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Some data center operators take their chances with floods

Arielle Emmett | July 16, 2013
Climate change is causing some IT leaders to consider relocating, or at least hardening, their facilities.

Given the dire warnings about climate change, some business leaders and IT professionals are pondering this question: How should data center managers handle the crop of so-called 100- and even 500-year storms, coastal floods and other ecological disasters that climatologists predict are heading our way?

Some experts suggest that managers of mission-critical data centers simply need to harden their existing facilities, other observers say data centers need to be moved to higher ground, and a third group advises data center managers to pursue both strategies.

One thing is certain, experts say: Few IT organizations — even those that suffered or narrowly escaped damage during recent major storms — are thinking long term. Most IT leaders are, if anything, taking the path of least resistance and least expense.

For instance, the response to Hurricane Sandy, on the East Coast at least, "is nothing more than hardening existing data centers," says Peter Sacco, founder and president of PTS Data Center Solutions, a data center design and management consultancy in Franklin Lakes, N.J. On the other hand, he says, the fact that most computers are networked these days de-emphasizes "the importance of any single data center."

Internap, an IT infrastructure colocation company, is strengthening its most at-risk facilities, including the building at 75 Broad St. in lower Manhattan that flooded after Sandy hit. During the storm, fuel pumps shut down and Internap switched to a 1,200-gallon reserve fuel tank on a higher floor to keep servers running.

"No one expected Sandy to become as catastrophic as it was," says Steve Orchard, Internap's senior vice president of development and operations. Between Sandy and 2011's Hurricane Irene, "we're seeing a trend that's a little alarming," he adds.

The company has announced that it's building a new data center in Secaucus, N.J. — outside the flood plain. "We take climate change very seriously, and it does factor into our new site selection," Orchard says.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, followed by Gustav and Ike (2008) and Isaac (2012), slammed into the Gulf Coast with such ferocity that IT executives at Entergy, a $10 billion electrical power company with 15,000 employees, abandoned the idea of a single data center in the New Orleans area.

Before Katrina hit, Entergy, which provides both nuclear- and fossil-fuel-generated electricity to 2.8 million customers, had its corporate headquarters in New Orleans and a single data center in Gretna, La., just across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans.

"We knew the data center was in the storm's way, and we made a decision after that event to move the data center because we were holding our breath," says Jill Israel, Entergy's CIO. "We didn't have flooding in the immediate area of our data center, but there was no power, our lines were down and we had to run on our generator and keep topping it off."


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