– Lisa Rhodes, Vice President of Marketing and Sales with Verne Global
Imagine losing power without warning- no storm, no accidental construction outage- but an actual blackout. While thousands of individuals have experienced such events, businesses across the US may be joining that group in the near future. With the weakening power grid, the threat of more blackouts continues to rise, causing problems with everyone ranging from residential homes to enterprises, hospitals to schools to data centers. A report conducted by Ponemon Institute showed that of the data center experts surveyed, a majority blamed the primary cause of the data center power outages on power factors such as uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery failure, weather and generator failure. For large-scale power users, such as data centers, thinking outside the box has become critical as they realize the necessity for coming up with alternative power sources. In essence, no longer can campuses rely solely on the grid; instead, they must become innovative and find back-up power supplies to ensure constant connectivity- even if a blackout occurs.
With tens of thousands of miles of transmissions, 10,000+ generating units, and over 3,200 electric distribution utilities making up the three interlinked sectors, the power grid serves over 140 million customers. In a world where the demand for power keeps rising, the strain on the power grid will continue to stretch the grid’s capacity.
As Superstorm Sandy recently demonstrated, the loss of power in a data center can cause major consequences. With lengthy downtimes, customers were unable to access critical documents and popular news websites were unable to stay online. Additionally, in June 2012 Amazon suffered an outage that impacted some of the web’s most popular sites, such as Netflix, Pintrest, Hootsuite and Instagram. Caused by a system of unusually strong thunderstorms, the data center lost power and the generators failed to operate properly. While Amazon officials say only a small percentage of operations were affected, customers around the world felt the downtime. To make matters worse for Amazon, this outage came only a few weeks after another one in the same area. Equinix’s SY1 data center in Australia experienced a power loss during a utility power outage in 2009. An estimated 200,000 customers were affected as the outage disrupted VoIP phone service for much of the region. With the seemingly growing number of outages and disruption of customer activities, data centers have begun to recognize and even address the concerns about the lack of power scalability and unpredictability of the power grid. If the stress on customers and their data wasn’t enough to cause changes, the financial burden posed by the outages would be. The Ponemon Institute report found that the cost of a data center outages range from $38,000 to over $1 million, with the average cost of $505,000. While customers are tasked with finding data centers that can protect their information from outages, operators are set on avoiding any financial consequences that may occur.
Besides being strained and weakened, the power grid is also suffering from a different culprit-security. Because more than 90 percent of the grid is owned and regulated by state governments, which may not be able to afford the necessary security, operators need to take extra precaution to protect their campuses from future security risks regarding power sources.
In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences released a report on a 2007 then-classified paper warning that a terrorist attack on the power grid would wreak more havoc than imaginable. The doom-and-gloom assessment of the report noted that while the power delivery system is remarkable and complex, the network of substations, transmission lines and distribution lines are not designed to withstand or quickly recover from damage inflicted simultaneous on multiple components. Overall, the assessment noted that the nation’s power grid is in need of expansion and upgrading and since all parts of the economy depend on electricity, the consequences of a well-planned and coordinated attack on the power grid could be devastating.
While security can help reduce the threat of an attack, operators must also understand that the threat is still there. As a result, incorporating alternative power sources has become a key factor in data center designs, and site selection has begun to play an even larger role in data center operations. It takes a great amount of time and resources to ensure the site is not only secure but have the ability to access the necessary power even if a blackout occurs.
By utilizing renewable resources, data centers are able to have a back-up power supply should the grid continue to weaken and become instable. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, data centers across the country are able to utilize renewable energy technologies; however, some solutions are better suited for specific geographical locations. With this in mind, data centers have begun to intensely scrutinize possible campus sites. While the United States continues to offer strong locations, several large enterprises have moved operations outside of the country, in part because of the ability to harvest alternative energy. BMW, Facebook and Google are all three prominent companies with data centers in Iceland, Sweden and Finland, respectively. By relocating to the artic countries, operators are able to harvest renewable resources, giving customers a piece of mind when it comes to staying online.
With the combined stress on the power grid stretching it to capacity and the risk of attack due to lack of security, data center operators must do whatever they can to protect their connectivity. By taking the necessary steps to ensure security and power, data center operators can be sure to sleep more soundly at night.