Some data center operators take their chances with floods

Climate change is causing some IT leaders to consider relocating, or at least hardening, their facilities.

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

Some experts suggest that managers of mission-critical data centers simply need to harden their existing facilities, other observers say data centers need to be moved to higher ground, and a third group advises data center managers to pursue both strategies.

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

For instance, the response to Hurricane Sandy, on the East Coast at least, "is nothing more than hardening existing data 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. Between Sandy and 2011's Hurricane Irene, "we're seeing a trend that's a little alarming," he adds.

The company has announced that 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 in 2005, 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 15,000 employees, abandoned the idea of a single data center in the New Orleans area.

Before Katrina hit, Entergy, which provides both nuclear- and fossil-fuel-generated electricity to 2.8 million customers, had its corporate headquarters in New Orleans and a single data center in Gretna, La., just across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans.

"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, but there was no power, our lines were down and we had to run on our generator and keep topping it off."

By winter 2006, the company decided to create two mirror-image data centers in Jackson, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark. In Little Rock, the company retrofitted an old library with sturdy brick walls, moving hardware and critical applications from New Orleans piece by piece to the backup facility by 2008.

Finally, by 2010, Entergy had completed a brand-new $30 million Jackson data center. The company load-balances several systems, including email, between the two facilities, Israel says. "Moving applications from New Orleans involved quite a choreography plan. Subsequent to Katrina, we've had [major] storm events, including ice storms in Little Rock. But I no longer have to hold my breath," she says.

The company holds drills for hurricanes and other types of storms every year "to get better at responding," Israel says. "One of the things we quickly recognized was how effective a dispersed workforce can be. Our employees can do a lot more things from remote locations, and that has served us very, very well."

Yet not everyone seems to have absorbed the message to take heed. IT shops in both Europe and the northeastern United States seem to cling to the idea that superstorms are nonrepeatable freaks of nature. In some cases, even among those affected by major storms, vigilance plays a game of chicken with artful forgetfulness as managers set IT priorities.

Ignorance Isn't Bliss

"What was perceived as a safe area before may not be now," says Rakesh Kumar, a data center and infrastructure analyst at Gartner. He cites freezing temperatures, coastal flooding and other unpredictable weather events in Europe, and notes that tsunamis are a concern in Asia. "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.

He says that many of his European and U.S. clients are in favor of doing thorough long-term risk assessments and thinking proactively, he says. At least in theory.

Even now, months after Sandy, most East Coast-based companies aren't taking steps to relocate 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 Sheehan Partners, a Chicago-based architecture firm.

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 the parking lot and not in the data center itself.

Some are doing more than paying lip service to the idea of preparing for disaster. In lower Manhattan, at 140 West St., a Verizon switching center felt the full force of Sandy's flooding. Five sub-basement levels, including a Verizon cable vault, were submerged. 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 weatherproof 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," says Kimm.

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... you've got until [hurricane season starts in] midsummer before you have a significant risk of a future event."

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., places 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 analyst 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.

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 longer-term solutions -- 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.

Some larger IT organizations are looking at alternative locations for data center operations, says Grogan. "Multi-tenant data center operators in Atlanta, Virginia and other locations [are] seeing an increase of interest from customers in the Northeast," he says.

Many businesses that can afford disaster recovery solutions are considering turning to companies such as Cervalis for hosted systems in secure multi-tenant facilities outside major cities. An IT infrastructure provider with more than 200 large corporate clients, including global banks and software companies, Cervalis has hundreds of thousands of square feet of multi-tenant space in upstate New York, Passaic County, N.J., and Fairfield County, Conn., all a safe distance from floodplains.

Cervalis provides secured cabinets and redundant power, fully loaded (20 to 40 servers per cabinet), for about $1,500 per month per cabinet. Customers can use its facilities as either primary or secondary data centers, and the price is still cheaper than building redundant facilities on their own, says Zack Margolis, vice president of sales, marketing and business development at Cervalis.

Of course, not all businesses can afford that level of protection, and some small operations might not recognize the importance of data backups. But most organizations will have to find cost-effective means of ensuring business continuity, such as virtualized clouds or backup tapes mounted at small disaster recovery facilities.

Moreover, many businesses still cling to major cities. "Manhattan will still be in high demand because it is an interconnection hub to the United States," says Michael Levy, a data center colocation analyst at 451 Research. Further, financial companies still want to "touch their data" and have it near the center of trading action because they're concerned about latency, even though that's not an issue with fiber-connected facilities, even if they're in remote locations.

Overall, 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 of that, most IT managers still aren't willing to make proactive risk assessments to avert disasters. "When I mention risk assessments, [Gartner clients] say, 'Great point, we'll get engineering to complete a report,'" says Kumar. "But two months later, it's still at the bottom of the to-do pile."a

Emmett is a professor of journalism and runs a technology-focused editorial and design company, Arielle Emmett & Associates, in New York, Pennsylvania and Beijing.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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