As we saw with Hurricane Sandy, natural disasters can wreak havoc on data centers and the companies that rely on them. And unless we start distributing more of our data load to safer areas, we may need to brace for more of the same.
Internet companies build data centers across the country so people and companies in those areas can send and receive information at millisecond speeds. The closer the data center is to the user, the faster the data is transmitted. Data centers tend to be more heavily concentrated in more populous areas because that’s where the user base is heaviest.
But many of the states that have the most data centers are also the states that get hit with the most natural disasters, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Data Center Maps. FEMA disaster declarations occur when the magnitude and cost of a disaster — including floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and winter storms—outstrip the capabilities of the state and local governments, requiring the governor of that state to ask for federal assistance.
So why not just move data centers to safer areas?
Data centers are energy-intensive and expensive to build — even more so in metropolitan areas. But for sub-millisecond transactions like those required by the New York Stock Exchange, data centers need to be as close to the action as possible, regardless of cost. To obtain those lightning fast, one- to two-millisecond speeds, data centers have to be located within a 50-mile radius and often much closer to their source. During Hurricane Sandy, that put low-lying New York City data centers in the path of the storm surge.
But, according to Mark Thiele, executive VP of data center tech at Switch (which, should be noted, is located in disaster-light Las Vegas), most other data centers could stand to be much greater distances from their source than those that serve Wall Street. ”For primary apps that don’t require such low latency, the vast majority can be 50 or 60 milliseconds away from the customer without them noticing,” he says. That means data centers nearly on the other side of the country could transmit data without a noticeable delay. Additionally, he estimates that fewer than 5 percent of IT organizations have a critical need for speeds like those at the Stock Exchange.
Indeed, companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook, which run a single application across a number of data centers, have been able to cut costs and avoid outages all without a noticeable lag. To serve up 1 trillion monthly pageviews, Facebook fields data centers in less populous, cheaper and safer locations like North Carolina, Oregon and Sweden, as well as leased spaces in data centers around the country.
As GigaOM noted in its year-end cloud coverage, the solution to balancing cost and latency issues could come from prioritizing parts of the data load. Important data loads would direct to nearby centers, while less important data would go to cheaper—and/or safer—data centers far off. In the case of Sandy, with its 1,100-mile diameter, data centers in the middle of the country could keep companies online, even if their headquarters aren’t.