How are our data centres coping?

The Coronavirus pandemic is impacting everything, including our data centres. So what challenges are being faced and what they're doing to meet demand?

As the world introduced social distancing measures and went into lockdown, data centres have had to deal with unprecedented demand for computing capacity.

Many of us are working from home, using video conferencing apps to connect with loved ones, teaching our children virtually, and streaming box sets to keep entertained. "We're ordering greater amounts via e-commerce and more people are gaming online," says Ziad Youssef, VP Secure Power - MEA, at electrical equipment and automation digital solutions provider Schneider Electric. "I've seen reports indicating that data traffic is up double-digit, 30% and upwards in certain regions."

That's just at home - critical infrastructure and pharmaceutical researchers are also relying on data centres more than ever before. In response, many countries have formally recognised data centres as critical national infrastructure (CNI) and data centre staff as key workers.

"Our sector has never been more relevant and critical for ensuring essential infrastructure such as the health service, transport, media and supply chain remain operational, giving us the best chance to successfully deal with this pandemic," says Matt Pullen, Managing Director, Europe, at data centre provider CyrusOne.


Challenges faced

The key challenge for data centre operators during this pandemic is twofold: ensuring the health and safety of employees while adequately staffing facilities to meet customer demand.

"This is not easy, and many have restricted access to sites for all but essential work, or limited numbers on site at any one time through an appointment system," says Emma Fryer, Associate Director ­- Data Centres, at technology membership organisation techUK. At the same time, operators are stepping up remote support services provided by their own technical staff to customers, like ‘smart hands', to fill the gap.

"We've been sensible about how we enable customers to use all the available tools to carry out their due diligence without compromising on safety," says Ravi Valecha, Director of Colocation Sales at Pulsant, a hybrid IT and cloud hosting provider. "For example, we're providing new customers with video tours rather than having them come on-site. We've also been pushing the use of our ‘remote hands' service, or first line support, with our staff taking more requests to do extra work on behalf of customers who don't want to visit the data centre."

"A big challenge for us has been making sure that our staff are provided with all possible and necessary tools and methods to support remote working," continues Gabriele Sposato, CMO at Italian data centre provider Aruba S.p.A. "This has worked really well for us, as we've been able to provide all of our staff working in data centres with the necessary tools and measures to continue supporting them.

"Another bonus is that in IT, work can largely be done remotely. We've certainly benefited from this as we've been able to very quickly overcome the technological limits related to remote working so it's been possible to successfully adapt to the new situation and continue to do so."

Operators are also deferring non-essential maintenance, but - to date - there's been no change to statutory or essential maintenance routines. 

"This seems to be working well at the moment, but operators are aware that there will be a backlog to address once measures are relaxed. We aren't aware of any staff shortages in data centres due to infection, nor any UK outages attributable to COVID-19. Fortunately, operators were well ahead of government guidance in terms of putting infection control and hygiene measures in place," Fryer notes.


Ensuring demand is met

In order to ensure customer demand is met, many operators, including Microsoft Azure and Northern Data; a provider of high-performance computing (HPC) infrastructure solutions, have accelerated their capacity expansion plans. Where possible they're also continuing to build new sites. Amazon Web Services (AWS), for example, recently launched its AWS data centre region in Milan.

"With the lockdown restrictions across Italy, the sharing of information from local public administrations and the ability to quickly answer citizens' questions has become a vital public service," noted CTO Werner Vogels in a blog post discussing the launch. "In Italy, many organisations are leveraging AWS to tackle the challenges brought on by the pandemic, whether it is to empower scientific research, facilitate remote working and remote learning, or providing new services to answer the emergency at hand."

In the UK around 50 construction projects are currently underway says Fryer, from small in-facility expansions or refits to major new datacentre developments. And while construction has slowed, work still continues.

"Some operators are segregating shifts and implementing social distancing to ensure work can continue safely and although supply chain and subcontractor availability are the most serious problems, many operators have thought ahead and are using inventory stock," she says.


Unknown territory

Pullen believes that if this pandemic had struck just a number of years ago the industry wouldn't have been in such a strong position to cope with the sharp spike in demand. However, "we're collectively fortunate that technology and the infrastructure of the sector is sufficiently mature and stable," he says.

Yet there are still challenges ahead for the industry, as we're in unknown territory. Annalisa O'Rourke, COO of cloud provider Memset, believes it's the long-term challenges that pose the biggest threat to the data infrastructure industry.

"At present we have no clear understanding of the impact COVID-19 has had on our supply chain, including the impact on construction industries, energy providers, universities and educational services. Without knowing where these struggles are being felt most, it's very challenging to make plans for the future," she says.

As is the case for many of us, datacentre operators are taking each day at a time. Now, as we enter the next phase, their focus remains on keeping services running as usual, but they'll always have a close eye on the wider landscape and do their best to amend business continuity strategies accordingly.