Can Space Weather Kill the Cloud?

This data center operator believes it’s possible, and they’re doing something about it

Yevgeniy Sverdlik

August 19, 2016

5 Min Read
Can Space Weather Kill the Cloud?
IN SPACE – MARCH 6: In this handout from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a X5.4 solar flare, the largest in five years, erupts from the Sun’s surface March 6, 2012. According to reports, particles from the flare could reach the Earth, possibly disrupting technology such as GPS system, satellite networks and aircraft flights. (Photo by NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory via Getty Images)

Last year, when he learned about the ability of a strong electromagnetic pulse from the sky to do real damage to electrical infrastructure, Rich Banta stopped what was then an early-stage data center project his company was doing. The design was complete, and construction was about to commence.

But Banta now wanted to redesign the facility to protect it from an EMP (in the jargon of the electromagnetic pulse community), caused by space weather or human wrongdoers. The new design added about 60 percent to the project’s cost and extended its timeline by about 12 months. “Not a game,” he says.

Danger from Above

The EMP community isn’t large, but it consists of scientists, government workers, elected officials, and private-sector people who are concerned that a geomagnetic storm like the one in 1921 could badly damage the nation’s infrastructure if it was to happen today. To put it in perspective, that storm was ten times stronger than the 1989 geomagnetic storm that left 6 million people in Quebec without power.

We depend a lot more on electricity than we did in 1921 of course, and all the key layers of social infrastructure are more interconnected today than ever. In a NASA-funded study, a group of researchers predicted that currents from a storm of similar magnitude could take out power systems in their entirety throughout the Pacific Northwest, nearly all of East Coast, and much of the Midwest. The blackouts would quickly interrupt water distribution, destroy any supplies of perishable foods and medications, heating and air conditioning, sewage disposal, fuel re-supply, etc.

“The concept of interdependency is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power – and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site,” they wrote.

Another big thing we increasingly depend on would probably go down too: the Cloud. Some of the biggest clusters of Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and Google data centers are located within the two “areas of probable power system collapse” described by the researchers:


You can spend a lot of time arguing whether those cloud data centers should be considered critical infrastructure, but even if you don’t think they should, data centers that support emergency services, hospitals, utilities, defense facilities, and big financial institutions are undeniably critical.

Want to learn more about the potential EMP threat to the data center industry and the latest US legislative efforts to address it? Go deep into this issue with Banta and a panel of experts, including Texas Senator Bob Hall, at the Data Center World conference in September in New Orleans.

Register for Data Center World today!

Besides EMP caused by space weather, when solar wind or a coronal mass ejection from the Sun reaches and disturbs the Earth’s magnetosphere, it is now possible for an unfriendly nation state to implement a targeted EMP attack on one or more pieces of critical infrastructure. While there are no documented cases of such attacks, they are technologically possible. Some argue, however, that a cyberattack is a much easier way for a country to disrupt an enemy’s infrastructure, therefore an EMP attack is unlikely.

Lifeline Not Taking Chances with EMP

It is nearly impossible to retrofit an existing facility to protect it from EMP, Banta says, so Lifeline Data Centers, a company he co-founded, is building a data center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that will be protected from the ground up.

There are two main design features that provide the protection: the entire building, as well as its backup generators and HVAC systems, will be encased in metal, and incoming power lines will have specialized filters, designed specifically to withstand the kind of rapid power surge that an EMP may produce.

Lifeline specializes in data center services for customers with high security and compliance requirements, such as federal agencies and medical institutions, which helps explain the willingness to spend extra on protecting the new facility from an EMP. “Our niche markets are people with extremely high cost of downtime,” Banta says.

Will Government Take EMP Threat More Seriously?

Banta collaborates regularly with a group of people who lobby the federal government to do more to protect the US national electrical grid from EMP. A Senate bill introduced last year, called the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, may be a beginning.

It addresses the EMP threat but does it in a way Banta feels is too vague. A bill to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002, it simply notes that EMP is something that needs to be researched further.

A Senate committee recommended that the bill (S. 1846) be considered further by the full chamber about one year ago, and there has been no legislative action on it since. Banta hopes some more specific EMP language gets included as it makes its way through the lawmaking process.

He has met few moderates on the question of whether EMP is a serious threat – people in government are either involved in pushing the issue forward or completely apathetic, he says. He’s not holding his breath for a lot of enthusiastic support in the government at this point, so his mission today is simply to inform.

“They think we’re running around with foil wrapped around our heads,” he says about the apathetic types. “That’s not the case. We’re not tin-foil [hat] type of guys; we’re pretty pragmatic.”

Want to learn more about the potential EMP threat to the data center industry and the latest US legislative efforts to address it? Go deep into this issue with Banta and a panel of experts, including Texas Senator Bob Hall, at the Data Center World conference in September in New Orleans.

Register for Data Center World today!

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