Community Clouds

During my visit to Lafayette in January to find out about LUSfibre, I had the privilege to visit the Abacus Data Centre. It is housed within a building which used to be the centre for the oil industry, and which has now been re-purposed to be a multifunctional business centre.

It houses the Women’s Business Centre, Abacus, and a wide variety of businesses which seemed to perfectly complement each other – from graphic designers to billing solution providers, digital media companies to recruitment agencies, counsellors to lawyers. It is run by a quite amazing lady called Ruth Ann Menutis, who I suspect is indefatigable in her vision.
Firstly, this is precisely the type of building I would love to run my business from. Shared services, from secretary to kitchen, and a host of potential partners and suppliers all just down the corridor. In a rural area such as mine, the cost benefits of such an office space, plus the synergy created by sharing a building with so many fantastically innovative companies, could turn our local economy around. (If there are any investors out there, the ideal property is for sale!!)
Secondly, it housed the Abacus Data Centre. Lafayette has a truly outstanding community fibre network – LUSfibre – and the data centre connected to it is also first in class with the greenest servers available. Once again, it is run by a female, Abigail Ransonet, who blew my mind with her vision, energy, technical and business acumen.
The building had the roof ripped off during a hurricane, and Lafayette has suffered badly at the hands of hurricanes, including Katrina. However, during every hurricane since it was built, the data centre has not gone down for even a second, due to highly resilient electricity generators, which also power the hospital over the way. And of course, a rather fab fibre network built in partnership between the community and the utility company.
During these hurricanes, many people in Lafayette have to pack up and evacuate in a hurry. This includes businesses as well as homes. However, the existence of the Data Centre means that you do not need to suffer a moment of downtime. You arrive at your destination and log directly into the network, or log on through your mobile whilst on the move. Business and life continues as normal, even during a displacement.
Abi also shared the story of her recently stolen laptop. Because everyone’s data is backed up constantly over the fat pipe, all she had to do was go buy a new laptop, log in to her ‘cloud’ and download all of the data, programs, apps etc onto her new one. 
It became apparent very quickly that one of the huge benefits of this, (despite how unbearably cheap it all was! You can see the costs of the cloud solution on the website) is that much of the data being transferred is within that cloud. Therefore, the expensive internet transit is required far less than, say, for your average home in the UK right now. As I understood it, there were fairly sophisticated solutions similar to those I had seen in Utopia to act as “media servers” too, meaning that a film or TV content was cached within the network once anyone had requested it, saving an absolute fortune in internet transit.
Our one hour meeting turned into a 4 day stay! By the end of it, the germ of an idea had become a full blown sunflower field. When building a community network, one of the key requirements at the centre of it is such a data centre. Obviously, essential for disaster recovery, especially for businesses, but also for families – all of your photos, movies etc can be backed up as you take them. There are hundreds more uses, but let’s keep it simple.
In addition, this localised cloud computing had a measurable environmental impact, particularly using the servers that are installed in Abacus, but similarly because of the reduced electricity consumption. Much of the data being transferred did not require any sort of electrickery-hungry equipment – it just transversed the local fibre network to its destination. And the fibre network uses less electricity than ADSL.
So, every community network planned should include a similar data centre. The room was about the size of my sitting room, as I recall, 12ft by 12ft. Yes, it had great air conditioning, and back up generators, but aside from that, it had not cost an arm and a leg to kit out with the very latest and greatest kit.
Locating it within the Business Centre meant that there were immediately anchor tenants, and pretty much everyone in Lafayette knows Abi, so there is no shortage of users. For $32.50/month, how can any business of any size afford to be without such a service? I know I would sign up tomorrow! For a family who use the Internet and digital media, it’s almost a no brainer too.
The addition of a data centre to any community network gives an additional revenue source too. Particularly in rural areas where clusters of tech businesses are desperately required, and back up and cloud solutions too expensive or impossible to use for most on current connectivity options. 
Every community network will need a ‘social business’ of some description that will help to support the network until it reaches profitability, whilst also being profitable in its own right as a social enterprise. Other ideas being mooted at present around the UK include electricity generating schemes using Archimedes Screws or water turbines that sell to the National Grid. 
So, when we build our network here, a data centre in a business centre will be top of my list. And then we can have the dining room back!