In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, data center operators around the world are reducing foot traffic to their facilities and postponing non-critical maintenance and construction projects.
As more people work remotely using digital communication tools and consume online entertainment while way from school or the office, demand on the global network and data center infrastructure is greater than ever – and so is the importance of ensuring this infrastructure doesn’t fail.
But data center operators themselves face many of the same challenges as other organizations. They want to keep their staff and customers safe, slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, comply with local restrictions, and, in some areas, manage disruptions caused by local quarantines, lockdowns, or restrictions on public transit.
Digital Realty Trust is the world’s second-largest data center operator by revenue, with more than 260 data centers in 44 metropolitan areas across 20 countries. As of Tuesday, no Digital Realty employees have tested positive for the virus and all its data centers are fully operational, said Gary Smith, the company's VP of portfolio security.
"We operate facilities in locations across the globe, many of which are in locations impacted by COVID-19," he told DCK.
Before this week, the company had already canceled all non-essential business travel. Now, it has recommended that all employees who don't work in critical data center roles telecommute from home.
Digital has also implemented sanitary measures and conducted specialized training to address the pandemic, he said. "All sites have implemented targeted disinfection of all high-traffic, high-touch areas," Smith said.
Customers, partners, and employees are screened before entering data centers to ensure that they haven't recently traveled to impacted areas or exhibit symptoms.
Digital Realty’s data center staff in Singapore and Hong Kong have also been taking people’s temperature, he said.
The company was prepared for the pandemic, Smith said. Pandemics are specifically addressed in its global business continuity plans.
It’s been prepared to deal with issues that typically arise during such events, including personnel, vendor, and supply shortages. The plan is updated regularly and has been tested both through simulations and in real-world events, such as hurricanes Harvey and Sandy.
The company is prepared if things get worse as well, he said. "Our data centers are equipped to have staff shelter in place for up to 72 hours if necessary.”
That includes food and water, sanitary facilities, and sleeping arrangements, fuel for emergency generators, and spare parts needed for data center operations.
Late on Tuesday, Digital Realty added more restrictions.
"All planned preventative maintenance activity requiring vendors onsite will be postponed for approximately 30 days – until April 15th," Danny Lane, the company’s senior VP of global operations, said.
Critical repairs will continue, he said, "and our onsite engineering personnel will continue daily rounds, routine infrastructure maintenance, and inspections."
Carrier Hotels Reduce Onsite Staff
Smaller data center operators are also taking steps to protect employees and customers.
"We started taking steps at the beginning of last week to ask personnel to drive to work and not take public transportation," Jeff Flanagan, executive VP at Markley Group, which operates the massive One Summer Street carrier hotel and colocation data center in Boston, told DCK.
The building is New England’s primary telecommunications hub, according to the company.
As of Monday, the operator has sent everyone except essential personnel to work from home. That leaves about 50 people working onsite compared to 125 working remotely, Flanagan said.
"We have also postponed non-essential construction as well as non-essential maintenance," he said.
Markley staff who are working in the offices have been told to keep six feet apart from each other and to reduce the time they spend in other offices in the building.
"We've also brought in additional cleaners," Flanagan said. "All the surfaces are being wiped down multiple times, and we have hand sanitizers near the door readers. We also have some masks, though we haven't needed to use them at this point."
The data center also increased the amount of air coming in from outside the building, he said.
Customer Foot Traffic Down
Customers are still allowed to visit the data center, but foot traffic has gone down, and some tenants have postponed move-ins, Flanagan said.
Customers would typically come to the data center to install or change equipment or correct problems. Now, they're asking Markley staffers to do some of those tasks for them.
Flanagan said the company has also requested that employees take some safety measures when working at home.
"Don't go out doing things you don't need to do," he said. "Be socially responsible. Hopefully, it will help everyone get past this."
Likewise, only non-essential staff are working onsite at DataGryd’s iconic 60 Hudson Street carrier hotel and colocation facility in New York City, the company’s president and CEO Tom Brown, told us. Instead of getting physical tours, customers now tour the data center virtually.
But the facilities are fully operational, he said. "Across the globe, it’s clear that data centers, and the companies that rely on them, can’t afford to go dark – even during a pandemic disruption."
In fact, because of COVID-19, data centers are more critical than ever as businesses go virtual, he said.
In nearby Boston, a smaller early hotspot of the epidemic, had 33 confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19 as of Monday. Schools are closed, public transport has been reduced, and the state has issued an emergency order prohibiting gatherings of more than 25 people.
“Facing the Unknown”
Other cities have also been seeing spikes in COVID-19 infections.
On Tuesday, for example, Dallas had 28 confirmed cases. That's where Flexential has one of its data centers. It also operates normally high-foot-traffic data centers in Denver, Portland, Atlanta, and Charlotte – areas of the country which have also seen cases.
As of Tuesday, no staff have been affected by the virus, Flexential CEO Chris Downie told us.
