UK Data Centers Plead for Critical Status for Contractors as Coronavirus Takes Hold

British government has designated data center operators as critical but not their heavily relied upon third-party contractors.

Mark Ballard

March 27, 2020

6 Min Read
Global Switch 2 data center in London's Canary Wharf (2009)
Global Switch 2 data center in London's Canary Wharf (2009)Dafydd Owen/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

The data center industry has been lobbying the British government to give formal clearance to contractors maintaining the digital infrastructure that is keeping the economy running as the lockdown steadily intensifies in defense against the coronavirus.

Britain's liberal response to the crisis, instead of banning all but a few key workers from going to work, permitted all but exceptional retail, service, and leisure industries to operate. It left ancillary industries to use their common sense in carrying out the government's advice that people should work from home unless they had no choice.

But as British police on Thursday received powers (from a reportedly ruthless home secretary) to arrest people for travelling without good reason, and as Britain's own liberal-leaning prime minister Boris Johnson went into isolation after contracting the virus, fear has grown in the industry running the internet infrastructure that its workers will be penalized if they aren't given official papers with a government stamp of approval.

Government formally recognized data center staff as key workers last week for their part in the critical national infrastructure. But it omitted their countless subcontractors. Both operators and subcontractors, working through the industry body techUK, have pressed for formal recognition of subcontractors as well, so they can assume the privilege given to other key workers to keep their children in schools closed to all others while they go out to work.

techUK meanwhile published a back-of-the-envelope risk analysis on Tuesday which said there was a high risk that tightening restrictions on construction workers would put a halt to ongoing building work necessary for the industry to keep up with rising demand for internet services in the coming years. It might undermine the resilience of the national infrastructure in the future, the note said.

Blanket Critical National Infrastructure Designation Unwelcome

The government told techUK that it was considering making the data center industry a formal part of Critical National Infrastructure temporarily in anticipation of putting even tighter restrictions on people's movement.

But Emma Fryer, associate director for data centers at techUK, told DCK that the industry didn't want a blanket CNI designation, because it would mean the costly imposition of strict security controls on many facilities that didn't warrant them when there wasn't a national emergency.

"It’s not necessarily helpful to have all data centers automatically classified as Critical National Infrastructure," she said.

Third-Party Contractors are Critical for Data Centers

Industry had unsuccessfully sought worker designation for contractors during the "fervent lobbying" that resulted in getting the approval for operators’ own staff last week, Fryer said. The government listened and set up a dedicated data center team. But operators were worried that when the country went into lockdown, they would not be permitted to keep staff on the road.

"In digital infrastructure, the business models rely a lot on outsourcing,” she said. “In other industries you might say the payroll is a good indicator of who is critical staff. But in data centers you might have third-party people coming to do service and maintenance and other things. Its important government realize that is the nature of the sector.”

Cleaning Contractors More Critical Than Ever

Mike Meyer, managing director of Critical Facilities Solutions, which cleans data centers of fine air particles to protect sensitive computer equipment from malfunctioning, said the company has begun cleaning them with antivirus disinfectant as well to protect staff. Data center operators, Meyer’s customers, were trying to protect technicians from spreading the virus at work.

But some cleaning staff were staying home because they couldn't put their kids in school, and disinfectant suppliers were reserving supplies for hospitals and not for the data centers that carried the data hospitals needed to run.

"We want to be formally recognized because we have staff who need to work, and they want that piece of paper that allows them to put their kids in school. They are worried about being stopped and fined," he said.

Some data center operators have given contract staff letters to carry that say they are working on data infrastructure. This helped. Operators were lobbying government for formal documentation and telling contractors to keep working.

ABM Industries, a $6.5 billion janitorial services firm that cleans data centers for Google, Apple, and Facebook, warned shareholders Thursday that it would max out an $800 million loan to keep working through the crisis. The US Department of Homeland Security has included its work and other types of work data infrastructure subcontractors do on a list of "essential services" permitted to keep working in the US. ABM refused to talk about it.

Another executive at a high-tech cleaning contractor said 50 percent of its staff had refused to work because they had to stay home to look after their children.

Standing by Customers Despite Government

Peter Sands, managing director at Infiniti, a facilities management firm that services 35 data centers it built across Europe for customers including chip designer Arm Holdings and the North West England Ambulance Service, said he had postponed essential but routine, quarterly maintenance visits for a month.

"We look after some data centers for the National Health Service,” he told us. “If there was an issue, we would go there, regardless of what the government tells us. Our contractor is prepared to travel up there if required, even though the government may have not put them on the required list. We don't need the government to tell us what job we do for our customers.”

Infinitive does regular maintenance of data center cooling, power, fire, and security systems, so the facilities are not very likely to break down anyway, Sands said, claiming the company normally gets two or three breakdown call-outs every three months, most of them caused by onsite operators’ human error.

techUK's risk analysis, by IBM data center and facilities leader Tim Martin, said such breakdowns would be less likely if data centers were running skeleton staff to protect against the virus.

Another facilities management contractor, who asked not to be named, said the company relies in turn on other subcontractors who have insisted that their staff not come to work until the crisis is over.

Martin Murphy, chief operating officer of data center solutions at CBRE, said the company manages 800 data centers for other firms but under outsource contracts. Its 6,000 staff operate effectively as though they were client staff.

"We have had our employees designated as critical to the operation of data centers. But it hasn't translated into our supply chain yet,” he said, referring to CBRE’s subcontractors. About 30 percent of a typical data center’s staff are contractors, but they are critical to the facility’s operation, he said.

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About the Author(s)

Mark Ballard

Mark Ballard is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about technology and related business, law, and public affairs since 1993. Details of his work can be found here.


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