How Japan's Data Centers Manage Earthquakes

How do data centers manage earthquake risk in Japan? Nearly 1,000 Japanese companies use seismic isolation technology from WorkSafe Technologies to protect their equipment. Here's an overview of how it works.

Today's magnitude 8.9 earthquake has caused widespread damage and triggered tsunamis. There are early reports of some interruptions of telecommunications services, but it appears many of Japan's data centers remain operational. We'll continue to monitor reports out of Japan.

How do data centers manage earthquake risk in a place like Japan, where earthquakes are an ongoing risk? Nearly 1,000 Japanese companies use technology from WorkSafe Technologies to protect their equipment. The Valencia, Calif. company's ISO-BASE earthquake mitigation products allow racks and cabinets to ride out even major quakes with minimal vibrations.

ISO-BASE has compiled a strong track record in protecting equipment at Japanese data centers through more than 10 significant earthquakes over the past decade. The product uses a patented Ball-N-Cone seismic isolation system consisting of two load plates with cone-shaped recesses sandwiched over a steel ball bearing. The design allows the platform to roll smoothly and evenly through earthquakes. The technology typically costs start at $1,700 per cabinet to install, according to Work-Safe.

The seismic isolation system allows full racks of serves to shift by as much as eight inches without damage. The key question in today's quake is whether the magnitude caused movement that exceeded that threshhold.

Dylan Mason of WorkSafe provided a demonstration of his company's technology in a data center in Washington state during this 2 minute video from TechFlash:

In many regions, the standard approach to earthquake mitigation is to bolt the equipment to the floor. WorkSafe says that this "rigid bolting" keeps the equipment in place, but can result in vibration that can damage racks and equipment.

An example of building-level earthquake mitigation is provided by Digital Realty Trust's 365 Main data center in San Francisco, which installed a base isolation system in its flagship data center in San Francisco when the facility was retrofitted to house mission-critical systems.

The 365 Main building is built atop bedrock, and each of the 98 columns supporting the building are equipped with a special joint known as a “friction pendulum” consisting of a plate and rubber bearings that absorbs the shock created by seismic movements. In an earthquake, this will allow the entire building to effectively float above the shifting ground beneath it. The piping, cabling and utility connections join the building above the isolation joints to protect their integrity in the event of an earthquake. (See this video for an overview of a similar system).

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