We sat down with Mahreen Nasir right after she finished participating in a panel discussion dealing with the possibilities of Bangladesh becoming a data hub. The answer? There is an enormous possibility, and there are caveats too. It was on the second and final day of the Data Centre Technologies Summit 2017. But we wanted to find out more.
A director of Mir Telecom and its data centre company Coloasia, Mahreen Nasir appeared to have a real passion for her job, as she eagerly talked about Coloasia and its vision for the future. She is equally motivated to play her role in taking country’s ICT sector to what she calls “the next level.” As we sat in the Coloasia’s booth at the DCtSUMMIT to interview her, we asked questions about the background of Coloasia, future of data centre in Bangladesh, regulatory challenges, her aspiration for the company and many more related topics. Here is the full interview for our readers.
FINTECH: Could you start by telling us a little bit about the history of your company and at which point you got involved in data centre?
MN: Our beginning is of course rooted in the Mir Group. We first started with construction business. My grandfather started it during the Pakistan period. That was in 1968. Mir Akhter Hossain Ltd is the biggest construction firm in Bangladesh now. As you probably know, we are doing the international airport that is currently under construction in Cox’s Bazar. The Prime Minister just inaugurated it a few days ago. Now the Boeing 777 can now land there. We have done a lot of important buildings including Radisson Hotel, Sheraton. We have done a portion of the Jamuna bridge and the whole road to North Bengal. So, that is where we are rooted.
So, you probably now want to know how we transitioned from construction to the technological business. I studied electrical engineering and then I did a masters on telecommunication from Concordia University in Canada. So, I was personally interested in the technological business and others were interested as well to expand our business to that direction.
Bangladesh had the mobile phone companies like Grameenphone, Banglalink and so on. All were foreign operators. Bangladeshi companies didn’t have the option to get into the mobile sector. In 2008 when the IGW category was given permission and government decided to give license to Bangladeshi companies, we bid for it. We got the license. We were among the first three IGW licensed companies in the country. We had very short time. We had to put up the IGW network only within six months. We were the first company to launch operation. That was in August 21, 2008. We started live operation. As you know, IGWs are the gateway operators of Bangladesh. All the overseas calls to and from your mobile network has to go through us first. The total connectivity is with the gateway operators. Mobile companies have to go through us to direct calls outside of the national border.
We have over 208 international connectivity now. First we started with the expat labour market. This included countries like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Our targets were the countries with the most Bangladeshi labourers. Our beginning in 2008 was with these markets. Now we are connected to the whole world; from AT&T to StarHub in Singapore, we are connected to the whole world.
So, our beginning was with IGW. After that we sought to explore the other telco wings. We started Bangla Telecom ICX, we introduced IIG – Global Fair. After that we thought ‘why don’t we go to the retail market?’ So, we started Ubernet, which is IPTSP. From there we naturally felt that data is the next step, it’s the future. Because voice call was on its way out, people started to use Viber, Facebook, Whatsapp and so on. So, we started our IIG, then Ubernet and then Coloasia.
As data is the future we thought ‘why we don’t go there?’ So, we are doing data hosting through our data centre. We are providing the platform. We are serving the banks, the telcos. We are providing rack, we are proving the power, we are providing the space. All the mobile companies are in our POI. So, connectivity is there. The technical necessity of data centre is obvious. If all the banks start to build their own data centres then it becomes impractical. So, we are providing for everyone. We are also providing DR or disaster recovery centre. In Bangladesh Sylhet is in seismic zone, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar are coastal areas. Our data centre is in the safest zone, Jessore. Companies can keep their data in any other data centre, but they will have to come to us for DR. In case of a natural calamity DR will be invaluable. In addition to that we would love to keep your data secure in our premise.
We already have five data centres. Two in Dhaka, one in the Red Crescent Borak Tower, the other is in Gulshan 1, which we are going have up and running from next month inshallah. Other than that we have one in Bagura, one in Sylhet and the DR centre is in Jessore, as I mentioned. So, it’s already quite big, you see all these clients (points to brochure), they are entrusting us with their data. The next step for us is cloud computing. At the present the clients are bringing in their own racks and their servers. We are already running cloud based server hosting on a small scale. We are doing software solutions like prep server, email server. We can host and clients can come in and share. This is 24/7 service. We are providing software solution of all kinds. We are providing the infrastructure. You just have to pay the monthly rent and we take care of the rest. With cloud computing you don’t need to bring your racks and server to us.
FINTECH: From a security and reliability standpoint, where would you place your company compared to global standards?
MN: We rate our data centres as tier three standard, as we have accomplished everything and complied with everything required to be recognised as tire three data centers. We have the components – chiller and suspension AC – designated for tier three cooling system. We have the N+1 power backup. The international standard in 72 hours of power backup. As of now we have 48 hours of power backup and data backup that can be deployed at any moment. So far we have zero downtime. Coloasia is in its 5th year now. We had zero downtime in these five years. Coloasia’s data centres wasn’t down even for one second. So, I think we can reasonably claim that we maintain international standard.
We have already talked to Google. YouTube is in Bangladesh on small scale in different places. The last we spoke to them we reached agreement that they will join us with five or six of their own racks. YouTube will be hosted here. So, international standards are certainly maintained. As for security, we don’t have any access to the customer’s data. There is total security of data.
