Big sky country
Building the cloud – African style
Say the words ‘cloud computing’ to anyone in the African technology landscape and, almost immediately, their thoughts go to big data centres filled with hosted instances of Microsoft Exchange, Office and SharePoint. But, argues Madoda Khuzwayo, CEO of MynextMail® and a six-year veteran of the cloud-computing environment, there really is life outside of providing cookie cutter-like offerings from the Microsoft fold. Competing head-on with a growing number of hosted offerings from the Redmond giant’s partners, MynextMail’s offerings span the e-mail, contacts, calendaring, instant messaging and voice-over-IP disciplines and will soon offer functionality in the collaboration suite space. The difference is, however, that MynextMail is built on existing open source technology from iSwap and as such can be heavily customized to extraordinary customer requirements. And Khuzawayo says that his company feels this places it in a stronger position to win business than its peers in the market.
CLOUD fOR AfRICA
There’s a lot of merit in what Khuzwayo says. After all, cloud computing is a new concept in itself. And the use of technology in business is a similarly new concept when it comes to many African businesses. So why should a solution moulded on ‘best practices’ that were defined and established in other (more mature) territories such as the United States or Europe be appli- cable here? “We have chosen to standardise our offering on an open source solution called iSwap and heavily custom- ise the individual components so that they better suit our customers and the African territory,” Khuzwayo says. “In contrast to this, then, the Microsoft approach is very limiting,” he adds. “One of our proudest differentiators is the fact that our customers, through their feature requests, can drive the direction of the solution and make it more applicable.” He explains: “It’s something that competing offerings can’t testify to offering and a distinction we think makes all the difference, especially in the African context.” When things are as clearly defined and cut-and-dried as what’s on offer from Microsoft’s cloud offerings, there’s almost no room for innovation and differentia- tion, Khuzwayo says. “Our solution encourages innova- tion – and that is something we feel is a strong and valu- able differentiator.”
WHAT CUSTOMERS WANT
Apart from specific functionality being developed at the customer’s request, Khuzwayo says that MynextMail’s approach to delivering functionality is a far truer reflection of the cloud ethos than many on offer today. “Cloud is all about allowing customers to rent exactly what they need, when they need it,” he continues. “But instead of doing this, the majority of offerings consist of entire suites of product that are simply deliv- ered in the cloud as opposed to on-premises.”So – one wonders – are there solutions tailored to the most com- mon features of small businesses, medium businesses, some larger businesses and some enterprises, with per seat prices for each, but no way for customers to take a single feature from a higher-end solution and integrate it with a lower-end package, and in so doing, arrive at a solution that meets their exact needs? Khuzwayo is reassuring: “Our solution is all about that: the ability to piece together an ideal solution from the differ- ent pieces of distinct functionality. And where the required func- tionality doesn’t exist, chances are we can have it developed.”
BUSINESS MODEL FOR AFRICA
Khuzwayo says that a stark reality of doing business in Africa is the low level of sophistication out there. “Many companies are still coming to grips with technol- ogy and how it can make their business more efficient,” he says. “And while many of our peers see this as a reason to hold back, we see it as an opportunity to get in on the proverbial ground floor.” As such, Khuzwayo says – for a number of new clients – getting connected to e-mail is a major step. Once they’ve mastered that, however, the growth path towards collaboration is smooth. While MynextMail is currently far stronger in the South African market than in other African countries, the executive team says the potential for growth on the continent is massive and that it will be a strong focus for the coming years. “We already have a growing presence in South Africa’s neigh- bouring countries and will continue to grow our presence in the coming months,” Khuzwayo says. He adds that MynextMail’s approach when going into any new market is to establish a loyal reseller base with which it can partner, as opposed to going it alone. “The African technology market is founded on trusted long-term relationships,” he emphasises, “and that’s the primary reason no company has been able to make a solid go of it by addressing cus- tomers directly. “We realise this and have done everything we can to build solid relationships with existing resellers, all the time ensuring our chan- nel model is structured in such a way that it guarantees long-term returns for both parties. “That means, in simplistic terms, that we remunerate the reseller responsible for bringing a client into the fold, for the duration of their contract with us. And that’s far more attractive to resellers than the roughly two years’ worth of remuneration they’ll be re- warded with in dealing with some of our market peers,” he says.
