Huge customer effort keeps flooded NYC data center running

How do you get hundreds of gallons of fuel up 17 stories? Your customers carry it

When seawater flooded streets in lower Manhattan Monday night, it filled the bottom floors of the basement of an office building at 75 Broad St. and its lobby up to four feet. This was not a good development for the data center operated by Peer1 Hosting.

Rooftop generator at 75 Broad St. NYC.
Customers and others helped lug fuel up 17 floors to keep the rooftop generator at 75 Broad St. in New York City running and a data center in the building humming. (Photo: Squarespace)

Peer1's data center had smoothly switched over to generator power, but when Con Edison cut electric power to lower Manhattan, the rooftop generator couldn't access the 20,000 gallon fuel tank in the flooded basement. Its pumping system was disabled by storm waters from Hurricane Sandy.

The rooftop generator was using as much as 40 gallons of fuel an hour to run the nearly 13,000-square-foot data center, and the "day tank" had limited capacity. Time was running out.

Early Tuesday, Peer1's Broad Street customers were warned that fuel supplies would soon be exhausted. Among those who got the email was Anthony Casalena, the founder and CEO of Squarespace, a Web publishing and content management firm. He was in his powerless apartment in downtown Manhattan.

Casalena started Squarespace in 2003 with $30,000 borrowed from his father. Today, his company has 102 employees and hundreds of thousands of customers. As a private company, it doesn't give out exact numbers.

Casalena has been using the Peer1 data center since his business started. He was familiar with its operation and may now be its largest customer. He left his downtown apartment to see for himself what was happening, to offer help, and hopefully, he said, to delay any shut down "until the last possible second." His customers were warned and he continued to report on the status of the data center.

Casalena said it quickly became clear that the data center operations team didn't have a good way to measure the fuel supplies in the rooftop day tank. "They don't really know how much fuel was left," he said.

Near the time the data center was supposed to shut down, Casalena said the data center team determined that there was a half tank left. That triggered a new plan.

Casalena said there were some 55-gallon oil drums onsite. The data center manager suggested trying to get fuel supplies to the roof. They made arrangements with one of the fuel trucks on the street for supply. Fuel trucks have become a common sight since the power outage.

Casalena was among those helping to carry fuel to the roof.

The generator-fueling effort got organized. More people begin showing up from Squarespace and another large user, Fog Creek Software. They included software developers, systems engineers, sales representatives, executives and support personnel.

A network of people, stationed at every staircase landing, formed a bucket brigade passing fuel from one person to the next. Several dozen may have been involved over multiple shifts, including some day laborers who were also hired to help.

"Over the next night into the morning, we were able to successfully continue to coordinate fuel trucks coming and manually move hundreds of gallons of diesel to the roof and keep the thing online," Casalena said.

There were moments when they felt they weren't moving fast enough. At one point, a generator light came on showing low fuel.

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