DataCenterANGLE: Data Center Availability & Safety – Future Requirements

{Guest Post:  This is a guest post by datacenter executive Mark Thiele, founder of and EVP of Switch.   Mark is a practitioner and thought leader in the datacenter and cloud marketplace.}

Is it safe to build a data center anywhere along the coast? Can you really protect the availability or accessibility of your systems in the face of hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters? Just because you’ve built a solid structure, doesn’t mean you can guarantee accessibility and your data center is nothing without connections.

Keeping the Data Center alive

The general assumption by most is that keeping your data center running is akin to keeping it “available”. The reality is that availability and running do go hand in hand. However, running doesn’t guarantee availability.

The data center community spends billions of dollars every year on facilities that can withstand a variety of disasters.  Money is spent on risk avoidance for fire, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, minor terrorist attacks or even the angry worker trying to drive a truck through the door.  However, the primary limitation is still that these protections in most cases only help to guarantee that the data center keeps running.

My Data Center is Safe, what else matters?

So, you figured out how to protect your data center from the disaster du jour, congratulations. It’s too bad that even though your data center was protected your customers can’t use it or your employees can’t access it.  That’s right, you’ve got power and HVAC, the servers and disk drives are humming, but your customers can’t access anything, why is that?

The data center is no different than a man (person). As with any living being you need your ecosystem to support your existence.

Example disaster scenario: Human in an urban environment

You’ve built a strong house, with good security. You maintain a small supply of food and water, and maybe even have a generator.  Then a major disaster occurs that eliminates your ability to be mobile and your access to many external services.

What happens when:

  • – you need a doctor?
  • – you run out of milk?
  • – you need a firefighter or police officer?
  • – you need to travel?
  • – you can’t connect to NetFlix?
  • – your 15 year old can’t update Facebook?
  • – Etc., etc.

As you can quickly gather from the above example the human in this case is likely to start having problems fairly quickly, even though they are “alive” post disaster. While alive is almost always better than the alternative, being alive for a few extra days is not the same as surviving to live on.

Example disaster scenario: Data Center 

You’ve built an earthquake safe data center (A building that can withstand the proverbial “big one”). You’ve even installed base isolation under the server cabinets to avoid any serious vibration or shock to the IT equipment.  Unfortunately, the water main two blocks away doesn’t have the same earthquake protection, and neither did the nearby highway overpass that feeds the area your data center is in. Then, because of a road cracking and the overpass collapse all the fiber coming to your facility is gone. Good news though, the data center is still running on its own generators and temporary water supply.

What happens when;

  • – your customer(s) needs to access equipment remotely like they most often do?
  • – your staff can’t gain access to the facility because of local conditions?
  • – your staff is unavailable because they are worried about their own family safety and health issues?
  • – you begin to run low on diesel, or water and the roads are impassable or you aren’t the priority for limited supplies?
  • – Etc., etc.

The above situation can apply to any number of disasters from a hurricane to a tornado or even a major fire, snow storm or flood.  In the above scenario your data center might actually be functioning as an island, but what good does that do you? Sure, your equipment is safe, and when services are restored you won’t have to rebuild your infrastructure, but in the mean time you are down as far as your customers are concerned.

Modified thinking around data center design and location is required

Historically the concerns I’ve voiced above were more limited in risk and to some degree even to potential of disaster occurrence. However, there are several factors that are changing or should be changing our long held assumptions about what “safe” means for our data center facilities.

Factor 1: Climate Change

Believe in Climate Change or not the fact remains that on a regional and global scale we are seeing more natural disasters than ever and these disasters are getting bigger in scope. Fires, hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, and other weather phenomenon are increasingly getting nastier.   If we hold the assumption that weather related disasters will occur more frequently, and will impact new regions, we see a significant magnification of the problem occurring (I.e., More storms that are stronger, in combination with a wider area of influence or impact). There’s even a new study that suggests that rapid climate change can increase the number and severity of volcanic eruptions.

Factor 2: Density & Value

We are continuing to place more value (real & perceived) on our access to technology. Every day we move more of what we used to do with a car or our hands in to a technology solution.  Through the increased availability of technology we are finding even more ways to take advantage of it, effectively accelerating the growth of technology use.  This greater our emphasis on technology becomes, the more dependent on it we becomes. As this dependence grows, the importance of it being available to us goes up.

Factor 3: Infrastructure Demands Changing

There are many variables that affect how our IT infrastructure solutions are built and protected. In some cases the advent of cloud oriented solutions means you have greater protection from localized disasters (I.e., Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc). However, in other cases, legacy IT, enterprise IT, and Big Data there is likelihood that more protection in a given location will be necessary, not less.

Given the three factors above it would seem to point to the notion that how you build to protect your data center should get a higher priority, but even more importantly, where you build is critical.

Decision Process

As with any major IT or business decision a number of factors of opportunity and risk need to be weighed before you make a final choice. Each of the factors need to be considered; latency, sustainability, access to connectivity, power, water, and skilled staff, etc.  So, if you find yourself looking at several options whose costs are similar, but one has a better more survivable location, you know what you should pick. Why accept the risk that a tornado might remove the data centers roof or a flood might inundate your equipment, if you don’t need to?

Location, Location, Location…

I’ve written about site selection decisions before (Blog 1 & Blog 2), but never have I felt it so important to consider the disaster risk at the same level as I do now. With the recent hurricanes on the East Coast, and tornados hitting more often in more locations than ever, I don’t see how you can avoid the question of “Is this the safest place for me to entrust my companies IT jewels?”

Whether Human or Data Center, your ecosystem of support is critical

Dig deep into your list of requirements for where you company’s compute infrastructure should be placed, eliminate the requirements associated with latency, power, sustainability, political risk, etc. Then using the remaining options, pick the one that offers the best combination of price and protection, keeping in mind that protection is much more than a well-built facility.  However, that doesn’t mean that if you find a safe geographic location you can forget about things like roof penetrations, wood in the construction, poor operational habits, and other basic facility operations and design factors that are critical to service availability.

With all the concern I’ve voiced about weather and geography, the two most likely issues are fire (keep wood out) and people (have excellent operations habits and tools).