UPDATE: This story was originally published March 2, and is being updated with additional developments.
Data center operators are taking steps to ensure continued operations of their facilities in the wake of heightened concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Companies are preparing for more employees to work off-site via online conferencing tools, and for customers to use monitoring tools to remotely manage their IT workloads.
Meanwhile, concerns about the spread of Coronavirus have led to the cancellation or postponement of major industry conferences. The Open Compute Summit is shifting to an online event, while Informa’s Data Center World and Structure Research’s Infra/Structure conference have been rescheduled. Some regional events continue to proceed, but organizers say they are carefully monitoring events and guidance from local health officials.
As more businesses and universities move their daily operations online, data centers will provide the backbone for increased usage of VPNs and online video, underscoring the critical nature of digital infrastructure.
Early Test in Silicon Valley
The first U.S. region to grapple with readiness was Silicon Valley. On Feb. 28, the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department confirmed a case of COVID-19 where the patient had not traveled recently, and had no known contact with a traveler or infected person. Santa Clara County spans most of Silicon Valley and the region’s technology sector.
“This new case indicates that there is evidence of community transmission but the extent is still not clear,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Health Officer for Santa Clara County and Director of the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department. “Now we need to start taking additional actions to slow down the spread of the disease.”
On March 1 the county reported three new cases of COVID-19, raising the total in the county to seven. The county called on businesses to replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options and modify absenteeism policies and also enhance surface cleaning. See Santa Clara County’s Coronavirus information page for updates.
Silicon Valley is the second-largest market for data center space in the U.S., 2.9 million square feet (SF) of commissioned data center space, representing 411 megawatts (MW) of commissioned power, according to market research from datacenterHawk. The largest concentration is in the city of Santa Clara, which is home to more than 40 data centers located in 18 square miles, one of the densest cloud clusters in the U.S.
Contingency plans have also been activated in the Seattle area, home to about 45 data centers. Washington State has become the focal point for the Coronavirus outbreak, with the largest number of cases and deaths thus far.
Prioritizing Employee and Customer Health
Public health and safety are the top priorities in managing the COVID-19 outbreak. Data centers play a key behind-the-scenes role, providing mission-critical technology to support emergency communication for public agencies, emergency services and 911 systems. Major hospitals also rely upon data centers for data and images storage and transmission.
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Online video has come to the fore. Many management strategies for COVID-19 involve increased use of VPNs and online video collaboration that rely on digital infrastructure. A growing number of colleges are moving classes to an online format, including Stanford, USC and Princeton.
Shout out to all the operations teams globally that are keeping servers running, security humming, and network performing right now. This might be the defining moment for the cloud.
— Aaron Levie (@levie) March 9, 2020
“As the world deals with uncertainty, the digital economy continues to move as our customers continue to do business and enable the global economy to keep moving,” said Marc Ganzi, CEO of Digital Bridge, part of Colony Capital. “Telecommuting via video conferencing on applications like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco and Slack are key examples of our customers helping the world’s leading enterprises enable and conduct commerce.”
Meanwhile, in China, use of online video platforms has soared amid extensive quarantines and social isolation, a trend that will make its way to the US.
Because of this crucial role in emergency management, data center operators have detailed contingency plans to address a wide range of disaster scenarios, which have helped the industry continue to deliver services through major storms like Hurricane Harvey.
Here’s an overview of how some of the largest providers are preparing.
Digital Realty operates more than 210 data centers globally, including 11 in Silicon Valley, and is taking steps to prepare its facilities and staff for any eventuality.
“With the rapid spread of Novel Coronavirus, our number one priority is that our employees and our customers are safe,” said Erich Sanchack, Executive Vice President of Operations for Digital Realty. “As part of our overall business continuity plan, we are providing our employees with the option of working from home. Thankfully, we have a robust IT platform in place, ranging from video- to audio-conferencing, to make this process relatively seamless.
“We are also leveraging our data center infrastructure management capabilities to extend remote monitoring and management capabilities to enable our customers, partners and team members to work remotely in a fully productive way,” he added.
Colocation provider Equinix has 200 data centers (13 in Silicon Valley) and is also making preparations.
“Equinix has activated our business continuity and pandemic plans to ensure seamless operations throughout this situation, including provisions for ensuring all data centers remain fully operational and that the data centers are equipped with the necessary equipment and supplies,” the company said in a statement. “In addition, Equinix is closely following the recommendations of local public health authorities.”
