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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?

The company acts as a primary or secondary data center, providing secured cabinets and redundant power, fully loaded (20 to 40 servers per cabinet), for about $1,500 per month per cabinet. That price is still cheaper for companies than building a redundant data facility on their own, insists Zack Margolis, a Cervalis vice president of sales, marketing and business development.

But not all businesses can afford this level of protection. Small businesses might realize the importance of data backups, but most will have to avail themselves of less expensive forms of resilience, such as backup tapes mounted at small disaster recovery facilities or virtualized clouds.

Moreover, many businesses still cling to major cities as the center of the universe. "Downtown Manhattan will still be in high demand because it is an interconnection hub to the United States," says 451's Michael Levy. Further, financial companies still want to "touch their data" and have it near the center of trading action without fear of latency, even though fiber-connected facilities outside the city can do the same job.

Overall, Gartner's Kumar insists, too few IT leaders are taking the signs of weather and climate change seriously enough. "We have had cases of coastal [flooding] where climate change has become an issue," he says. "In London and Germany, the winters seem to be getting slightly worse; we've had cases of component failure -- small bits of electrical equipment freezing up."

Despite all this, most IT managers still aren't willing to make proactive risk assessments to avert disasters. "When I mention risk assessments, they say, 'Rakesh, great point. We'll get engineering to complete a report.' But two months later, it's still at the bottom of the 'to-do' pile."

How to keep going in the next freak storm

You can do many things to plan ahead of a storm. Here are the top picks from those who learned the hard way during Superstorm Sandy.

Secure fuel tanks and pumps. In Manhattan, most downtown data center outages occurred due to ruptured fuel pumps, tanks and shorted electrical wiring. At Datagram -- a private co-location company providing managed services to Gawker, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post, among others -- torrents of water in the basement blew off stainless steel doors, rupturing a diesel fuel tank. "Our generators were operational, but we had pumps submerged under saltwater, which caused a failure of our fuel systems," says Alex Reppen, Datagram's CEO. The lesson: Install multiple fuel tanks and encase them in concrete so they can't be damaged in a storm surge.

Check emergency wiring, hoses, connectors and back-up circuits. At Peer1 Hosting, with 21 data centers around the country, human bucket brigades brought needed diesel fuel up to a rooftop generator as multiple shifts of people worked overnight to keep a Manhattan data center online. However, "we had a heat issue and lost a portion of our data center for a day because we couldn't [reduce] the heat during the power outage," explains Ted Smith, senior vice president of Peer1 Hosting. Lessons: Review backup power plans, check UPS batteries and make sure there are enough emergency wiring, hoses, connectors and fuel to run backup equipment and generators for prolonged periods.


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