Data Center: 10 Places You Don’t Want to Build

Data Center: 10 Places You Don’t Want to Build

from One Partner

If you agree, or disagree with the order of our list, or would like to suggest additional location criteria, cast your vote/send your input.

1. Below sea level or in a floodplain
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), created by the U.S. Congress in 1968 created Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM). FIRMS show floodplains in the same way topographic maps show terrain. A 10-year floodplain can be expected to meet or exceed a given flood level every 10 years, a 100-year floodplain every 100 years, etc. FIRMs are accessible on the FEMA web site (address below). Input State, then County, then Community (cities or areas) and available maps are presented for review.

Moderate to Low Risk Areas (ideal for data centers)
B and X: between 100 and 500-year floodplains
C and X: above the 500-year flood zone (best)

High Risk (poor data center locations)
A: 1% chance of flooding in a given year with a 26% chance of flooding over 30 years
V: Coastal area with similar probabilities to “A”

Descriptions of FIRM designations (from the FEMA web site)

Map search (research the flood level of your data center on the FEMA web site)

2. In a location that suffers from frequent natural disasters
Between 1955 and 2004, Florida averaged 55 tornadoes (F3-F5) annually, according to NCDC (National Climactic Data Center). Texas averages 139 annually. By comparison, Virginia averages 10. Between 1851 and 2004, Texas experienced direct hits from 19 major (F3-F5) hurricanes (approximately 21% of total U.S. hits), according to NOAA memorandum NWS TPC-4. Florida experienced 35 major hurricane hits (approximately 38% of total U.S. hits). Virginia experienced a single F3 hurricane hit between 1851 and 2004.

Locations at highest risk for dangerous weather and are not ideally suited for data centers.

Images and maps
Figure 1: Hurricane Ike hits Texas coast in 2008
Figure 2: Hurricane Jeanne covers Florida in 2004
Figure 3: Map of hurricanes by state (1950-2008)
Figure 4: Map of tornadoes by state (1953-2004)
U.S. Mainland Hurricane Strikes by State, 1851-2004

3. Near the manufacture, storage or transport of hazardous chemicals
You don’t need a fedora and whip for adventure when the company’s computing infrastructure is your responsibility. Adventure comes right to your doorstep. As if weather, fire and power supply risks weren’t enough risk factors, the trains and freeways that conveniently supply your business could well be one of your biggest risk factors.

How close are the nearest railroad tracks to your data center? They are right on out the back door of one of the largest data centers in the U.S (Figure 5).

On June 28, 2004, a Burlington Northern Train with 123 empty cars and one white tanker containing 15,000 gallons of liquid chlorine crashed into a Union Pacific train. The chlorine trapped dozens of people for as long as eight hours in homes where the chlorine gas was so concentrated that it dissolved metal car keys. The horrifying story is the subject of an episode of the series “I Survived” on the Biography Channel, and a complete narrative is available online in a Reader’s Digest form.

4. In the basement
“Basement data centers are a mistake.”
Sir Isaac Newton, 1643-1727

Many data centers are located in the basements of large buildings. Let’s walk through this logic; we’ll put in dry fire suppression systems, and dry-pipe secondary sprinklers. We’ll ban soft drinks from the server room. Then we locate 200 toilets right over it. What could possibly go wrong?

The best presentation I ever gave followed a presentation by a nurse who shared her Hurricane Katrina experience. Preparing for the hurricane, they moved every server cabinet from the basement to the top floor over a period of days in preparation. The IT staff had to use the elevators and because there was so much to move, the rest of the staff was forced to use stairs to carry everything else up. They used a ticket system to manage an orderly and strategic use of the elevators for the highest priority items. The move required days and exhausted the staff before the hurricane even hit. Then they spend the next week living in the building trapped by water and wearing the same clothes.

5. In a building that used to be something else
If the building wasn’t designed specifically to be a data center, the costs to retro-fit it will prevent the data center from achieving operational efficiency. If I had a nickel for every time someone said “this room would make a great data center, look at this solid concrete floor,” I could retire. There are literally hundreds of design facets in a good data center design. You’ll never find a really good data center in a building that was originally something else. (Refer to number 7 below for additional rationale).

6. Large metropolitan area
Watch YouTube. See if you can identify the most dangerous and unpredictable creature on the planet. No creature has greater propensity to create catastrophe than a human being. Human-produced catastrophe can be accidental (“fire in a nearby building”) or intentional (“Police evacuate area businesses in search for gunman”). More people, more risk. Simple statistics.

