There’s no question that data is an essential service made all the more critical during a global pandemic. During this unprecedented crisis, data centers are connecting people in new ways; delivering real-time, life-saving information across the globe; and powering virtual medical collaboration — from mobile outbreak tracking to the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium initiative.
Yet, unlike other business segments, like manufacturing, which can be slowed, or research and development, which can be deferred, the expansion of data centers is never static. Ongoing expansion involves in-house teams and technology service partners that manage power conversion and distribution installations, upgrades, and services for data centers across the country.
Data centers are not referred as mission critical facilities by chance. The very nature of the business revolves around crisis mitigation, which requires quick deployment of equipment and personnel and a problem-solving mentality. Since the beginning of the year, everyone in the data center services industry has put these skills to use.
At ABB, we started tracking the emergence of the coronavirus in China around the Chinese New Year, and soon thereafter in Europe. We kept a close eye on the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) declaration of a “world health emergency” in January and its announcement of a “global pandemic” in March.
In January and early February, ABB worked with key data center customers to plan for an accelerated pace to install and commission new power systems for expanding operations and facilities.
What We Did
- Planning for Crisis
Like all good service and response teams, ABB operates according to well-designed plans and protocols developed over the years. These processes, such as emergency restoration and disaster recovery, gave us a solid baseline for our response. And like all plans, they evolved with the situation. Our COVID task force met constantly during those early days to keep up with evolving guidelines, provide rapid responses to our customers, and communicate with employees in the field. We learned quickly to accommodate emerging standards and regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for hygiene practices, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and safe distancing.
- Training the Team
How do you train a hundreds of veteran field technicians and regional service partners on new best practices in a matter of weeks? We quickly deployed new training information on effective handwashing and PPE handling. We also issued guidelines for implementing safety measures when staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, and traveling in general. We shared this information with services teams via an expanded series of virtual meetings and training sessions.
- Working With Customers
Even under normal conditions, fast-tracking new power systems and deployments involves the coordinated efforts of many internal and external team members. However, during these challenging times, schedule flexibility became the norm. We had to reschedule service teams to second shifts to reduce the number of people engaged on a given site to ensure proper distancing.
Our customers, each coping with varying and often changing sets of protocols, asked us to align and expand our normal best practices in areas from “spatial awareness” to new hygiene and equipment sanitization procedures. We also deployed new collaboration tools for our customers. Our normal process to phase-in installation and commissioning of new power systems involves a series of customer walk-throughs and signoffs. In a time when our customers can’t travel or their schedules are compressed, we harnessed video-sharing tools to create virtual tours for our customers, keeping them in the loop and helping to ensure projects stay on schedule.
- Building New Systems
Just as planning is an ongoing process during a crisis, being agile enough to build new systems, processes, and procedures as you go is equally critical. Under regular circumstances, putting our services technicians’ boots on the ground at a customer data center is a simple matter of scheduling and travel logistics.
The coronavirus has made traveling across state lines — especially with varying local travel regulations — a challenge to say the least. Our services management team gathered regularly to review new information and regulations as they evolved. The team even built new travel and tracking tools to ensure people traveled efficiently and, most importantly, safely. We also helped make sure they had the proper certification as essential workers in all required jurisdictions.
Under normal circumstances, we understand the complexity and lead times associated with our regular supply chain, and that allows us to deliver power systems on time, on-site, and ready for installation.Working in the “new normal,” we created new, fast-tracked procurement and delivery procedures to get the right PPE equipment to our teams in the field.
What We Learned
- Practice Your Process
During a crisis or disaster, there’s no time to invent new systems. Relying on detailed plans and well-practiced processes gives organizations a foundation to modify, adapt, and expand with new approaches as situations evolve — and to deploy them quickly.
- Collaborate, Share, and Explore
If we’ve learned anything, it’s the value of forging new ways to engage and interact with our teams, customers, and partners. Ask the hard questions, challenge conventional procedures, and share ideas freely. Trying picking up the phone instead of sending an email.
The amount of information sharing that’s possible, thanks to online collaboration with virtual reality (VR)- and augmented reality (AR)-based design tools, gives data center designers and operators new ways to engage with their technology partners.
- Define the Challenge, Provide the Tools, and then Stand Back
Creating data center network and power infrastructure should, by all counts, require well-detailed, well-planned, and well-coordinated practices. But we’re reminded during a crisis like COVID-19 that the best resources are our people.
By giving a clear set of objectives, sharing the challenge and complexity of the task, and making sure everyone has the tools they need, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people go above and beyond to get the work done in the toughest of circumstances.
That’s a lesson we knew, but it’s worth being reminded of.
Through this pandemic, we have all certainly learned a lot that will not only guide us through the remainder of this difficult time, but will also prepare us for the next challenge.