Cloud Valley plan to make Cork a tech gateway to Europe

9 Apr 2013

Diane Hodnett, CEO of Sea Fibre Networks

Local internet service providers (ISPs) and technology organisations in Cork City are putting their weight behind Cloud Valley, an ambitious plan to develop fibre infrastructure in the Cork region that could see the area attract the next generation of internet giants into the area.

While Cork is already an established technology hub with technology giants such as VMware, Trend Micro, IBM and Amazon, among others, with substantial operations in the city, most of Ireland’s data-centre activity and many of the next-generation internet company investments like Google, Twitter and Facebook typically veer towards Dublin.

Cork City and region are rightly proud of their technology heritage. Cork was the first location that Apple chose to locate in outside the US when it was a mere start-up back in 1981 and data storage giant EMC has been based at Ovens in Cork since 1988. Last year, Apple revealed a plan to create 500 additional jobs on top of the 2,800 already there and EMC has grown to employ 2,500 people outside the city.

But in an effort to bolster the city and region’s future fortunes, the National Software Centre in Cork has joined forces with Cork Internet Exchange (CiX), the only data centre in Ireland outside of Dublin, and Sea Fibre Networks to put in place the infrastructure that will put Cork on the map for future internet and financial services investments.

Two-part plan

There are two key parts to the plan. Firstly, Sea Fibre Networks is endeavouring to secure investment to fund a fibre optic subsea cable that would connect the city to France via Bule in Cornwall.

The second element of the plan involves CiX and the National Software Centre building what is known as a Wavelength Division Multiplex (WDM) network called Cloud Valley that would run over the nearby Metropolitan Area Networks in the city. Each and every business park, college campus and large building in the city would be a node on the proposed network.

Local ISPs can then distribute affordable high-speed broadband to homes and cities in the city and region.

Sea Fibre Networks last year landed subsea cable connecting North Dublin with Porth Darfarch in Wales. The 144-fibre network rolled out by Sea Fibre Networks is aiming to be a game changer, more than doubling the existing data capacity between Ireland and the UK. Last month, the company expanded its C-Fibre portfolio from the greater Dublin area to Frankfurt, via London.

According to Sea Fibre Networks’ CEO Diane Hodnett the company is awaiting a foreshore licence from the Marine Survey in Cork. That will enable the company to do a proper marine survey to determine the exact route the cable will take.

Once this happens, Sea Fibre Networks will be able to secure support from private equity investors to make the fibre gateway into Cork happen.

“We are looking at starting at Fountainshead in Cork because it has good seabed conditions and is quite close to the Cork MAN in Carrigaline. The cable will then go to Cornwall and from there connect with France where there are major international fibre hubs that connect with Europe, the US and Asia-Pacific networks.”

Hodnett said it is vital that this infrastructure lands in Cork because it would lead to greater diversification in data centre activity from Cork to Dublin.

“It means Ireland will be able to create a second tech city connected to global fibre networks, as well as connect with other southern cities like Limerick and to create smaller tech hubs in regional areas.

“For data centre providers having all of the infrastructure concentrated in one location – Dublin – isn’t ideal for security or electricity supply purposes,” Hodnett said.

Cost considerations

Another overriding reason to pursue the Cloud Valley plan is to bring down the cost of accessing fibre broadband for local companies, as well as multinationals.

“If the plan succeeds, Cork could become one of the best connected cities in the world and it will improve Ireland’s connectivity by an order of magnitude,” explained Jerry Sweeney, managing director of CiX.

“This means that we can exploit Cork as a connectivity gateway for future foreign direct investment (FDI) projects. Local FDI companies can benefit from more affordable connectivity and can become more entrenched in the region.”

The chairman of the National Software Centre campus in Cork Shemas Eivers explained that two resilient routing nodes have been built between CiX on the north-western edge of Cork and the National Software Centre on the other side of the city on the south-western edge.

“What these nodes enable is the infrastructure to provide data centre resiliency in the city between two points. If one point fails the other point picks up the slack.

“Our idea is to just build it and they will come,” Eivers went on. “Cloud Valley will act as an aggregator of internet traffic for the region and make it just as attractive to establish internet or cloud businesses in Cork as it is in Dublin today.”

Eivers conceded that Cork is also currently at a cost disadvantage for fibre connectivity compared to Dublin. “It is the right thing to do and it could be good for the region. If we start by doing something, by putting our money where are mouths are, then we can achieve a critical mass. We can start by using the MAN infrastructure to build up volume to negotiate a fair price for fibre connectivity.”

Organisations on side with the plan include ISPs Cork Community Broadband, Digiweb, Rapid Broadband, Ripple Communications, Airwave, East Cork Broadband, Premier Global Services, PM Group and social media consultancy Ahain Group.

Hodnett said the Cloud Valley plan could deliver the kind of infrastructure Cork badly needs and make it affordable for local businesses to join the digital economy and create jobs.

“It has the potential to absolutely transform Cork and the rest of the country from a business perspective,” Hodnett said.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 7 April

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years