Data Centers Are Surviving Hurricanes. But Are They Ready For Stormier Days Ahead?
Data centers are proving they can survive natural disasters without downtime. But are they prepared to meet the challenges created by a changing climate and a changing industry?
Data centers are one of the few digital infrastructure assets to have fared well during recent natural disasters, from Hurricane Ida earlier this month to the winter storms and paralyzing blackouts throughout Texas last winter.
Data center operators are becoming increasingly sophisticated when it comes to navigating these events and resulting failures of critical infrastructure. Yet as digital transformation necessitates building data centers in more vulnerable locations and climate change makes severe weather events more frequent, experts say that more proactive investment is needed to shore up infrastructure outside the data center walls.
“It’s not just the damage that is realized to the communications infrastructure itself, it’s also the damage to power and power delivery infrastructure,” said Paul Barford, a computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin who has written extensively on the resiliency of telecommunications infrastructure.
“The internet is a very complex system in terms of its physical deployment, and data centers are just one part of that physical deployment, so the combination of critical infrastructures that are at risk needs to be considered in a holistic fashion.”
Hurricane Ida barreled into Louisiana’s Gulf Coast in late August, battering the region with 150 mph winds, torrential rains and a massive storm surge that flooded coastal areas. The storm led to 29 deaths and left hundreds of thousands without power. More than three weeks after the storm, some parts of the state are still waiting for electricity to be restored.
But for the few data center operators with facilities throughout southern Louisiana, their performance during and after the storm has been seen as a success. Despite days-long blackouts and flooding in surrounding areas, none of the enterprise data centers in the region experienced a second of downtime.
“Ida takes the cake for us having to run our generators for the most time,” said Williams Sellers, an engineer with Louisiana-based colocation provider Venyu. “We went five days on only generator power, without utility power, and we just kept chugging along.”
Operations staff at Venyu and other local providers say their data centers are testaments to the progress that has been made in keeping data centers fully operational even amid significant weather events and disruptions to power and internet connectivity.
Beyond redundancies for power and fiber and the backup generators that exist in almost every data center, they say lessons learned from managing previous storms have helped develop more sophisticated approaches to disaster planning and management.
These lessons include everything from knowing which access routes to their facilities are unlikely to be blocked by debris and which vendors can be relied on in times of crisis to knowing how much food needs to be purchased in advance to support operations staff that may have to be on-site for days at a time.
But despite the data center industry’s recent track record for resiliency, preventing downtime during disasters is only going to get more challenging, experts say. A growing need for data processing and storage, particularly near end users, means that more data centers are being built in areas prone to natural disasters, from hurricanes and tornados to wildfires. At the same time, climate change is making these events more frequent and increasingly severe.
There is growing consensus across the data center industry that companies urgently need to develop preparedness plans for these new threats, especially with growing markets in vulnerable areas like Miami and the New York metro area. This can be a particular challenge for companies with little prior experience dealing with certain disaster scenarios.
EdgeConnex has a number of data centers in hurricane-prone areas, but only recently encountered the threat of wildfires at a data center site in Northern California, according to Vice President of Operations David Foss. He says that the company didn’t expect the supply line disruptions that resulted from the most recent spate of wildfires. As a result, EdgeConneX is running a simulated wildfire disaster response in the coming months to try to build the needed experience to manage the growing risk.
“We’ve always had a plan for fire protection and evacuations, but this is new,” Foss said. “We’ll do things like stockpile more spares that we may not be able to get through delivery and look at where the fuel depots are that we’ll need to rely on.”
But many experts say that no matter how resilient data centers are, avoiding downtime in the face of these future threats will only come from significant improvements to infrastructure outside the data center walls.
Recent studies have shown that the U.S.’ power, fiber and other telecommunications infrastructure is enormously vulnerable to weather events and other disasters, and that without improvements there will be more events like the blackouts that swept across California and Texas earlier this year.
Data centers may have fared well during these events so far, but conversations with industry insiders reveal that often this track record has been the result of a fair amount of luck.
EdgeConneX kept its data center in Slidell, Louisiana, online through Hurricane Ida, but it was far from a seamless experience, according to Foss. The company lost all feeds monitoring the remotely operated facility and was unable to contact any of its personal in the area for 12 hours due to damage to the region’s cellular network. While the servers continued to operate as planned, operations staff were flying blind with no way to respond to any potential problem.
“We were going to send somebody out there, but the roads were pretty badly clogged so we couldn’t do that,” Foss said. “Our tech had to drive to Mississippi to get cell service to call us and say everything was good.”
It’s only a matter of time before failing power or fiber infrastructure leads to a significant outage, experts say, particularly as severe weather events become more common.
Paul Barford says data center providers and others in the telecommunication industry are going to have to make a significant upfront investment toward shoring up this infrastructure. This includes everything from clearing brush around power lines in fire areas to rerouting underground optical fiber cables in areas that may soon be underwater due to sea-level rise.
“When it comes to deploying and managing infrastructure going forward, these kinds of things need to be considered. There are costs that will be associated with it, but those just have to be borne so we can continue to enjoy the level of connectivity and capability we want in the internet,” Barford said. “An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure is an old saying, but I think people need to remember that.”