A lot of emphasis has been placed on Titanfall as a system-selling title for the Xbox One, and the litmus test for Microsoft’s next-gen “Xbox Live Compute” network, which is ostensibly using their Azure distributed server platform (aka cloud computing).
In South Africa, we have become quite familiar with the implications of Azure as part of the Xbox/Windows ecosystem as it directly impacted our gaming market. We won’t be getting Titanfall in SA, and according to publisher EA, it’s because our local experience won’t be up to scratch because there are no Azure nodes in South Africa.
Titanfall using Azure is a good idea because the server provision is scalable based on demand, and it takes the hosting load off the end-user, removing annoyances such as host migration mid-match, host latency advantage, and unstable host connections. However, if you are nowhere near an Azure server node all of these advantages are moot.
This raises a very serious question about the viability of the Xbox One in South Africa, at least in terms of gaming titles and services that hinge on access to nearby Azure network nodes.
I’m making an assumption here by reckoning that future Microsoft exclusive IP with strong multiplayer focus will be making similar use of Azure servers for matchmaking and hosting – think of all the next-gen Halo and Gears of War games, and the persistent world approach being experimented with in franchises such as Fable.
The Xbox One is pushed as an Internet connected device leveraging Microsoft’s investment in their Azure network, and while game servers are the first obvious intended use, it is likely Microsoft will roll out a number of products and services over the lifespan of the Xbox One.
Where does this leave South African gamers who want to buy into the Xbox One ecosystem? Despite there being no confirmed launched of Xbox One in SA, if it does eventually launch here, will we have a B-grade experience and frequently be disappointed by publishers deciding to skip our country because our online user experience will just be sub-par and not worth the PR and admin headache to cater for our marginal market?
We put such questions and more to Microsoft Xbox SA and, although they said they were seeking answers, it’s been over a week with no response by the time of publication.
What’s the problem, Microsoft?
Perhaps the bigger question is: what is stopping Microsoft South Africa from deploying Azure in South Africa? It’s not just an Xbox service and has various business applications as well.
MyBroadband’s Jan Vermeulen has been in touch with various industry players to gain some insight.
The short version is that two local data centre and hosting providers, Teraco and Internet Solutions state that they can not only match, but beat Microsoft’s service level agreement (SLA) requirements for Azure node deployment.
Teraco: Maybe Microsoft doesn’t know what we’re capable of?
Teraco business development manager Michelle McCann said that they could definitely meet Microsoft’s uptime demands, adding that Teraco has multiple undersea cables landing at their datacentres, which means that Microsoft would have access to redundant international routes.
Content distribution will not be a problem as Teraco offer network peering through NAPAfrica.
Internet Solutions: we eat 99.9% uptime SLAs for breakfast
Internet Solutions (IS) said that they too could offer Microsoft the SLA demanded for Windows Azure. In an e-mail interview a spokesperson provided the following feedback:
Could you offer these kinds of SLAs?
Yes we could, accordingly these SLA’s are engineered through the architectural design and are not too dissimilar from SLA’s that IS offers for certain services. In some instances we are expected to offer 99.98%.
IS also said that they would be willing to run Windows Azure in South Africa for Microsoft:
Would IS (or an IS partner) be willing to run Windows Azure in South Africa for Microsoft?
Yes, partnering with Microsoft to extend their service capability helps enrich the technology footprint and capability for this region. In addition to this, we believe that our core competencies aligned with that of Microsoft’s could work well in this market.
Microsoft was asked whether it was aware of the types of services offered by South African companies such as Teraco, and what might be preventing Windows Azure nodes from being rolled out to South Africa.
In a statement sent to MyBroadband, Microsoft first explained that the decision to not officially sell Titanfall in South Africa was made by Electronic Arts, citing the same reasons EA provided in its earlier statement.
“We understand this is a disappointment for local fans and will keep gamers posted on any future plans regarding the local release of Titanfall,” the statement said. “As Microsoft South Africa, we are working with EA and the game’s developer, Respawn, to explore potential solutions.”
In terms of hosting its Windows Azure services, Microsoft provided the following:
Windows Azure provides a broad set of services, with each of these services providing specific capabilities and requiring certain supporting environments. Different applications require different levels of performance – in particular high intensity, real time, graphics aren’t used in most business applications therefore the use of Windows Azure depends on the application and the performance required. This is similar to the criteria evaluation with any platform choice a company makes.
Microsoft went on to say that some of its South African customers are already deriving benefits from Azure without there being physical nodes in the country, proving that certain applications that leverage Azure’s capabilities for local consumption will realise benefits.
“The reality is, though, that Windows Azure may not be able to deliver on all requirements for all customers as in the case of Titanfall,” Microsoft said.
The business case
While Microsoft did not give any additional comment on why it hasn’t set up Azure nodes in South Africa, feedback from infrastructure and hosting service providers suggests that it is a business issue and not a technical one. However, Teraco said that it believes there is a strong business case for Microsoft to land it infrastructure here.
“A lot of Southern African Development Community countries co-locate with us,” McCann said. This means that Microsoft can host their nodes in Teraco and distribute all over Southern Africa, McCann said.
“Two years ago that wasn’t a reality,” McCann said, adding that the likes of Liquid Telecom, CMC Networks, PCCW, and Seacom have resolved the issue of cross-border African connectivity.
McCann said that the cost of bandwidth in South Africa has also reduced dramatically over the last few years; from $100 per Megabit per second (Mbps) to $50/Mbps and even $20/Mbps at large traffic volumes.
The question has become less and less of a cost issue, and more of a business case issue, McCann said.
In other words, the technology is in place and the prohibitively high costs of hosting in South Africa have come down. The only question that remains is: are there enough potential customers that need Azure nodes in Southern Africa to justify a roll-out here?