Insight and analysis on the data center space from industry thought leaders.

Data Centers, Don’t Get Caught by the Next Black Swan Event

Prioritizing protection of the power supply is an essential strategy in preparing for the next unpredictable disaster.

Donough Roche

October 22, 2020

5 Min Read
Data Centers, Don’t Get Caught by the Next Black Swan Event
Tom Lee/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

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Donough Roche is senior VP of engineering and client services at Stack Infrastructure

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fragility of the global economy. While industries like food service and retail are slowly digging out from under the rubble of the pandemic’s destruction, other staples of the modern digital world — global communications networks, healthcare and emergency services, and software applications — experienced something of a wake-up call about preparedness for future disasters.

The good news that emerged from this unprecedented moment is that the data centers which provide the underlying infrastructure powering those industries remained largely unaffected by the pandemic. Those facilities are relatively sparsely populated compared with traditional workplaces like offices, hospitals, and bars or restaurants. But what happens when data centers aren’t so lucky to be spared and are directly affected by other disasters like earthquakes, solar flares, or electromagnetic terrorist attacks that could impact the very foundation of a data center’s operations: power?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that data centers which prioritize protecting the power supply and transmission are best positioned to keep their facilities and businesses online during the next unpredictable disaster. Here are some ideas for accomplishing this.

Addressing the Power Struggle

Studies estimate that data centers use up to 50 times the energy per floor space as commercial office buildings and collectively account for about 1 percent of the world’s total energy consumption. Power is the foundation of everything a data center is and does.

Yet, despite extensive efforts to protect the power supply against normal-scale interruptions — hordes of standby generators, networks of diesel and backup fuel delivery services, and other well-established contingency plans — a generational catastrophe can overwhelm those measures, severely impact a data center’s ability to operate, and in more severe cases jeopardize its viability as an asset altogether.

Most data center business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR) strategies are designed around having geographically disparate facilities to minimize the impact of one center going offline for minutes or longer. However, those plans still operate on the premise that the public power grid and roads/ports/fuel-delivery networks will still be intact following a catastrophic event — a potentially dangerous assumption about unforeseeable threats.

Instead, BC/DR plans should incorporate strategies for diversifying both the sources and the distribution of power to eliminate reliance on public grids and hedge against the greatest threat to a data center’s operations.

Mix and Match for Greater Resilience and Reliability

One of the more promising though least developed approaches to preparing for the next big event is investing in microgrids to shrink the power footprint and improve resilience. Microgrids are self-sufficient energy systems that serve discrete, small-scale geographic areas around college campuses, hospitals, corporate parks, and even data center campuses.

Microgrids can help eliminate reliance on a single utility provider and enable on-site power production from a variety of energy sources, the excess of which can be sold back to the public grid to offset some costs and help reduce the energy load. While microgrids slowly gain mainstream adoption as power fail-safes, they can take years to build and won’t provide protection against disasters in the interim.

Meanwhile, diversifying power sources is an actionable preventative step data center and business leaders can take right now. This approach provides data center operators the flexibility and agility to stabilize their power supplies, irrespective of what’s happening beyond the building’s four walls. Ideally, the multi-source energy mix would consist of:

Renewable energy

Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric are generally resilient and reliable sources of power, particularly when integrated into microgrids. By 2025, surveys estimate that solar and wind combined will deliver up to 15 percent of data centers’ power in the US, driven in part by Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) intended to accelerate new development of grid-scale renewable energy sources.

Energy storage

In addition to renewable energy, large-scale energy storage is an essential element to data centers’ surviving a cataclysmic event. Fuel cell technologies that use hydrogen or natural gas as a fuel source can be used as a means of delivering power on-demand, separately from the electrical utility grid in case of an interruption.

At the same time, lithium ion batteries (li-ion) hold the key to unlocking intermittent sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar, as the batteries provide stored energy to run things when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. Li-ion batteries are significantly lighter, faster, and longer-lasting than conventional VRLA batteries, making them an ideal option for data centers looking to deliver more reliable, efficient, and consistent power in a smaller footprint.

Traditional public grid

Despite its potential vulnerabilities in a Black Swan event, the public power grid is still the most easily accessible, affordable, and scalable power solution available for data center operators. Efforts are underway to significantly enhance the public grid’s resilience on a national scale.

The Data Center’s Role in Protecting Against the Next Big Event

The data center is the heart and soul of digitally transformed industries and organizations and will continue playing a pivotal role in protecting enterprises and governments against future Black Swan events. Business leaders looking to bolster their disaster recovery strategies should also re-evaluate which data center providers they partner with to house their core operations.

It’s imperative that they choose a data center provider with locations in strategically advantageous markets that enable failover redundancy across geographically diverse locations or zones and that are close to diverse power supply options.

They should consider data center partners with available powered shell inventory and some flexibility for integrating various fuel sources provided by the data center’s third-party partners who can provide and install batteries, fuel cells, and other sources of power.

The COVID-19 pandemic has awakened many IT and business leaders to the possibility of future widespread events that could significantly impact their operations while also appreciating the enormous benefits of being able to swiftly leverage robust IT infrastructures to continue operating during an unprecedented event. Despite dodging a proverbial bullet this time, data centers at the heart of those businesses need to shore up fundamental services like power to keep the world up and running no matter what’s happening outside the walls, because next time they might not be so lucky.

Opinions expressed in the article above do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Data Center Knowledge and Informa.

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