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Old water tank houses hurricane-proof data center

By building a data center in a water tank, a Florida city saw its problems with downtime evaporate and the savings pour in.

By Lucas Mearian
October 11, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - After dismantling the city's data center and moving it three times to avoid hurricanes, the IT team for the city of Altamonte Springs, Fla., decided to try a different approach. Instead of spending millions of dollars to build a facility that would keep water out, they relocated the data center to an existing structure that was originally designed to keep water in -- a 770,000-gallon water tank.

Altamonte Springs water tank data center
The city's water tank data center: Wings were added to each side, one for networking equipment, the other for administrative offices.

Larry DiGioia, director of information services for the central Florida city of 45,000, says the move made perfect sense. The dome-shaped tank offered 8-inch-thick walls of reinforced concrete and was situated only 100 feet from City Hall, where a single server room housed the city's previous data center.

Along with vendor partners, DiGioia and his 10 IT staffers built a completely virtualized environment, dramatically increased network throughput, and reduced the physical server count and storage-area network (SAN) management requirements.

Compared with the old setup, the new infrastructure offers improved uptime and superior disaster recovery capabilities.

Anthony Apfelback, the fire marshal and building official for Altamonte Springs, says the upgrade not only eliminated recurring intranet downtime, but also allowed his department to roll out several new applications that automated the permit-issuing process, reducing labor costs.

Larry DiGioia, director of information services for Altamonte Springs
Altamonte Springs' disaster recovery used to be "nonexistent," says Larry DiGioia, director of information services for the city.

"Before, it was constant downtime. We would lose our network system for a day and sometimes two days," he says. "Since Larry came in, it's been night and day. Every aspect of the system has improved dramatically. We've had no downtime."

Bob Laliberte, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, says that for state and local governments strapped for cash, using existing infrastructure or sharing facilities with surrounding communities is a practical step. "Everyone's looking to find newer, greener ways of building data centers and looking at the natural landscape to do that," he says.

Altamonte Springs isn't the only place where you'll find data centers that take advantage of existing or natural structures. Information management service provider Iron Mountain planted its main data center 22 stories underground in an abandoned limestone mine, for example. Data centers have also been located in shipping containers and former nuclear bunkers -- there's even one in an old bomb shelter under Uspenski Cathedral in Finland.

A Rocky Start

The water tank idea had its merits, but the city's journey to an optimized data center with a solid disaster recovery infrastructure didn't begin easily. In 2003, only three days after DiGioia moved from New York to Florida to start his Altamonte Springs IT job, the city's network engineer walked up to him and said, "We've just lost everything. All the Novell servers, the Novell clusters, the backup, the SAN. Everything's gone," he recalls.

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