Protecting your data center from mother nature


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Hurricane Katrina helped shatter the “it could never happen here” myth for many mission critical facilities managers.
“A number of data centers were just wiped out of existence,” says Ron Hughes, president of California Data Center Design Group. “It’s something the industry is recognizing.”
Natural disasters are an important consideration when planning a new data center facility or backup location. But even if a new building isn’t in the works, existing locations can be fortified to withstand the wiles of Mother Nature.
That’s a good thing, because there is no place to hide when it comes to natural disasters, according to a recent USA TODAY report. Earthquakes threaten the West Coast and Utah. Hurricanes buffet the Gulf and East coasts. Ice storms paralyze huge portions of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Tornados wreak havoc from South Dakota to Texas. The West Coast is also vulnerable to volcanoes and tsunamis.
That’s not to mention blizzards, flash floods, monsoons and wildfires – all of which pummel parts of the United States.
It may surprise many that five states (Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee) along the Mississippi River face the threat of earthquakes. Some of the most powerful quakes on record in North America occurred there in 1811 and 1812 in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. One caused the Mississippi River to temporarily flow backwards. Effects were felt as far away as Boston.
Of course, not all natural disasters are created equal. An ice storm may bring an inconvenient power outage, but it pales in comparison to a volcano or dam break.
Hughes says minimizing natural disaster risks should be part of any site selection process. That’s part of the reason Phoenix and Austin are emerging as data center hot spots. But he says utility costs are also driving the migration to those locations.
One of those companies is EBay, which announced last year that it would build a new data center in Phoenix. The company chose the site because it is not earthquake prone and has a minimal risk of natural disasters.
“It’s important for us to stay up all the time,” spokesman Hani Durzy told The Arizona Republic.
Other high-tech expansions include one from Google, which is planning an engineering and operations center in the Phoenix area. The San Jose-based company also said it needs backup sites with minimal risk of natural disasters.
Staying put the smart way
 Since a new building may not be in your plans, it’s good to know that your existing facility can be strengthened to withstand local threats.
A white paper by American Power Conversion (APC) says it’s often less expensive to invest in reducing the risk of downtime than to recover from a major hit. Preventative measures might include redesigning a building or buying insurance.
Buildings in earthquake zones can be built to “essential services standards.” This means that people can continue to work in them after a quake, even without an inspection. However, this type of facility is vastly more expensive than a traditional building.
Data centers operated by 365 Main in San Francisco and Los Angeles are built to essential services requirements. Both buildings were retrofit with base isolators that allow the foundation to move 15 inches.
“That dampens the force of the earthquake,” says Chris Dolan, president.
The San Francisco facility cost $130 million, but $30 million of that paid for the seismic upgrade.
“It’s very important to our customers that the building be standing after the next major event,” he says. “Over 250 customers trust this building is going to be standing.”
The upgrade has convinced many local companies to house data there instead of out of town.
VeriCenter, based in Houston, offers backup services to clients at seven centers in the United States. Each site has different safeguards built into it, depending on the risks of each region, says Dave Colsante, chief technology officer.
In Denver and Boston, for example, the roofs are reinforced to protect against snowpack. The Houston sites are set up to withstand a direct hit from a category 3 hurricane (winds from 111-130 mph).
APC recommends that disaster recovery plans be regularly reviewed. Every site should consider emergency communication plans, a generator, redundant utility feeds and multiple carrier lines.
“Counting on cell phones is not good when there is an area-wide outage and all the cell towers are down or the system is overloaded,” says Rick Sawyer, director of data center technology for APC. “Having a satellite phone backup, or something similar, is a great idea.”
Although they don’t get as much press as other events, floods account for 90 percent of all natural disasters in the United States, according to APC. If you are in a flood prone area, get out. If you can’t, you can:

  • flood proof your facility by reinforcing walls
  • build floodwalls outside the building
  • install watertight doors and pumps
  • buy flood insurance
  • elevate machinery
  • use dry flood-proofing techniques to protect your building (see APC for details)

Buildings can also be protected from hurricanes and tornadoes by securing loose materials, installing permanent storm shutters, securely attaching metal siding and roofing and protecting things outside the building such as cooling towers.
To withstand earthquakes, light fixtures, bookcases and computing equipment can be secured. Heavy equipment needs special attention. Floors can be installed with seismic anchoring, which decreases the likelihood they will collapse. In addition, base isolation techniques can create a system of supports that separate buildings from the ground they sit on.
Precautions can also be taken to protect a building from lightning.
“Assess incidental as well as direct damage potential,” says Sawyer. “A building may survive strong winds and hail, but the dumpster next door may get blown into the side of a building causing secondary damage. Your roof may well take a good storm, but hail damage can ruin your cooling system dry coolers, and your lightning rods may not be maintained properly, leading to secondary failure.”
Just in case
 Even the best contingency plans can fail, of course. That’s where backup comes in.
“The best rule is the backup location should be far enough away so an event will not affect both sites,” Sawyer says.
Sawyer says the recovery site must be able to support your IT staff.
“One lesson we learned from recovering from 9/11 was that it takes people to recover and make a data center work,” Sawyer says. “Their families come first, so plan for that so the employee feels free to work. They have to be housed, transported and fed for extended periods, so plan for that. A site 200 miles away is good, as long as you can get your staff there and they can work productively once they get there.”Colsante says VeriCenter’s seven data centers give clients a wide range of choices for backup locations.
“We pretty much cover the entire United States,” he says. “Our customers are happy with the locations we are at.”
The company itself initiated its disaster recovery plan during Hurricane Rita, sending key personnel to Atlanta along with some mission critical systems.
Colsante says best practices call for backup sites to be at least 30 miles away. However, for threats such as hurricanes, that might not be far enough. He says the decision on where to locate the backup center comes down to a company’s individual business requirements.