Much of the Internet is currently running on diesel fuel and priority service contracts. Emergency backup generators powered by diesel are helping many East Coast data center providers weather Superstorm Sandy. The importance of diesel in the post-Sandy economy is hard to overstate. In the wake of Sandy, diesel is the lifeblood of lower Manhattan, where generators are currently providing virtually all the area’s electricity.
Data centers often tout their ability to operate for days, if not weeks, on diesel reserves stored on site in case of disaster. There are two potential problems that can arise when a data center relies on diesel generation to get it through a disaster. The first is running out of diesel fuel. While data centers are preferred customers and have contracts in place, there are others ahead in the line such as hospitals and water plants during disasters. There’s also the challenge of fuel contamination, which is closely tied to maintenance practices.
Issues and Complications
First, let’s start with a high-level primer on diesel generators. Data centers spend millions of dollar on their emergency power so they may continue to run during events like Sandy. Should power go out, first a UPS kicks in while the powerhouse of emergency power, the diesel generators, get warmed up. A diesel generator is a combination of diesel engine and electrical generator, and is used in lieu of the power grid during a utility failure. Once the generators are running, a data center is still not totally in the clear. Issues and complications can arise when switching back and forth to emergency power, as well as while the generators are running.
As we’re seeing with Sandy, an extended outage may result in some sites burning through their initial reserves. That’s what happened to Internap, for instance, which ran out of diesel at 75 Broad and had to seek out a refueling arrangement and workaround. Flooding submerged and destroyed the building’s diesel pumps, further complicating the problem. Peer 1 Hosting, on the other hand, reported that its diesel was lasting longer than expected and has extended its generator life by using a human bucket brigade in place of fuel pumps.
The switch over to generators isn’t always smooth, as issues can arise during and after the switchover, as illustrated by a series of outages in 2010 in which automatic trasnfer switches failed to handle the transition properly. However, most data centers seamlessly switched over during this storm.
Supply and Demand
During extended disasters, the supply of diesel can be strained. Although data centers support many critical communications services, they aren’t alone in needing priority access to fuel. NYU Langone Medical Center’s backup generator failed, forcing a mass evacuation of patients. So there are higher priorities, and in a serious situation like this one, there is a chance that immediate supply might run low, straining even those with preferred contract. Reuters recently noted that low stocks of some diesel distillates have affected pricing this fall.
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