COVID-19: What are the operational implications for data centres and what are UK operators doing about it?
Part of a series of insights on the resilience of tech to changing work patterns
As infection rates of COVID-19 increase, the virus has obvious implications for business continuity across the entire economy and data centres are no exception. Since they comprise part of our core digital infrastructure, it is critical that sites continue to provide uninterrupted services to their customers. Moreover, as more and more people are required to work from home to limit the further spread of infection, the demand for digital communication services like teleconferencing, e-commerce and remote working is rising sharply.
So what are data centres operators doing to ensure that COVID-19 does not compromise their ability to operate reliably? Quite a lot, it appears. Operators have been comparing notes on how they are identifying and managing these COVID-19 risks and on the precautions they are putting in place. The sector is sharing information on procedures to limit infection, on quarantine, on decontamination routines, on HR and supply chain issues, on security of utility supplies and other operational matters. Regular calls are in place and will continue until they are no longer needed. Please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org for further details. In the meantime, these notes provide an interim summary of the current state of play.
Data centre characteristics that should aid resilience include:
- Relatively low traffic into data halls compared with conventional office or factory environments.
- All movements to and from data centres and between areas within data centres are monitored and traceable: this leaves a good audit trail for identifying, containing and treating affected areas.
- Highly automated nature of the core business activity and supporting infrastructure.
- Strong existing focus on business continuity and risk management.
Preparation: what are operators doing?
The key priority for our operators is to balance the safety of staff with availability of staff. The emphasis is currently on limiting routes for infection. Precautions being taken reflect location and distribution of sites, the footfall to those sites, and individual site characteristics.
Existing precautions include:
- New guidelines and security controls implemented for all areas of business
- Increased level and frequency of intra-company communications
- Close engagement with suppliers to ensure SLAs continue to be met and critical spares can be obtained under a range of scenarios
- Remote working business continuity procedures tested (eg by sending home all non-essential staff to work from home with little / no prior notice)
- Maintaining separate shifts – no movement of staff between shifts (implemented at an early stage in the outbreak by many operators, especially multinationals).
- “No contact rota”: virtual handover between shifts - no physical handover
- No movement of staff between facilities or between construction sites
- Supply chain restrictions – where equipment is sourced from quarantined areas, installation staff / commissioning engineers must be sourced from low risk areas
- Essential work allocated to one staff member at a time working one to a room; workload not shared
- Blanket ban on attending industry events
- Minimal physical contact - handshakes and hugs out, elbow bump and ‘Wuhan Shuffle’ in
- Working from home where possible, remaining staff ready to be sent home at short notice and skeleton crew ready to deploy
- Remote working tools ready to be rolled out further: VPN stress-tested to ensure it can cope with volume
- Training and guidance provided for staff: eg establishing safe home working environment, use of remote working tools, buddy system
- Work related international travel restrictions applied widely: blanket ban on high risk areas and other travel needing Board approval
- Staff declaring any annual leave to foreign countries in advance and self-isolation required for those returning from holidays in higher risk areas
- Widespread travel restrictions to industry events
- Increased janitorial control on frequently used surfaces like door handles and access screens
- Defined routes to customer areas (to limit opportunities for contamination and allow decontamination to be correctly targeted)
- Non contact body temperature readings before entry to some facilities
- The use of fingerprints for biometric control reviewed
- Sign-in / registration book suspended (electronic registers, video and security logs maintained)
- Viricidal wipes, alcohol hand gels, masks, etc.
Post contamination: cleaning
Operators are already planning post-contamination cleaning procedures, irrespective of whether these will be needed. Currently plans include:
- Cleaning in line with PHE recommendations (PHE guidance for decontamination in a non-clinical setting can be found here)
- Use of viricidal wipes where bleach solution is inappropriate
- Isolating contaminated work spaces for 72 hours
- Provision for deep cleaning / fogging where needed.
- Cleaning protocols appropriate to environment (may differ between data halls and office areas)
- Specialist cleaners being identified and availability verified. Alternative measures being put in place where availability of specialist services is likely to be limited.
Supply chain and utility issues
Members are currently considering issues relating to supply chains and utilities. The complexity of the data centre supply chain means that equipment sourced from low risk areas contains components from high risk areas - acute issues starting to emerge for outbreak in Italy, which is a major manufacturer of UPSs and related components. The reliability of utility supply is not an immediate concern for operators: all have emergency standby capacity and are equipped for outages. Very long term outages could put pressure on the gasoil distribution network and this second tier risk is being addressed by operators, although likelihood of such a scenario is considered to be low.
Digital Realty: https://www.digitalrealty.com/coronavirus-statement
- WHO Guidelines: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public
- Latest Advice: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public
- PHE: Decontaminating non healthcare environments: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-decontamination-in-non-healthcare-settings/covid-19-decontamination-in-non-healthcare-settings