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Protecting digital infrastructure against the climate threat

Thu 14 Feb 2019 | Jason Hood

Jason Hood, global segment manager for infrastructure at Roxtec, explains how DC managers can take proper action towards hardening critical infrastructure

Climate change represents one of the biggest threats to all infrastructure, including communications infrastructure and data centres.  Specifically, sea-level rise caused by melting ice sheets and glaciers could have a substantial impact on data centres.  The volume of seawater is also increasing due to thermal expansion of oceans caused by warmer temperatures.

With current sea level rise projections, hundreds of communities in the US alone will face chronic inundation over the next two decades.  Recent research indicates that over the next 15 years, sea level rise will affect over 4000 miles of internet infrastructure and over 200 data centres in the US.

Even outside of coastal areas, heavy rainfall events pose a threat to infrastructure and data centres.  The number of extreme single-day rainfall events remained fairly steady until the 1980s.  In recent years, the number of extreme rainfall events has increased as much as 71 percent in some parts of the US.  These events can cause river and localised flooding.  Based on the location of the data centre, the real threat might not be floodwaters inundating the data centre, but rather, the power and communications infrastructure servicing it.  For example, underground maintenance holes, utility ducts, power and fibre chambers could be at constant risk due to rising water table levels.  These areas can fill with water and cause water to backup into buildings.

Additionally, water can cause immediate failure of power systems, and longer term, can cause premature failure of power and fibre cables. Even the presence of humidity can also cause failure in power equipment, reducing operation reliability and uptime.

Preparing for natural disaster

In addition to water and flooding, data centres are threatened by other weather-related events such as high and low temperature extremes, drought, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. When constructing new data centres, operators can best prepare for these threats by practising proper site selection guidelines, where avoiding locations that are prone to natural disasters is the best preparation.

There are very good guidelines for site selection such as TIA 942 and BICSI/ANSI 002. Several government agencies also provide historical data that help identify natural disaster-prone areas. While mitigating risk by avoiding disaster-prone areas makes sense, it is not always possible.

Other factors considered during site selection include the environment, reliability of power, fibre connectivity, and financial impact. Operators must weigh each factor, which means some factors take precedent over environmental risks. This means that many data centres will still face some risk.

Additionally, existing data centres located in coastal and high-risk areas can’t simply be relocated.  For existing data centres, site surveys to identify at-risk areas is crucial so that critical areas can be hardened against potential environmental risks.

“Based on the location of the data centre, the real threat might not be floodwaters inundating the data centre, but rather, the power and communications infrastructure servicing it”

Building an effective hardening strategy

All building envelope penetrations for cable, pipe, ducts, bus bar, etc. into the data centre are a potential leak path for water. This includes all penetrations for cooling, power (generator, transformer), and communications (fibre), located on the roof, exterior walls above ground and underground.

It is crucial for operators to evaluate these areas in existing facilities and to review their specifications for new construction to ensure they have the proper design to mitigate water ingress.

In addition to building envelope penetrations, it is critical to assess underground power and fibre distribution designs to ensure cable networks and equipment are protected against water. Since these networks are underground, water constantly threatens the reliability of terminations and can reduce the service life of cables.

In general, these are areas of neglect by operators and designers. Often times, products not designed for constant water pressure are improperly specified or chosen by contractors.  Using purpose-designed seals in these areas provides the most protection against water ingress.

Real life cases

Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a severe problem to occur before action happens. After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City, local authorities, owners and operators started proactively reviewing guidelines and specifications to take appropriate hardening measures.

The damage caused by flooding brought a level of awareness to the forefront that otherwise might not have occurred. I have now seen this in several sectors including power, transportation and communications.

Specifically, for data centres, I do see a growing awareness that the threat of water is real and that operators are concerned about mitigating risks.  However, not all operators have properly assessed the risk. As the effects from climate change make an impact on existing infrastructure, I see more awareness and action from operators and engineers to take proper hardening measures to protect critical infrastructure.

Join me at DCW.

Jason is presenting at Data Centre World taking place at ExCeL London March 12-13th. DCW and its colocated events attract over 20,000 IT industry professionals.

Experts featured:

Jason Hood

Global Segment Manager, Infrastructure


climate change critical infrastructure Data Centre
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