – Ensure compliance using the cloud governance capabilities built into Azure.
  • Confidential computing – Protect your data and code while it’s in use in the cloud.
  • SharePoint on Azure – Deploy SharePoint servers rapidly and scale as needed with a cost-effective infrastructure.
  • Dynamics on Azure – Fuel business growth by bringing together enterprise resource planning (ERP) and cloud services.
  • Red Hat on Azure – Achieve hybrid cloud agility for your enterprise with Red Hat solutions on Azure.
  • Line of business (LOB) applications – Modernise your internal line of business (LOB) apps to meet today’s IT challenges.
  • Development and test – Simplify and speed up the process of building and testing applications across every platform.
  • Business intelligence – Drive better, faster decision making by analyzing your data for deeper insights.
  • Big data and analytics – Make the most informed decision possible by analyzing all the data you need in realtime.
  • Modern data warehouse – Handle exponential data growth without leaving security, scalability, or analytics behind.
  • Business SaaS apps – Use business insights and intelligence from Azure to build software as a service (SaaS) apps.
  • Backup and archive – Protect your data and applications no matter where they reside to avoid costly business interruptions.
  • Disaster recovery – Protect all your major IT systems while ensuring apps work when you need them most.
  • Digital marketing – Connect with customers worldwide with digital campaigns that are personalised and scalable.
  • Digital media – Deliver high-quality videos to your customers anywhere, anytime, on any device.
  • High-performance computing – Tap into unlimited resources to scale your high-performance computing (HPC) jobs.
  • Microservice applications – Deliver scalable, reliable applications faster to meet the ever-changing demands of your customers.
  • Gaming – Build, quickly launch, and reliably scale your games across platforms, and refine based on analytics.
  • Serverless computing – Build apps faster, focusing on innovation instead of infrastructure management.

Microsoft Azure is purpose-built for all industries: government, financial services, retail, manufacturing, health and life science, and gaming.