February 17, 2010 – Two underground transformers exploded in downtown Indianapolis knocking out power to three buildings, including the Old Indiana National Bank. Over a thousand employees were evacuated as the subsequent fire raged through one of the three buildings. A similar incident occurred in 2004 with the same transformers. People reported seeing flames shooting up the buildings. “IPL says there are 300 of these transformers downtown – and it owns and maintains most of them”. Reassuring.

Watch the video news broadcast.

7. In a building with any other business
Most private data centers and many colocation facilities are located in buildings that also serve another function. Most private data centers are located in the company’s headquarters, along with administrative staff. A computing infrastructure is a remarkably fragile ecosystem. Temperatures, humidity and dust can decrease the operational life and even the efficiency of computer processors. If the humidity in the Human Resources department is too low, probably no one notices. If your computer room humidity is too low – KaPow!

The average private server room will overheat in a matter of minutes if the air conditioning system fails.

When you’re talking about an environment so fragile and resource-intensive, a spring lightning storm, a blown fuse and a tornado converge upon equivalence. Down is down.

A building that’s well-designed for a human’s wide operating range rarely meets the precision demands for the fragile computing environment.

There’s only one situation where locating the computing infrastructure within the corporate office should even be considered. If 100% of the company’s employees work within the same building the computing infrastructure should be located within that building, provided the data center can be retro-fitted to provide as reasonably controlled and resilient environment. If all the employees are in the same building and power, environmental or telecommunications in the building fail, the staff can’t work anyway – and locating the data center in this building reduces the reliance on telecommunications. If the organization has multiple office locations – a distributed environment – the data center should be located in a commercial data center so a disruption in one location doesn’t prevent the others from continued operations.

Private data centers aren’t the only ones that make this mistake. Commercial data centers are located on one floor of large buildings with other businesses above and around them. It’s not uncommon to see combination data center/call centers with hundreds of employees working within yards of the server room environments. Humans increase risk, see number 6 above.

8. In the flight path of a major airport
Figure 5 is a Google Earth overview of the largest data centers in the U.S. You can actually see the planes flying over from a nearby International airport.

Even though plane crashes are thankfully rare, there are two reasons you don’t want a data center in the flight path of a major airport. As the number of planes overhead increases, so does the exposure of the businesses in the flight path. Fewer planes mean less risk. The second reason is that, according to a study by Boeing (page 22) on the worldwide commercial jet fleet, only 8% of fatal accidents occur during the “cruising” phase of flight even though the actual time aloft during the cruising phase is greater than take-off and landing maneuvers. 92% of fatal accidents (between 1999 and 2008) occur during take-off and landing.

February 17, 2010 – A private plane crashed in Palo Alto, CA northwest of the airport. The plane clipped a PG&E transmission tower causing a power outage for 28,000 utility customers. The power outage lasted approximately eight hours, disrupting both power and telecommunications. A fantastic, first-hand report of the incident is available. Hospitals and emergency services had to run on emergency power and many other businesses shut down.

9. In a location that has expensive or limited telecommunications
A data center should have multiple telecommunications providers. A telecom provider with a monopoly will have no competitive pressure to perform or set reasonable prices.

10. Too close to your other one
Often organizations with multiple office locations will choose to locate a primary data center in one location and a secondary (“disaster recovery”) data center in another. Many times, these locations are too close (Figure 6) to provide any significant protection against anything except a very localized disaster. The hospital shown in this photograph has located a “disaster recovery” site less than two miles from the primary data center. Both data centers even trunk into the same municipal power station. Although there is no universally agreed upon minimum distance, two miles is too close to protect the organization from most catastrophic events. Twenty miles is a more acceptable distance.

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3 Responses to “Data Center: 10 Places You Don’t Want to Build”
  1. […] Rath of the Data Center Links blog has recently noted an interesting and useful article in the Black Swan Real Estate eZine that listed the top 10 places you do not want to locate your […]

  2. Siting is definitely one of the most important factors that affect the energy consumption and environmental effects of a server farm. There are places with cooler climates than in the continental US and with more green electricity available. I would recommend anybody considering siting a datacenter to take a look at the Finnish website on these issues:

    by Pete Lundin
    on 04. Aug, 2010

  3. Thank you Pete for providing that very useful website.

    by noyack
    on 10. Aug, 2010

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