When the Big One hits Seattle, will cloud providers stay on?

The quake that will devastate tech is not the one you think.

cascadia subduction zone
Alicia.iverson (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The San Andreas Fault gets all the attention, media coverage and movies, but it’s not the fault line the tech sector needs to worry about. A much bigger problem lies to the north, and some of the most important tech firms are directly in its crosshairs.

The Cascadia subduction zone runs north-south from Canada to northern California and sits roughly 80 miles offshore. That’s the good news, since it’s 80 miles out to sea, as opposed to the San Andreas and Hayward faults, which run right through the Silicon Valley and East Bay, respectively.

The bad news is it is capable of a much more severe quake. The Cascadia fault is believed to be capable of a 9.4 magnitude quake. Residents of the Pacific Northwest got quite a fright last year when The New Yorker published an article called “The Really Big One,” which detailed the potential of a 9.4 magnitude earthquake hitting the area. The article outlined projections for 13,000 immediate deaths, one million left homeless, and the whole region left without power and water for months.

The quote that shook everyone up came from Kenneth Murphy, the director of the division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that's responsible for that whole region. "Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” he said. That includes the Washington state capital of Olympia.

This puts four significant technology companies directly in the line of fire: Amazon, Microsoft, Intel and T-Mobile. Amazon is located in downtown Seattle, which will get hit much harder. Microsoft and T-Mobile, along with Nintendo of America, are further inland to the east, which should lessen the rumbling.

If the quake is bad, the aftermath will be far worse. The chairman of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC) told The New Yorker it estimates that in the I-5 corridor it will take between one and three months to restore electricity after the earthquake, a month to a year to restore drinking water and sewer service, six months to a year to restore major highways, and eighteen months to restore healthcare facilities.

That basically means the PNW will be uninhabitable for months and perhaps more than a year. If that becomes the case, Microsoft, Amazon, T-Mobile, and Intel, along with Boeing, Starbucks, Costco, Groupon, and many other companies, could be put out of business as their employees are all evacuated from the region.

Needless to say, this will really disrupt their businesses, but it will also disrupt yours. What happens to the two largest cloud providers in the business, Amazon and Microsoft? Sure, their data centers are scattered all over the country and will be unaffected, but the management of those cloud services is handled out of Amazon and Microsoft headquarters.

Billing is done through corporate, not the remote data centers. And if the worst case scenarios happens and Seattle must be evacuated, Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella will have much bigger concerns than getting people to pay their AWS or Azure bill.

I asked both companies about these things and was basically stonewalled. The only company to offer anything resembling an answer was Intel. Down on the outskirts west of Portland is the city of Hillsboro, where Intel has a significant amount of its engineering teams. Most x86 work, CPUs and chipsets, is done there, and the killer quake could bring chip development to a halt.

Intel told me it has contingency plans in place for a wide variety of emergencies and disasters that they review and update regularly, and do drills with the local emergency services. After all, the Santa Clara HQ is sitting smack between the San Andreas and Hayward faults.

So even though Amazon and Microsoft wouldn't fess up, I have to think they have a similar kind of emergency plan to keep their companies functioning and cloud services going even if a massive quake does leave Seattle in ruins.

But as a customer, it can't hurt you to ask them. They may not answer me but they have to answer a customer or potential customer.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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