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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?

By replacing electrical infrastructure and bringing it up to higher floors, the carrier was able to get its own central office back online in about a week.

Some customers are following suit -- moving critical infrastructure to floors that once housed rentable office space. And some are deploying new services, Kimm says, including mobile wireless, wireless IP and cloud computing solutions to allow their employees to work remotely. Others are rerouting their telecom and data networks. "We even have some buildings that landlords have to redo, converting them from business locations to residences and deploying wireless services."

Even given all the damage, however, Verizon isn't considering moving its switching centers to a less flood-prone location. Instead, Kimm says, "We're armoring the buildings; we've done an evaluation of what all the risks are," he says. "We haven't gotten final solutions, but the start of the next hurricane season [is a few months off]; you've got until mid-summer before you have a significant risk of a future event."

Lessons learned?

The impact of climate change and storms like Katrina and Sandy remains difficult to calculate. Not even climatologists can predict the frequency of extreme weather events as ocean levels and temperatures rise. But in the U.S., locations such as Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey, Miami, Virginia Beach, Boston, Washington, D.C., and even Seattle and San Diego are expected to see increased coastal flooding.

"I think it's absolutely compelling to look at the impact of recent storms, and also to look at statistics that show there have been more natural [severe] weather events, whether that's related to global climate shifts or other factors," says Jim Grogan, a business continuity and resilience specialist at 451 Research.

"Every single event, though, leaves lessons to be learned," he says. "Lessons come from the stories of the creative and innovative things data center operators did to keep their centers" going even in the worst conditions.

Though Sandy may have been a wake-up call for major data centers in the New York area to take some steps to harden facilities, it remains unclear how many will act on a longer-term solution -- moving out of the city entirely, for example, or developing redundant and geographically separate facilities, or opting for third-party disaster recovery and cloud solutions.

New thinking is happening among some of the larger IT organizations. "We're definitely seeing companies looking at alternative locations for data center operations," says 451's Grogan. "We have spoken to multitenant data center operators in Atlanta, Virginia and other locations, and we're seeing an increase of interest from customers in the Northeast."

Many businesses that can afford a disaster recovery solution are looking now toward secured multitenant providers outside major cities. Cervalis, for example, a company with more than 200 large corporate clients including global banks and software and testing companies, has hundreds of thousands of square feet of multitenant space in upstate New York, Passaic County, N.J., and Fairfield County, Conn., all safely tucked away from floodplains.


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