Emma Fryer, Dialasheep
COVID-19 has affected business continuity across the entire economy and data centres are no exception. Fortunately, the sector has a number of characteristics that aid resilience such as high security with all movements to, from, and within facilities tracked; highly automated operations; a very strong focus on business continuity and risk management and low levels of human traffic. Currently, there are no reports of significant data centre outages resulting from COVID-19, but operators do not see this as cause for complacency: on the contrary; careful planning and relentless vigilance continue to be essential.
Impact on demand
The spread of Covid-19 meant that the demand for digital communications, and therefore for the data centre services that underpin them, has risen sharply: Europe’s largest internet exchanges have seen record traffic[i] as more and more people moved to remote working and teleconferencing. At school, pupils switched to remote learning through Google Classroom and similar tools. Online shopping for food and other commodities rocketed, with many supermarket delivery services at capacity. For people self-isolating, especially those living alone, tools like Skype and WhatsApp have helped keep them connected to friends and family. Internet communications, underpinned by data centres, have also enabled government to share the latest information and adviceto individuals, especially those in isolation.
Behind those obvious interactions it is data centres that enable supermarkets to resupply, retailers and banks to process financial payments, delivery companiesto manage logistics, government to govern and businesses to function. It was critical that data centres, and the digital services they support, continued to work when so much physical activity was suspended.
What precautions did operators take?
The key priority for operators has been balancing employee safety whilst ensuring that facilities remain adequately staffed. Long before formal restrictions were in place, operators applied a range of precautions to limit the spread of infection. These included new guidelines, procedures and upgraded security controls. Intra-company communications were stepped up and reporting lines shortened. Precautions on site included shift segregation, restrictions on visitor access and on movement between sites, reduction in or elimination of shared workloads and both domestic and international travel constraints. Smart hands and other remote support were stepped up, non-essential maintenance deferred, security controls adapted and screening introduced. In some cases visitor temperatures were taken and non-medical grade PPE distributed, usually to reception and frontline staff only. Level and frequency of cleaning have been increased and sanitisation measures implemented. Post contamination cleaning arrangements have been set up for immediate deployment. Non-operational staff have been working from home, often since February or even January in some cases.
At sector level, industry association techUK has been running weekly calls for operators to share best practice and to get the latest updates from DCMS. 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. Competitors are working together to share information on procedures to limit infection, on quarantine, on decontamination routines, on HR and supply chain issues, on security of utility supplies andother operational matters. A sector information hub has been established.
For some time, data centre operators have been considering how they will return operations to a more normal footing as restrictions on movement are relaxed. This will be slow: operators are not simply going to drop their precautions overnight, irrespective of the degree to which public restrictions on movement are relaxed. Most will implement a phased return, rolling back access restrictions and stepping up maintenance by degrees. The vast majority of existing precautionary measures will be retained and many new ones will be implemented.
However, recovery presents operators with a number of additional challenges. Many of the measures taken involve additional cost or contribute to a growing backlog. Maintenance deferrals and access restrictions cannot be sustained in the long term so operators have to tackle this backlog as part of their recovery process. Their second major task is to recover operations to meet the new normal - and ensure they can prosper in the changed business conditions that our post-COVID world may impose.
Relationship with government
COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the policy dialogue between the UK data centre sector and Government. While the sector has always engaged with individual departments on specific areas of policy, data centres have not, to date, enjoyed the attentions of a sponsoring department. The COVID-19 pandemic catalysed a closer level of cooperation and the sector’s relationship with Government is now being reappraised. From mid-March to mid-May the sector worked with government to address urgent priorities like ensuring that operators were included in the key workers list. At this time, a dedicated team – the Data Infrastructure Resilience Team - was established within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to ensure that data centres were factored in to policy decisions on issues like lockdown exemptions, testing and quarantine.
Now the dialogue is moving to longer term issues. The DCMS team is in place for 12 months and will then make recommendations on the best way for UK government to support the sector in terms of resilience and competitiveness. This is an important opportunity for the sector to work productively with government to ensure that data centres continue to provide the state-of-the-art digital infrastructure needed to support the UK’s digital economy moving forward.
1 Recent stats on European internet exchange traffic can be found here: https://blog.cloudflare.com/on-the-shoulders-of-giants-recent-changes-in-internet-traffic/. The German commercial internet exchange in Frankfurt (DE-CIX) is currently setting world records for traffic. Widely covered in the trade press with one record broken around 11 March and a further record broken on 17th March 2020. Typical coverage includes: https://www.de-cix.net/en/about-de-cix/media-center/press-releases/de-cix-sets-a-new-world-record and https://www.controleng.com/articles/internet-exchange-world-record-achieved-at-frankfurt/