Depending on your location, hurricanes may or may not pose a threat to your company’s data center. But with hurricane season well upon us, those who are potentially in the path of a major storm should take steps to ensure that their data centers can handle the weather.
If you’re in a coastal area where hurricanes are a major threat, you are well aware of the damage they can cause to businesses and homes. These storms can bring torrential rains, strong winds and flooding storm surges, and even if your data center weathers all these forces, you may still have to face extended power outages and a lack of other utilities, lack water and connectivity. But even if you’re not in a hurricane-prone area, you may well still occasionally face similar (albeit less extensive) threats, and some of the tips below for preparing can still be beneficial to ensuring maximum uptime for your facility.
Generally, you should prepare for disasters like hurricanes well before one has you in its path. Nevertheless, you can still take some last-minute steps to limit damage and help keep your data center running. Obviously, much of what you should do to prepare for a hurricane is no different from preparations for any type of disaster or outage. Some measures, however, are peculiar to the threats posed by hurricanes in particular. The following are some ways to prepare—both now and when a hurricane is on its way.
- Back up your data. This is a good policy regardless of what threats your data center faces. Natural or manmade disasters, equipment failures and other events can damage sensitive or valuable data, so backing that data up is critical. If extensive damage to your physical site is a possibility, particularly from a hurricane, offsite backup may be a prudent approach. This may involve a physical storage location or in the cloud. Whatever the case, make sure that your original and backup data can’t both fall prey to damage from a hurricane.
- Check your backup generator. If your location bears any sizable brunt of a hurricane, you’re likely to experience a power outage—possibly for an extended period of time if damage is heavy or widespread. You should perform regular maintenance on your generator (and on the diesel fuel that powers it), but you should also perform supplementary tests if a hurricane is on the way. Also make sure you are at full fuel capacity to maximize the amount of time you can keep your facility online, in case of a long outage.
- Update emergency contact lists. A critical part of recovering from a disaster is ensuring that the right people are on site to aid in repairs, oversee rebooting and otherwise help restore the data center to operational status. An emergency situation is the last time you want to worry about finding personnel—update your personnel contact information regularly, but make it a particular point if a hurricane is on the way. Also ensure that other critical contact information is readily available: fire and police departments, utility companies and so forth.
- Put safety first. Yes, it may be overplayed in our safety-obsessed society, but don’t go to the opposite extreme. Although it may seem hackneyed, it really is true: you can replace things but not people. Bad publicity from dangerous management decisions that result in injury or death can cause much more harm than bad publicity from downtime owing to a disaster. So, within reason, make safety your top priority. This includes being aware of, for instance, electrical hazards if flooding occurs, structural hazards and the potential threats posed by the storm itself (such as flying debris).
- Prepare for water—a lot of it. Even if strong winds are not a major threat, hurricanes (or their remnants) can bring excessive amounts of water in the form or rain, storm surge or both. Although you may not be able to hold back the ocean, you can check drainage around your data center building to help avoid needless backups and even structural damage from the weight of the water.
- Plan for personnel comfort in the aftermath. If the hurricane causes significant damage that requires lengthy attention from your staff, you should do what you can to make their extended tenure on the job more bearable. Food and water are a bare minimum, but if traveling conditions are difficult and employees must stay onsite for days at a time, sleeping accommodations are also a necessity. Your personnel will be hard at work taking care of your facility—do what you can to take care of them.
- Test remote backup sites. If you have a backup facility, conduct tests as time allows before the arrival of the hurricane to ensure that it will be able to take over should your main data center fail. The backup data center should be on standby and ready to take over operations when the hurricane hits.
- Ensure a plan of action for cooling. Some data centers require large amounts of water to support cooling operations. If a hurricane strikes, however, water supplies could be disrupted. Make sure that you have a backup plan in place should this occur. Part of the plan (for cooling or power-conservation purposes) may involve only running critical services during utility outages, and that plan requires performing a “triage” evaluation of systems well before a disaster strikes.
- Where applicable (and possible), move equipment away from windows. One of the dangers of hurricanes is flying debris that can shatter windows, leaving buildings open to rain, wind and more debris. Many companies avoid building their data centers such that the computer room is adjacent to an outside wall (for security or other purposes), but some nevertheless have windows. In such cases, move equipment away from the windows if possible (and this may not always be possible). This is certainly possible, however, for workstations and other small (i.e., smaller than a rack) devices. Minimize the potential damage to your company’s assets as much as practical.
- Leave your facility behind, and do so promptly, if conditions necessitate doing so. This is another safety consideration. If the hurricane is looking like it’s going to be a bad one and evacuation is prudent, then by all means leave the facility behind. Also, be sure to do so promptly and not at the last minute so as to avoid traffic backups and other hassles.
Again, preparing for a hurricane is not terribly different from preparing for any other kind of disaster. Hurricanes do, however, have carry certain uncommon threats that call for additional diligence in preparation. If you’re in a hurricane-prone area, now is the time to begin planning—before a hurricane is predicted (and certainly before it arrives). By taking action ahead of time, you can minimize damage to your facility and increase your chances for a fast return to normal operation.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Angelica Photography