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Data Center Operators Invest In Facilities To Withstand Floods, Earthquakes, Tornadoes And Fires

As hurricane season fast approaches, data center operators all over the country are prepping their facilities for the unknown — hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and fire.

With data center usage on the rise, the protection and safety of customer information, company data and server uptime — which is the amount of time servers remain online and running — is of utmost importance. Like most property owners in high flood-risk or earthquake-prone areas, data center operators are investing time and money to ensure their facilities can withstand natural disasters of any kind without server interruption and asset damage.

Location, Location, Location


Creating a fortress against the elements begins long before a data center exists — with regional selection. Though areas with low disaster risk are often most attractive, some operators may choose to be located in storm-prone areas for client proximity.

Senior Director of Solutions Architecture Steven Dreher said Cheyenne, Wyoming, for example, is an ideal in-between location for operators who wish to minimize risk against hurricanes or earthquakes.

“It’s really outside of tornado alley, as it’s traditionally known, but we still have 14-inch thick concrete walls and essentially an armored roof to be able to preserve that particular facility,” he said.

Skybox Datacenters Vice President of Leasing and Marketing Gordon Kellerman said within a selected region, a data center facility should not be located near too many overhead power lines, for example, or near railroads, or in a 100- or 500-year flood plain. In fact, building on flood plains has been a top concern for Houston City Council members in the aftermath of Harvey; they approved new building regulations in April to make a 500-year flood plain the minimum standard for new home construction.

Building Design

Skybox Datacenters in Katy, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey

The design of the physical building itself is of great importance, Kellerman said. To combat issues with wind or cloud cover, cell towers, satellite and power delivery to the data center are often located underground. Skybox, for example, uses concrete-encased duct banks, eliminating the likelihood of a power shortage or interruption in the event of a storm.

“It’s not being affected by flood or cloud coverage, or limbs hitting cell towers,” Kellerman said. 

Entries and exits are designed to accommodate emergency workers and personnel who may be on-site during a natural disaster. Generators with several days of run time are often on-site, and data centers often have contracts in place with gas companies to keep generators topped off.

These extra measures have at times made data centers an ideal location for refuge during major storms, as was the case for Kellerman during Hurricane Harvey. He spent several days sheltered inside the company's facility in Katy, Texas (a suburb of Houston), during last year’s storm.

It would turn out to be a four-day adventure with bunk beds, U.S. marshals as roommates, plenty of power bars — and brisket. One of Skybox’s clients is a utility company with 4,500 SF of office and disaster recovery space inside of the data center, including 45 bunk beds and 55 hot desks. During the storm, the utility company decided to stay at their downtown location, so they didn’t need the space, freeing it up for Kellerman’s team.

Skybox also has showers on-site at its facility, which is LEED Gold certified.

Multiple Locations, Multiple Solutions

Data center users often have more than one physical location, with interconnectivity between sites. If a storm somehow manages to break through the fail-safes, other locations can maintain uptime during a crisis.

Skybox has data centers in both Houston and Dallas.

“If you have a data center in an earthquake-prone area, you may look at a Dallas or Phoenix as your disaster-recovery area because those two environments are typically void of these large natural hazards that may affect a Santa Clara or San Francisco,” Kellerman said.

Greenhouse has facilities in nine locations across the country. “The best strategies I would recommend when pursuing anything with disaster recovery with a facility is to not have all of your eggs in one basket,” Dreher said. “It’s important to recognize the risk and to diversify that risk using multiple facilities.”

 Earthquake fault lines


Charlotte, North Carolina-based Flexential has 41 centers in 21 markets across North America. Chief Product Officer Mike Fuhrman recently visited Salt Lake City, where one of their locations is along a fault line.

“The local team gave me a tour and it was fascinating because we went down below the raised floor to the earth,” he said.

The facility is built on two-foot-tall bushings that resemble large rubber disks, Fuhrman said. These massive shock absorbers are between the earth and the building, designed so the building can move up to three feet in any direction during an earthquake without any harm being done.

 “That’s a perfect example of a very specific thing our data center operator will design and build into their facility over and above the standard.”

When Flexential’s prospective Salt Lake customers come through for a tour, Fuhrman said they are impressed with that feature.

“It’s a huge comfort factor that we’ve taken great care to customize design for that potential risk,” Fuhrman said.

Relief Teams

Being located in so many different markets gives Flexential the ability to maneuver quickly during a crisis. Because they operate data centers in areas of potential natural disaster, they employ a "Go Team," made up of facility engineering, customer support and customer operations employees who will fly and drive into an environment under threat to relieve local engineering and operations staff so they can tend to their families.

“When it’s the worst of times for your customer, and they know that you’re there to do whatever you can to help them, that goes such a long way to building a really solid impressive relationship,” Fuhrman said.

Learn more about data center design and investment strategies at Bisnow's Data Center Investment Conference Expo East on May 31.