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How generators help data centres power through Hurricane Ida

Written by Fri 10 Sep 2021

Hurricane Ida, “one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to make landfall,” caused property damage, flooding, and loss of power and utilities throughout the southeastern United States. It also highlighted the need for data centres to create resilient systems with effective backup power including generators.

Ida disrupts mobile and fibre across Louisiana and Alabama

Both the AT&T and T-Mobile networks were affected by the storm, which caused disruption to mobile and fibre services in the area. AT&T reported 40% network outages at the peak of the storm, while T-Mobile estimated outages at 30%. However, worryingly, the storm crashed a 911 call center supported by AT&T.

The district’s executive director Tyrell Morris said, “The calls never got to the building. Our technology is antiquated.”

New Orleans data centre fire takes down government sites

During a catastrophic storm, individuals and businesses both rely on government infrastructure and services for storm projections, emergency information, and assistance. However, Hurricane Ida caused a fire in a data centre located on the third floor of the New Orleans city hall, which interrupted government sites at the time when people were reliant on the public services and centralized information from trusted sources.

Data centres stay online

Even while more than a million individuals were without power for several days during the storm, many commercial data centres managed to stay online without service interruption. Venyu, a Baton Rouge-based data centre services provider, prepared for business continuity with generators and fuel provisions. Noah Boudreaux, General Manager of Venyu said, “We started running on generators Sunday evening and have been on them for more than 48 hours. We have a fuel provider onsite, and we’ve had customers and other businesses reaching out to us to use our services and our business continuity center.”

Backup power options

Today, the majority of data centres utilize diesel generators to provide backup power. The generators are connected to data centres, with fuel stored on-site to provide power to the data centre for 48 hours. In the case where a potentially disruptive event is known ahead of time, like a storm, data centre owner/operators will often stock up on diesel fuel in case power interruptions continue for more than two days.

However, diesel generators are increasingly under scrutiny in the industry, as the result of a growing concern with the environmental impact of data centre operations. Diesel generators have the benefit of starting rapidly and providing the intense power needs of a data centre: but the levels of pollution that they emit are a high concern.

This is driving many leading providers to look at alternatives to diesel generators – among them hydrogen fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, and utilizing smaller edge data centres with more flexible power needs.

Read more: Hydrogen: fueling innovation in the data centre?

In a recent blog post, Andy Lawrence of the Uptime Institute reviewed the pros and cons of diesel generators. “Almost every operator and owner would like to eliminate generators and replace them with a more modern, cleaner technology. But to date, no other technology so effectively combines low operating costs, energy density, local control, and, as long as fuel can be delivered, open-ended continuous power.”

Most scenarios for moving away from diesel to alternative backup power involve expensive retrofitting of the data centre power system, to make it compatible with a different type of power supply. While many signs point to the eventual replacement of diesel with alternative backup fuel, at this time diesel generators are an absolute necessity in most data centres, to help bridge the gap created by disruptive events.

Written by Fri 10 Sep 2021


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