While Khuzwayo says that MynextMail’s favourable channel model is garnering it a great deal of interest in the markets it’s operating in, the biggest challenge it faces is the level of knowledge in the market. “This starts with getting resellers who have traditionally made their living in the conventional resale of IT equipment and software to make the transition towards the cloud-based model, both from an infrastructure and a revenue stream perspective.”“It also includes educating the customers in the market about the ex- istence of cloud, why it is in many cases superior to conventional IT models and, more importantly, why they should be considering it.” Thankfully though, Khuzwayo says that MynextMail’s business model also favours young entrepreneurs and that there’s a growing number of university graduates the company is speaking to about starting their own reseller businesses. “As it turns out, starting a cloud-focused reseller business is a great fit for the African entrepreneurial landscape since it doesn’t require a great deal of startup capital (something that’s in short sup- ply in the African market) and can be bootstrapped really quickly. “And because our business model is new and exciting, there’s some novelty attached to it,” he says, adding: “All of this bodes very well for the future.”
But there’s a great deal more in the pipeline than simply providing cloud-based collaboration services. Khuzwayo says that he feels there’s a growing trend towards real-time communications and to this end MynextMail will be fo- cusing heavily on the development and delivery of a unified set of communications tools. “This means our customers will be able to choose – regardless of device – what method of communications they want to use, and the back end must take care of the rest.” And so MynextMail will have to spend a great deal of time over the coming year ensuring its offering is compatible with multiple platforms – BlackBerry, Android, Apple and Windows Phone – and moving more and more applications into the cloud, most notably those in the productivity realm. “Right now, the challenge is infrastructure, since there’s current- ly insufficient infrastructure to host and deliver productivity suites in Africa. When the infrastructure shapes up, however, it will be important for us to be ready to deliver,” he adds.
NOT JUST ABOUT MOBILE
Rounding up his commentary on the market, Khuzwayo says that even though mobile will be a strong component of the cloud environment over the coming years, he firmly believes the primary activity will be on desktops and notebooks. “And that’s quite honestly because these platforms are better suited to the kind of work companies need to do on a daily basis,” he says.“Aside from a purely comfort-zone centric view of things, there’s also the fact that today’s infrastructural challenges – particu- larly in some African countries – mean that a great deal of process- ing takes place locally, on a desktop or notebook. “So, while the younger generation is more comfortable on mo- bile platforms, they will have to adjust their expectations and make use of desktops and notebooks for some time to come.” To clarify one thing, however, Khuzwayo says he still thinks that younger individuals will have their first and most meaningful online experiences on a cellular handset. “When it comes to accessing the cloud for business use, though, we will see notebooks and desktops around for quite a while,” he concludes.
THE COUNTERPOINT: MICROSOFT OFFICE 365
The counterpoint to Khuzwayo’s argument is of course the fact that Microsoft’s own cloud-based productivity service – Office 365 – has made an appearance on South African shores. And as far as early reports are concerned, it’s delivering a great deal of value. Available as a free trial service until somewhere around the middle of 2012, the service is hosted in Microsoft’s European data centres and will allow South African businesses and professional users to try Office 365 for free for the next six months. The Office 365 service revolves around the productivity suite of the same name and is designed to give users access to Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Onenote, Outlook and other Office applications – either via the cloud or on their desktop – and connect these to Microsoft-hosted instances of Exchange, SharePoint and lync. using this model, no existing Microsoft infrastructure is necessary to use Office 365. Melanie Botha, Microsoft South Africa’s marketing and operations director, expects the early adopters of the service in South Africa to be the SME sector, which will benefit from access to the same business productivity solutions used by major enterprises. “Small companies can now take advantage of the best technologies the largest companies use, but on a scalable pay-as-you-go basis, with solutions that are easy to get and use. now small companies can cater to their technology needs without big infrastructure investments, and get access to several technology tools they didn’t have before,” she says. Botha says that professionals and small businesses can be up and running with Office Web Apps, Microsoft Exchange Online, Microsoft SharePoint Online, Microsoft lync Online and an external website – all provided within Office 365 – in just 15 minutes, for a matter of rands per user, per month. “Office 365 for enterprises has an array of choices for midsize and large businesses, as well as government organisations, starting from approximately R20 per user, per month for basic email,” she adds. “Office 365 for enterprises also includes the option to purchase Microsoft Office Professional Plus desktop software on a pay-as-you-go basis.for approximately R200 per user, per month, organisations can get Office Professional Plus, along with email, voicemail, enterprise social networking, instant messaging, Web portals, extranets, videoconferencing, web conferencing, 24/7 phone support, on-premises licences and more,” she concludes.To some extent, the availability of Office 365 directly from Microsoft flies in the face of what many of Microsoft’s hosting partners have been offering when it comes to hosted Exchange, SharePoint and in some instances dynamics (ERP) solutions. Over time, however, the solutions on offer from Microsoft’s partners should end up appealing to larger organisations, while Office 365 will become typecast as the solution for companies that sit in that uncomfortable space between needing their own on-premise infrastructure and relying on a POP or IMAP type mail service provided by a third party, most commonly an ISP. Right now there’s very little to lose for companies looking to make the decision for themselves .