"Our Portland and Philadelphia centers have been the most impacted by restrictions implemented to prevent community transference," he said.
Fortunately, the company's data centers require minimal staff to operate, he said, and while customers may need occasional access to equipment for maintenance and changes, Flexential can handle these tasks with managed service offerings and videoconferencing.
The data centers continue to operate as normal, Downie said, because customers are relying on them to stay in business.
"However, with safety and security in mind, we have implemented certain changes," he said.
“With safety and security in mind,” the company has implemented some changes, such as asking non-essential staff to work from home, restricting travel, more cleaning at each facility, and stocks of cleansing wipes and hand sanitizer for visitors and employees.
Flexential also has a disaster plan ready to go, including procedures for things like lockdowns of mission-critical facilities and support for staff to shelter in place to support operations.
“We expect we will implement these plans as a result of orders from government agencies or the onset of local infection among our customers or our local workforce," Downie said. "Candidly, we’d prefer these plans to remain a contingency.”
"The greatest challenge we as a business community are facing is the unknown," he said. "The scope and duration of this unprecedented pandemic is still primarily something we are watching evolve on a daily – or even hourly – basis.”
Access Control, Cheaper Remote Hands, Visitor Screening
On the other side of the planet, Australia's Macquarie Data Centres has invoked business continuity plans and implemented a work-from-home policy this week for all employees who are able to work remotely.
"We're still open for business," James Veness, the company's VP of sales, said. "What we're really restricting is non-critical people at the sites themselves."
Customers are still allowed to visit, he told DCK, but they need to go through a security check, are only allowed to visit in small groups, and need to maintain distance.
David Duane, senior director of global product management for colocation at Sungard Availability Services, suggested that data center operators should also ask visitors about recent travel, potential contact with infected persons, and symptoms.
But in general, he said, data centers should restrict access to customers, vendors, or other third parties if those visits aren't urgent or critical. "These visits can often be replaced with video conferences or other collaboration tools."
Data center operators are also stepping up to help their customers adapt to the new environment.
ServerFarm, for example, is lowering the rates for its remote assistance services, CEO Avner Papouchado wrote in a letter to customers Tuesday.
Like other data center companies, ServerFarm has suspended non-essential business travel and taken other steps to reduce the possibility of transmitting the virus.
"All our employees are working with each other, our customers, and our partners through digital means," Papouchado wrote.
ServerFarm has added a page to its website to explain its COVID-19 preparations.
CyrusOne, another major global data center operator, has done the same.
Like other operators, CyrusOne is restricting travel, letting non-essential staff work from home, screening visitors, and frequently cleaning and sterilizing its facilities.
"As conditions warrant, CyrusOne is prepared to increase access restrictions to include only allowing access to CyrusOne-designated mission critical personnel," the company said.
For data center operators and other critical infrastructure providers still developing their COVID-19 response plans – or ones that want to double-check to make sure they're covering all their bases – the Uptime Institute has released a comprehensive guide.
Top recommendations include:
- Consider postponing or cancelling all in-person meetings, tours or nonessential on-site events.
- Consider postponing or cancelling projects or activities that may increase the risk of infection, cause cash flow exposure or put strain on suppliers, partners or staff.
- Limit travel, including international and domestic travel, as well as travel between sites.
- Segregate teams, stagger shifts, isolate workspaces, and take other steps to reduce contact between employees.
- Postpone all nonessential maintenance and major projects where possible.
- Limit access to critical facilities, and conduct screening at security checkpoints.
- Inform customers of the technologies available that allow them to manage workloads remotely
- Consider offering free or discounted rates on remote technologies to encourage use.
- Consider closing all fitness centers and cafeterias in facilities.
- Test all virtual private network connections to ensure reliable access, then consider instructing all staff noncritical to data center operations to work from home.
- Ensure VPN access to building management systems for remote data center monitoring and ensure access to standard and emergency operation procedures to allow for remote co-piloting if needed.
- Anticipate supply chain disruptions. In addition to resources core to business functionality, procure an appropriate supply level of products that reduce the spread of infectious agents such as disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and non-contact thermometers — as well food, basic hygiene and medical supplies.
- Intensify housekeeping measures. Conduct multiple rounds of cleaning daily, especially of heavy-contact surfaces.
- Place hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes throughout the facility, as well as signs to remind staff and visitors to use them frequently.
- Place signs in bathrooms reminding staff to wash hands often, using proper techniques and post signs through the facility reminding staff to carry tissues and sneeze and cough into those tissues.
- Identify specialty cleaning vendors for both precautionary cleaning and for situations where a COVID-19 case is confirmed on premises.
- Any staff member displaying symptoms or who has been in contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases should be instructed to self-isolate and telecommute for the next 14 days.
- If equipment must be shared, such as phones, radios, and keyboards, sanitize at the start of each shift.
- Maintain communication with staff, customers, and partners about current responses, about the current status of the pandemic and about how to respond if symptoms occur.