FINTECH: One of the issues related to data centres is the environmental issue. What is your view and approach on this? Do you plan to use green energy?
MN: Yes, certainly. We are already using solar energy. We are not dependent only on the power grid. We started Coloasia in a commercial building. But now we will be moving to our own premise, our own building. That is a green building. In all of our centres we have green backup.
As for government rules and regulation, there aren’t any specific regulations right now. We want government to put proper regulations in place. But we do comply with what is globally accepted rules and standards.
FINTECH: Speaking of regulations, do you think government should legislate prioritizing the local companies?
MN: Yes, completely. If you look at browsing history, most people are using things Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, Amazon. If you look at the user data then 90 percent of our data is download and only 10 percent upload. We will have to have more content. If you look at the internal market, you will see that Internet usage has increased a lot. In the last three years Internet users has doubled. Our upload ratio is increased too and it will be at 50 percent soon.
Now we have to pay attention to content. So, if you look at the video usage from through mobile data, the videos are being uploaded on YouTube. So, our contents are being hosted in America, and then it’s coming to Singapore from there, and we are downloading that data from there. So, our contents are going around the world and then coming back to us, which we then purchase. So, we want a regulation form the government necessitating the keeping of local content in local servers. If we have that then YouTube or Amazon will have to come to us. If we have a regulation like that then the data will not have to go around the world before coming to us. We will have better speed, the data will be secured, the quality will increase. If we don’t do this, then we can’t go to the next level. So, we want a regulation from the government that local contents should kept in local server.
Another matter is security regarding data. All of our clients, meaning content providers, YouTube or Amazon or Alibaba or travel websites like booking.com or anything else that we regularly use, they all expect certain security regarding access. Whenever these companies consider coming to us, even the last exchange we had with Google, they expressed the need for a government regulation securing the data, in other words they want assurance that no one will access them.
FINTECH: Do we have any precedence of any of the neighbouring countries adopting similar regulations, compelling hosting local contents locally?
MN: No one is doing that yet in the neighbouring countries. But you will have to look beyond that if you want to reach the next level. Look at Singapore. Why all of these companies are being hosted in Singapore? Because they have regulations. They feel comfortable there. YouTube or Google feel secure there. Other than that European and American countries have specific regulations. That’s why they are successfully becoming international data hubs. Unfortunately, we and our neighbouring countries haven’t been able to reach that level. Even a big country like India, they don’t have the necessary regulations.
FINTECH: Another matter that was brought up in the panel discussion earlier today was deriving information from the data. What are the steps toward that? How can we start to get Big Data from our data centres?
MN: Indeed, we have to think about Big Data, as data volume is increasing constantly. This is ultimately up to the customers. If the customers want to have the data analysed then it is their decision. We can’t take that decision on their behalf.
FINTECH: What is the biggest opportunity in our industry right now from data centre’s perspective.? What is your assessment?
MN: The government could be a big user of data centres. They need to store and secure big archives. But not much have been done on that front. So, that is certainly a big opportunity.
FINTECH: Could you tell us about the maintenance and system software you use?
MN: The management software is by us. We don’t use customer’s software obviously. We own the server, so we use our software for that. Here is a security issue in this. We don’t have access to what the customer stores with us. Our server just hosts their software and its totally under their control. They can remotely launch their software. We just manage.
But coming back to the importance of data centre, recently EBL purchased a card management software. I think it cost nearly three million dollars. All the banks are making this investment separately; I think that is a bit extravagant for a developing country like us. We want to provide the software platform, where we will provide the software. It will be the exact same thing. If we can provide the security and safety, and we provide the software platform, all banks can come to us and share the software. That’s what you must do for going to the next level. There is no need for everyone to spend money for the same thing when it can be shared. For example, say HR solution. Every company do not need to buy HR solution separately. It can be on the cloud and it can be shared.
FINTECH: Do you think there is a positive attitude in the industry towards this change? Do you find there is certain distrust in employing this technology?
MN: I think that exists. But once people were skeptical about storing data on the Internet. But look at the situation now. From five or six data centres we have reached 200 hundred data centres in the country. So, there is trust. Trust has to be there for new technologies to work. Especially, for DR you have to come to us. So, awareness is slowly growing.
You store all of your private and important photos on Facebook. But no one really gives this a second thought. People are storing important data on Google Drive and they are completely certain that that data will be safe. We didn’t have this before. People didn’t feel secure. Cloud is a virtual thing. We know of some companies who have their billing software hosted in the US. The service can be obtained from anywhere in the world, but it is coming from the US through cloud hosting.
FINTECH: What is your vision for the future? Where do you see Coloasia in ten years?
MN: We have plan to start an international level data centre like Epsilon in Singapore. We have plans to build one in Gazipur using green building and all other elements like you see in Singapore. That is the dream. We are on our way to there. We are already in talks with Equinix, and they are interested too. We are talking about the kind of partnership we may enter into. We want to build data centre at that level. If we succeed, then we won’t have to go to contents, contents will come to us.
FINTECH: Thanks very much for speaking with us
MN: Thank you for talking to me. ■
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