Many facilities can face catastrophic consequences when disasters hit, but data centers are especially vulnerable. Whether enterprise, colocation, or edge data centers, no other facility is host to the sheer amount of business-critical information that data centers hold, and, therefore, no other facility faces as significant a business consequence in the event of a power outage.

Data centers are also unique in the enormous amount of electrical equipment needed to power them. Because of this, while the consequences of data center downtime stemming from disasters are highly specific, so too are the potential risks that stem from electrical safety issues.

In this article, we’ll look at the impact of disasters on data centers through two lenses: power outages and electrical safety.

The Cost of Disaster-Related Downtime

With the recent run of high-profile disasters impacting the U.S. — from hurricanes in the Gulf to wildfires in California — now is a good time for data center operators to understand how such a disaster, when it leads to an outage, can impact their bottom line.

A 2018 assessment from Uptime Institute offers insights on power management trends and current challenges with a focus on data centers. The report finds a concerning trend of power outages on the rise, with the number of infrastructure outages and “severe service degradation” incidents increasing by 6% over the previous year, representing 31% of respondents who experienced an outage at their own site or at a service provider’s site.

Power outages can mean significant revenue losses for businesses. A recent IT Intelligence Consulting (ITIC) study found 81% of businesses across 47 vertical markets estimated their average hourly cost of downtime (exclusive of catastrophic outages) exceeded $300,000. Even more 33% of enterprises indicated hourly downtime costs them $1 million or more.

While every industry faces their own set of challenges, data centers are special in that their expectation of 100% uptime is directly tied to the need to access business-critical data, and any loss of access can have consequences that extend beyond those of other businesses. The threat of major power disruptions underscores the need for power backup solutions to protect against and minimize the impact of downtime.

Critical Components of a Backup Power System

To prevent these high costs and keep systems up and running, data centers need an integrated system for power management and disaster preparedness.  This starts with one or more uninterruptible power systems (UPSs) — typically deployed in conjunction with backup generators and power distribution units (PDUs) — to ensure reliable power during outages so that critical IT assets continue to function. These systems help companies avoid data loss and hardware damage by providing availability for networks and other applications during a power event.

As the movement toward hybrid cloud environments continues to build, monitoring software is now an essential piece of the power management system. Additionally, some companies have implemented virtualization infrastructure, which can be combined with power monitoring software to streamline and maximize their ability to manage power during the unlikely occurrence of a disaster or other event. By aligning power management solutions with common virtualization management platforms — like those from VMware, Cisco, NetApp, Dell EMC, HPE, Nutanix, and Scale Computing — businesses and their IT teams can extend the availability of their services. This function allows teams to remotely manage physical and virtual servers and power management devices all from a single console.

Ultimately, it’s up to data center operators to know which power management technologies are in place within their infrastructure and understand whether these solutions are capable of meeting their needs for reliability should disaster strike. The right system can mean the difference between business continuity or thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

Safety Is Imperative

When preparing a data center for a disaster, electrical safety can be overlooked. There are several reasons for this. Companies often rely on the professionals performing electrical equipment installations — or even on electrical equipment manufacturers themselves — to make their infrastructure safe. But the reality is that everyone has a part to play, including and especially data center operators.

Electrical systems in the data center are frequently designed for functionality, aesthetics, easy maintenance, efficiency, and safety, but with so many competing priorities (not to mention the myriad of other responsibilities data center operators face), safety doesn’t always get the focus it needs.

The first and most important step is to take the time to understand the unique circumstances and challenges that a given location might face. This could include auditing current power distribution assets and reviewing critical load analysis, generator connectivity, availability, and fuel sources — identifying where the risks occur and how to address them in the event of a disaster. Additionally, having up-to-date, single-line diagrams of a facility’s power distribution system is a necessity. To ensure safety is a top priority, it’s helpful to consider ways to modernize or update specific equipment that might become unsafe during a disaster and capitalize on opportunities to make these changes.

Following this, data centers can implement an emergency continuity plan within their facilities to identify qualified personnel. They can then draw on data to allow staff to quickly and safely reduce hazards by isolating or putting dangerous equipment in a safe location that limits unauthorized employee access. Teams must be sure to communicate the continuity plan to the appropriate data center employees and service personnel and conduct disaster drills so employees can respond effectively.

Like power backup planning, electrical safety warrants a holistic approach of the facility’s operation. Structure, plumbing, HVAC, and other aspects of facility design play an essential role in safety and can create hazards if they are not considered in overall disaster planning efforts.

Concluding Thoughts

Disasters can happen at any time and have any number of detrimental effects on business operations. Data center operators need a comprehensive disaster preparedness strategy that incorporates both the technologies used to prevent outages as well as procedures, protocols, and personnel chiefly responsible for ensuring electrical safety. With the right approach and plan in place, operators can rest assured that any impact of a disaster on both the safety of personnel and the overall health of the business will be minimal.

Eaton hosted an online broadcast on this topic in alignment with the Electrical Safety Foundation Intl. It features a panel of industry influencers discussing the topic of electrical safety and disasters. To view the broadcast, visit