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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.

By winter 2006, the company decided to create two mirror-image data centers in Jackson, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark. In Little Rock, the company retrofitted an old library with sturdy brick walls, moving hardware and critical applications from New Orleans piece by piece to the backup facility by 2008.

Finally, by 2010, Entergy had completed a brand-new $30 million Jackson data center. The company load-balances several systems, including email, between the two facilities, Israel says. "Moving applications from New Orleans involved quite a choreography plan. Subsequent to Katrina, we've had [major] storm events, including ice storms in Little Rock. But I no longer have to hold my breath," she says.

The company holds drills for hurricanes and other types of storms every year "to get better at responding," Israel says. "One of the things we quickly recognized was how effective a dispersed workforce can be. Our employees can do a lot more things from remote locations, and that has served us very, very well."

Yet not everyone seems to have absorbed the message to take heed. IT shops in both Europe and the northeastern United States seem to cling to the idea that superstorms are nonrepeatable freaks of nature. In some cases, even among those affected by major storms, vigilance plays a game of chicken with artful forgetfulness as managers set IT priorities.

Ignorance Isn't Bliss
"What was perceived as a safe area before may not be now," says Rakesh Kumar, a data center and infrastructure analyst at Gartner. He cites freezing temperatures, coastal flooding and other unpredictable weather events in Europe, and notes that tsunamis are a concern in Asia. "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.

He says that many of his European and U.S. clients are in favor of doing thorough long-term risk assessments and thinking proactively, he says. At least in theory.

Even now, months after Sandy, most East Coast-based companies aren't taking steps to relocate 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 Sheehan Partners, a Chicago-based architecture firm.

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 the parking lot and not in the data center itself.

Some are doing more than paying lip service to the idea of preparing for disaster. In lower Manhattan, at 140 West St., a Verizon switching center felt the full force of Sandy's flooding. Five sub-basement levels, including a Verizon cable vault, were submerged. Technicians struggled to mount emergency generators and pump water out through elevator shafts.


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