Data centers under water: What, me worry?

Climate change causes some to ponder relocation and other, less drastic hardening measures.

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

Some experts suggest that managers of mission-critical IT centers simply need to harden existing facilities, other observers say they need to move the centers to higher ground and a third group says both strategies are needed.

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

For instance, the data center response to Hurricane Sandy, on the East Coast at least, "is nothing more than hardening existing 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. "With Hurricane Irene the previous year, we're seeing a trend that's a little alarming."

   Jill Israel
Jill Israel, CIO of Entergy, says that post-Katrina the company focused on disbursing its employees and bringing in the infrastructure to allow for remote work. "Our employees can do a lot more things from remote locations and that has served us very, very well," she says.

The company has announced 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, 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 14,000 employees, abandoned the idea of a single data center in New Orleans and went back to the drawing board.

Before Katrina hit in 2005, the power company, which provides both nuclear and fossil fuel electricity to 2.8 million customers, had its corporate headquarters in New Orleans and one data center in Gretna, La., just west of downtown New Orleans across the Mississippi River.

"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," she explains. "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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