Data centers under water: What, me worry?

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

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Lessons learned?

The impact of climate change and storms like Katrina and Sandy remains difficult to calculate. Not even climatologists can predict the frequency of extreme weather events as ocean levels and temperatures rise. But in the U.S., locations such as Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey, Miami, Virginia Beach, Boston, Washington, D.C., and even Seattle and San Diego are expected to see increased coastal flooding.

"I think it's absolutely compelling to look at the impact of recent storms, and also to look at statistics that show there have been more natural [severe] weather events, whether that's related to global climate shifts or other factors," says Jim Grogan, a business continuity and resilience specialist at 451 Research.

"Every single event, though, leaves lessons to be learned," he says. "Lessons come from the stories of the creative and innovative things data center operators did to keep their centers" going even in the worst conditions. (See "How to keep going in the next freak storm," on the next page.)

   Rahul N. Merchant
New York's CitiServ data center is in Brooklyn, outside the hurricane flood zone, and features triple-power backup, which includes utility power, emergency generators and battery, says Rahul N. Merchant, New York's chief information and innovation officer.

Though Sandy may have been a wake-up call for major data centers in the New York area to take some steps to harden facilities, it remains unclear how many will act on a longer-term solution -- moving out of the city entirely, for example, or developing redundant and geographically separate facilities, or opting for third-party disaster recovery and cloud solutions.

New thinking is happening among some of the larger IT organizations. "We're definitely seeing companies looking at alternative locations for data center operations," says 451's Grogan. "We have spoken to multitenant data center operators in Atlanta, Virginia and other locations, and we're seeing an increase of interest from customers in the Northeast."

Many businesses that can afford a disaster recovery solution are looking now toward secured multitenant providers outside major cities. Cervalis, for example, a company with more than 200 large corporate clients including global banks and software and testing companies, has hundreds of thousands of square feet of multitenant space in upstate New York, Passaic County, N.J., and Fairfield County, Conn., all safely tucked away from floodplains.

The company acts as a primary or secondary data center, providing secured cabinets and redundant power, fully loaded (20 to 40 servers per cabinet), for about $1,500 per month per cabinet. That price is still cheaper for companies than building a redundant data facility on their own, insists Zack Margolis, a Cervalis vice president of sales, marketing and business development.

But not all businesses can afford this level of protection. Small businesses might realize the importance of data backups, but most will have to avail themselves of less expensive forms of resilience, such as backup tapes mounted at small disaster recovery facilities or virtualized clouds.

Moreover, many businesses still cling to major cities as the center of the universe. "Downtown Manhattan will still be in high demand because it is an interconnection hub to the United States," says 451's Michael Levy. Further, financial companies still want to "touch their data" and have it near the center of trading action without fear of latency, even though fiber-connected facilities outside the city can do the same job.

Overall, Gartner's Kumar insists, too few IT leaders are taking the signs of weather and climate change seriously enough. "We have had cases of coastal [flooding] where climate change has become an issue," he says. "In London and Germany, the winters seem to be getting slightly worse; we've had cases of component failure -- small bits of electrical equipment freezing up."

Despite all this, most IT managers still aren't willing to make proactive risk assessments to avert disasters. "When I mention risk assessments, they say, 'Rakesh, great point. We'll get engineering to complete a report.' But two months later, it's still at the bottom of the 'to-do' pile."

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