Equinix said its approach prioritizes three factors:
- The health and safety of our customers, partners and employees
- The continuity of services
- Compliance with governmental regulations and public health guidance currently in place to address the situation
“We are closely monitoring the rapidly developing events globally and will continue to keep customers informed on any significant changes to these procedures,” Equinix said.
Vantage Data Centers, which operates nearly 100 megawatts of data center capacity in Santa Clara, said it is monitoring the news and guidance from public officials to take “appropriate precautions to keep our employees, contractors and customers safe while onsite at our campuses.”
“We have established an internal Monitoring and Response team consisting of C&CE, Site Ops, Security, and HR that will continue to monitor and prepare our Vantage sites and teams for how to respond to changes within our environments – both internal to Vantage and within our local metroplexes,” the company said. “the Vantage Monitoring and Response team will update and communicate guidance as necessary to all relevant constituents.”
CoreSite, which has eight facilities across Silicon Valley, said it “continues to monitor the situation, as we regularly prepare for unusual situations as part of our data center readiness, and will take appropriate action based on recent developments and company guidelines. ”
Major Events Cancelled, Postponed
The growing concern about COVID-19 in corporate America has led to the cancellation or postponement of up to 200 conferences, as many of the largest technology companies have restricted employee travel and cancelled their participation in major events.
The Santa Clara County developments led the Open Compute Project (OCP) to cancel its largest annual event, OCP Global Summit 2020, which was scheduled to take place next week (March 4-5) at the San Jose Convention Center in downtown San Jose. The format has shifted to an interactive Virtual Global Summit the week of May 11.
“A lot of work has been done in preparation for this event, including important product rollouts, company announcements, and innovations from our member companies,” the Summit organizers wrote. “We would like to work with you on following through with those announcements to the Community, and the industry at large, over the next week.”
Last week Informa said it would postpone Data Center World after the city of San Antonio declared a state of emergency over Coronavirus concerns. “After close consultation with our partners in the data center industry, we’ve made the difficult decision to reschedule Data Center World to August 24-27, 2020,” the organizers said. “Having spent the past year preparing for the event with our advisory boards, speakers, exhibitors and event partners, we’re genuinely disappointed not to be able to host you in the coming weeks, but the experience and safety of our community and everyone involved in the event continues to be our top priority.”
On Tuesday evening, Structure Research followed suit on its flagship conference event. “We have made the difficult decision to postpone infra / STRUCTURE in Toronto on May 6-7, 2020,” Structure said i a tweet. “Please stay tuned for new dates and details. We remain committed to putting on this show”
DCD (DataCenterDynamics) rescheduled events in Jakarta and Shanghai, but is currently planning to proceed with its DCD>New York enterprise event scheduled for March 13-April 1.
“The health and safety of all delegates, speakers, sponsors and partners across our seventeen global conferences is of the utmost importance to all at DCD,” the company said in an update to conference delegates. “We are continually monitoring developments pertaining to COVID-19 and liaising with the respective local, national and international authorities, as well as the World Health Organisation, regarding delegate travel and onsite experience.”
DCD also said it is using additional measures, including:
- Adoption of World Health Organisation recommendations regarding hand, respiratory and best hygiene practices with additional signage and instructions onsite
- Strengthened collaboration with local partners (airport, hotels, local governments) to ensure vigilance and health/safety processes
- A reinforced health and safety team onsite
- Increased standards of hygiene at the venue, including disinfectant gels and dedicated sanitising stations
- Additional support to exhibitors wishing to adopt specific hygiene measure on their stand
Experts in Hunkering Down
Pandemics present different challenges than other disaster scenarios, particularly in their potential to affect operations and staffing across a wide range of locations. Since contingencies may need to be in place for an extended period of time, one precedent would be Superstorm Sandy, the massive 2012 storm that caused extensive death and destruction across the Greater New York area. Data centers in the Financial District lost power altogether, and facilities in New York and New Jersey operated for days without utility power.
During Sandy, data centers in Northern New Jersey prepared for staff to be on-site for 3 to 5 days, stocking up on cots, MREs, and other emergency supplies so staffers could comfortably support customers without leaving the facility.
Large public events sometimes also necessitate special staff precautions. In 2012, Interxion today unveiled “sleeping pods” at its London data center campus, allowing staff to sleep among the racks to ensure that the facility was fully staffed throughout the Games. The contingency plan was developed to allow engineering staff to stay on site 24/7 should congestion on the road networks make it difficult for staff to commute to the facility.