Posted by Matt Edgley on 22-Sep-2017 15:57:19

Storms, floods and climate change: Are UK data centres at risk?

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First Harvey, then Irma, then Maria: it’s been a torrid and record-breaking summer for destructive weather events in the Atlantic basin and around the world. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by storms and floods, homes and commercial properties have been devastated, and the economic cost has been estimated in the hundreds of billions.

Apparently this is just a sign of things to come. Countless experts have attributed the scale of the 2017 hurricane season to climate change, with Professor of Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh Dave Reay telling the Independent on September 11th:

“Climate change may not have caused Hurricane Irma, but it is making its impacts a whole lot worse... Rising sea levels and a warmer, wetter atmosphere are combining to intensify flood risks all around the world.”

All this has implications for the resilience of critical infrastructure worldwide, including data centres. Stories like this one in Datacenter Dynamics describe in vivid detail the challenges and close calls for US data centre providers affected by Harvey and Irma this summer, and it’s not unreasonable to argue that others will encounter the same set of challenges, across a wider geographical area, in the not-too-distant future. A warmer, wetter climate affects everyone.

The risk to data centres in the UK

For an idea of the climate change risk to UK data centres and digital infrastructure, this January report from the Committee on Climate Change offers a detailed overview. As the authors point out, it’s difficult to make a quantitative assessment of the risks due to a lack of visibility into the locations and connectivity arrangements of the UK’s private-sector data centres. Predictably, though, an increase in the frequency and severity of flooding is described as one of the most significant threats.

This is consistent with past experience. In recent years, a Vodafone data centre in Leeds and a BT exchange in London are just a couple of the facilities in the UK to have suffered disruption as a result of flooding and the ensuing loss of power and damage to equipment.

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More broadly, a hotter climate has implications for data centre cooling. The UK has experienced a 0.5° C rise in average temperatures since the 1970s, with another 2° C increase expected by 2040 and 4° C by 2080.

In a data centre as much as anywhere else, that’s a significant and alarming uptick - particularly for data centres that were designed a number of years ago to accommodate lower power loads, and are therefore served by potentially inadequate cooling infrastructure that may be difficult or impossible to replace with newer, more flexible systems.

4 ways data centres and their customers can prepare

So what’s the outlook for the UK data centre industry, and how should providers and their customers prepare for changes in climate and a raft of new environmental risks? Some possible provisions include the following.

1. Choose a data centre location with a low flooding risk

Flooding risks vary wildly from one area of the UK to another, as this map from the Environment Agency demonstrates. One of the simplest ways to prepare for a hotter, wetter climate is to locate your digital infrastructure in areas of the country with a low flooding risk - and bear in mind some medium-risk places today may be high-risk places in the not-too-distant future.

2. Ensure diversity of power and network connections

Network cables and power lines can easily be taken out of action by flooding, storms and landslides, so it’s important to ensure your data centre benefits from sufficiently diverse power feeds and network connections to stay online amid destructive weather events.

It’s also crucial to consider a data centre’s backup power capabilities, design and redundancy levels. These are completely under the control of the data centre operator. Expect the failure of external power and network feeds, and ensure you’re comfortable with the data centre’s ability to cope for extended periods.

3. Consider disaster recovery provisions and suitability

No level of resilience is a replacement for a comprehensive disaster recovery plan. Establishing a secondary site with diverse power and network connectivity may be a necessary provision to address emerging environmental risks. For colocation buyers, it’s also worth considering the location and accessibility of your data centre, and whether you’d be able to physically access your servers in the event of a network or power outage at your own premises.

4. Consider implications for data centre cooling

Many UK data centres already struggle to cool their racks during heatwaves, and the ongoing rise in average temperatures is only putting more pressure on the cooling provisions in their facilities. Organisations that in the past have managed to run data centres out of converted offices and other unsuitable buildings may find this more and more untenable in the future without introducing new measures to improve insulation, containment and efficiency.

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Topics: data centre, resilience

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