Tornadoes and data centers are OK in Oklahoma

Devon Energy's data center in Oklahoma City built of structural precast and 'rated for 310 mph winds'

If the question about tornadoes comes up at his Oklahoma City data center, as it sometimes does, Todd Currie, vice president of operations and general manager at Perimeter Technology, has answers. He even has a cutout sample of his roof to show how it is built.

Perimeter's data center was constructed to withstand an EF3 tornado, or winds up to 165 miles per hour on the Enhanced Fujita scale.

To protect against an EF3, Perimeter surrounded the raised floor portion of the data center with 8.5-in. concrete, reinforced walls. The data center is in the middle of the building, and around it are offices protected by another 8.5-in. exterior wall.

"It's kind of like of a box within a box," Currie said of the design. They also have data centers in Washington state, Texas and another in Tulsa, to move operations if need be.

The roof is double reinforced and thick enough to withstand the storm's uplift. But the thicker roof also pays dividends in insulating the building, and that helps with cooling, Currie said.

Currie is more likely to get a question about tornadoes from out-of-state customers, who are unfamiliar with tornadoes in Oklahoma. The customer questions can arrive for good reason.

Oklahoma experiences more tornadoes per square mile than any other place in the country, but it's also become popular for data centers because of its energy costs and electric grid.

Google is investing $700 million in data centers in Mayes County, about 130 miles from Oklahoma City.

The area around and to the southwest of Oklahoma City "has perhaps the greatest frequency of tornadoes in the U.S.," said John Snow, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. But, he said, "tornadoes are still very rare events at any particular location, even in the bull's eye."

"It is just that compared to the rest of the nation, tornadoes are somewhat less rare here than elsewhere," Snow said.

The tornado on May 20 in Moore, Okla., was an EF5, with winds estimated at 210 mph, and it struck less than 20 miles from Perimeter's data center.

But the Moore storm was an even rarer event. About 95% of all tornadoes are below EF3 intensity, and only 0.1% achieve EF5, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"It can sometimes take a little education on our part to explain that the true risk of the facility getting damaged by a tornado is very unlikely," said Currie. "Unlike hurricanes or earthquakes that inflict damage over hundreds of square miles, tornadoes bounce along the ground and damage infrastructure maybe a mile wide for a few miles."

In Oklahoma, the probability that an F2 or stronger tornado may strike a particular point in any given year is 0.025%. In New York City, it's 0.002% year, according to a NOAA researcher.

But there is a trend among customers to ask service providers about their physical infrastructure and extreme weather risks, said Tad Davies, senior vice president at the Bick Group, which designs data centers. "Availability is such a high stakes thing," he said, and that may be encouraging data centers to build to ever higher standards.

Many data centers are hardened, but most aren't. At least one company in Oklahoma may have built a data center of exceptional strength. Holder Construction list one of its projects as a data center for Devon Energy in Oklahoma City, which was built of structural precast and "rated for 310 mph winds." A Devon spokesman declined to comment on it.

Google declined as well to talk about the capability of its data centers to withstand tornadoes. The information it has put out on its Mayes County facility stresses its ability to move data and shift operations.

Paul Matthews, chief technology officer, Xerox Litigation Services, said that in his experience, "the most commonly overlooked aspect of a disaster recovery/resiliency strategy relates not to the physical infrastructure inside the facility, but to external vendors."

Power outages and network breaks from downed trees, as well as flooding from major rainfall are most likely to cause service outages, said Matthews. "It's all well and good to have a hardened facility, but two more redundant diesel generators won't help when your only network provider goes offline," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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