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Data centers under water: What, me worry?

Arielle Emmett | May 3, 2013
Given the dire warnings about climate change, some business and IT people are pondering this question: How should data center managers handle the crop of 100- and even 500-year storms, coastal flooding and other ecological disasters that climatologists predict are heading our way?

With Sarasota County in the lead, the group eventually brokered a deal with Verizon to secure rack and server space for several counties in one of Verizon's switching centers, a secure brick building with no windows located near a major highway and around 10 miles inland from Longboat Key.

The town has replicated its servers at Suncoast Technology Center -- the former Verizon switching center -- and "though we don't have everything on it, as budgets allow, we've replicated the critical applications, including a mirror image of our production server, payroll, general ledger and public safety data," Pletzke says.

Because there are a lot of elderly people in Florida, "we wanted to replicate our website in [adjoining] Martin County so that in the event of disaster, people could check up on their parents in Sarasota County and see that they are well," Warner says. The consortium has also boosted cooperation among many counties to ensure that IT managers can get emergency access to guest servers and generators to keep computers running smoothly.

-- Arielle Emmett

Ignorance isn't bliss

"What was perceived as a safe area before may not be now," says Rakesh Kumar, a Gartner vice president who specializes in data center and infrastructure issues. In Europe, especially, he cites freezing temperatures, coastal flooding and other unpredictable weather events. In Asia, tsunamis are a concern. "Until we have a major data outage, though, most clients are not calculating for risk or change; they're turning a blind eye to it," Kumar says.

Many of his European and U.S. clients praise the idea of doing thorough risk assessments and thinking proactively, long-term, he says. At least in theory.

But even now, six months after Sandy, most East Coast-based companies aren't being proactive about repositioning their data centers, experts say. "They're expanding in the same locations; they're not even thinking about moving," says Neil Sheehan, a data center architect and principal of Chicago-based Sheehan Partners Ltd.

In fact, he says, "we are looking for expansion for our clients in New Jersey right near the coast, [near] sites that flooded." Sheehan says with proper surveys of 500-year-flood levels, data center architects can determine the ideal height of first floors, so that flooding, if it occurs, happens in parking lots and not in data centers.

Some are paying more than lip service. In downtown Manhattan, at 140 West Street, a Verizon switching center felt the full force of Sandy's stormwater. Five sub-basement levels, including a Verizon cable vault, went underwater. Technicians struggled to mount emergency generators and pump water out through elevator shafts.

Since then, Verizon has had to extract 150 tons of damaged copper cable from lower Manhattan streets, its central office, headquarters and customer sites, replacing virtually all of it with weather-proof fiber cable protected in conduit. "If you take a fiber optic cable and lay it in your bathtub it probably will still work; fiber is submersible," says Chris Kimm, vice president of global customer assurance for Verizon Enterprise Solutions.


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