Earthquakes and Data Centers

What happens inside the data center during an earthquake? Here's a look at several different approaches to earthquake remediation at the rack level and the building level.

Rich Miller

April 5, 2010

2 Min Read
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Yesterday's magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Baja California was felt in large portions of Southern California. It rattled nerves and shook up some equipment as well.

"Our data center had servers rolling back and forth on earthquake gliders," reported Jake Duncan, manager at ProtectRite of Encinitas, Calif. (a San Diego suburb) on his Twitter stream. "It was intense ... All employees working today ran to parking lot. Pictures toppled on desks and server safety systems engaged."

Earthquake gliders? Many data centers use seismic isolation technology to protect racks and servers in the event of a major earthquake. Last year Dylan Mason of WorkSafe provided a demonstration of his company's ISO-Base platforms, which sit under the data center racks and allow them to shift independently of the building during an earthquake, reducing damage. This 2 minute video from TechFlash provides an example of how these systems work:

WorkSafe has provided seismic isolation systems at data centers operated by Boeing and local governments in the Pacific Northwest, as well as many facilities in Japan.

These gliders provide solutions for server rooms. But what about entire data centers? An example of building-level earthquake mitigation is provided by 365 Main, 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).

A key question in the early days of data center containers was the question of how the enclosures would fare in harsh conditions and natural disasters. To address these concerns, Sun Microsystems tested its Sun MD (Blackbox) container on a shake table at University of California, San Diego. Sun subsequently donated a Sun MD container to the China National Disaster Reduction Center (CNDRC) to develop an early warning system for earthquakes, hoping to minimize the impact of temblors like the one that devastated Sinchuan province in 2008.

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