Data centers under water: What, me worry?

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

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Ignorance isn't bliss

"What was perceived as a safe area before may not be now," says Rakesh Kumar, a Gartner vice president who specializes in data center and infrastructure issues. In Europe, especially, he cites freezing temperatures, coastal flooding and other unpredictable weather events. In Asia, tsunamis are a concern. "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.

Many of his European and U.S. clients praise the idea of doing thorough risk assessments and thinking proactively, long-term, he says. At least in theory.

But even now, six months after Sandy, most East Coast-based companies aren't being proactive about repositioning 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 Chicago-based Sheehan Partners Ltd.

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 parking lots and not in data centers.

Verizon after Sandy
A worker squeegees out the basement of the Verizon building in lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York on November 1, 2012. By replacing electrical infrastructure and bringing it up to higher floors, the carrier was able to get its own central office back online in about a week. Credit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Some are paying more than lip service. In lower Manhattan, at 140 West Street, a Verizon switching center felt the full force of Sandy's stormwater. Five sub-basement levels, including a Verizon cable vault, went underwater. Technicians struggled to mount emergency generators and pump water out through elevator shafts.

Since then, Verizon has had to extract 150 tons of damaged copper cable from lower Manhattan streets, its central office, headquarters and customer sites, replacing virtually all of it with weather-proof fiber cable protected in conduit. "If you take a fiber optic cable and lay it in your bathtub it probably will still work; fiber is submersible," says Chris Kimm, vice president of global customer assurance for Verizon Enterprise Solutions.

By replacing electrical infrastructure and bringing it up to higher floors, the carrier was able to get its own central office back online in about a week.

Some customers are following suit -- moving critical infrastructure to floors that once housed rentable office space. And some are deploying new services, Kimm says, including mobile wireless, wireless IP and cloud computing solutions to allow their employees to work remotely. Others are rerouting their telecom and data networks. "We even have some buildings that landlords have to redo, converting them from business locations to residences and deploying wireless services."

Even given all the damage, however, Verizon isn't considering moving its switching centers to a less flood-prone location. Instead, Kimm says, "We're armoring the buildings; we've done an evaluation of what all the risks are," he says. "We haven't gotten final solutions, but the start of the next hurricane season [is a few months off]; you've got until mid-summer before you have a significant risk of a future event."

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