Data center pros must prepare for increased space weather

NASA predicts increased solar activity in 2012, which could lead to severe space weather that would wreak havoc on data center systems, and pretty much everything else.

The latest blockbuster coming out of Hollywood is 2012, an apocalyptic thriller where civilization comes to an abrupt and catastrophic end on Dec. 21, 2012. The movie's premise is built on an enduring social meme with origins in the ancient Mayan calendar -- an archeological artifact that has been interpreted to predict the end of days in 2012.

Fortunately, few mainstream scientists believe that our civilization will end on Dec. 21, 2012. However, as with most persistent social memes, there is just enough actual science in the 2012 theory to allow for an intriguing discussion.

One scientific phenomenon that 2012 theorists point to as evidence that the Earth is on the verge of cataclysm comes from the field of solar physics. NASA recently announced that our sun is entering a period of more intense activity. This type of solar activity often results in adverse space weather and can have a profound and negative effect on Earth-based infrastructure systems. This active solar period is expected to peak in 2012.

Clearly, for data center designers and operators, conditions that increase the potential for failure of utility power and communications systems need to be taken seriously. This tip will provide a brief history of space weather as well as tips and strategies for data center decision makers to consider to best evaluate and prepare for the threat that space weather poses to their facilities.

History of space weather
Astronomers have observed the surface of the sun for hundreds of years. As far back as 27 B.C., observers have noted that the sun's surface is periodically marked by mysterious dark sunspots. In the past 200 years, scientists have learned that sunspot activity increases to a peak and then tails off to a minimum in regular 11.1 year cycles.

For millennia the sun's spots waxed and waned in their 11-year cycles with little noticeable impact on human civilization. That changed in the late 1850s, with the invention of the telegraph. This invention quickly shifted the global communication paradigm.

In September 1859, renowned solar astronomer Richard Carrington observed a sudden brilliant "flare" on the sun's surface. Eighteen hours after the solar flare -- which eventually became known as the Carrington Event -- the predawn sky across the globe erupted into the most brilliant display of auroral lights in recorded history. Observers as far south Jamaica, Rome and Havana were startled to see brilliant displays of pulsing red purple and green lights in the sky. Telegraph operators around the world received electrical shocks and in many cases their machines suddenly burst into flames. Mankind's early telecommunications systems were experiencing the harmful effects of the first recorded geomagnetic storm.

The flare Carrington witnessed was the visible light from an incredibly massive explosion on the surface of the sun. These explosions occur regularly in the vicinity of sunspots and are known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The Carrington CME sent a cannonball of charged particles and magnetic energy rocketing directly at the Earth. This energy collided with the Earth's magnetic field at near relativistic speeds. The result of this collision was a distortion of the Earth's magnetic field that caused the spectacular northern lights and currents induced in long conductive structure. Scientists termed this event a geomagnetic storm.

The current space weather threat
At the time of the Carrington Event, only the 125,000 miles of wire set up for the nascent telegraph network had the correct properties for the induction of auroral currents. In 2009, there are many more targets for a geomagnetic storm, including transcontinental pipelines, communication lines and power transmission lines. In addition, our vulnerability to geomagnetic storms is increased because modern infrastructure networks are vastly larger than the simple systems of Carrington's day. In particular, the electrical properties and extent of our national electric grid has led industry professionals to compare it to a continent-wide antenna for geomagnetic energy. A result of our growing dependence on electricity and telecommunications systems is that we have become simultaneously more likely to experience geomagnetic storms and more dependent on the systems most likely to be affected by such a storm.

Lower-intensity space weather incidents have occurred during a variety of solar conditions. However, without exception they are preceded by the telltale emergence of sunspots. These incidents have caused blackouts, damaged power transmission equipment and caused widespread failures of communications systems. As a result, power utility companies and government space agencies keep a close eye on solar activity and make predictions for when that activity level is expected to peak. NASA's prediction that sunspot activity is expected to peak in 2012 is a handy coincidence for 2012 apocalypse theorists.

Scientists do not believe that the predicted increase in solar activity will result in anything like what occurs the movie 2012. However, they do believe that a Carrington-level event occurs approximately every 500 years. Therefore, it is just a matter of time before our civilization is forced to deal with a major solar event. There is also little doubt that the consequences of a Carrington Event in 2012 would be dire.

In early 2009, NASA commissioned The National Research Council to study the effects of a Carrington-type event on modern society. The study, titled Severe Space Weather Events -- Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, included the following findings.

  • A severe solar storm would result in large-scale blackouts that could potentially affect more than 130 million people and would expose more than 350 utility transformers to permanent damage.
  • The societal and economic costs of a severe geomagnetic storm were estimated to be $1 trillion to $2 trillion, with a recovery time of 4 to 10 years.
  • The cascading effects of a space weather event could lead to widespread food shortages, loss of basic transportation and loss of basic health services.

Strategies for data center designers and operators
For data center designers and operators eyeing the space weather threat, there are a handful of strategies that can be employed to protect facilities and systems and reduce the risks associated with space weather.

Properly maintain an on-site standby generator. Backup power plants are a must have for any mission-critical facility. In the upcoming season of increased solar activity, it is important to not only commit to standby power generators, but also to maintaining the equipment so that they operate successfully when they are needed.

Understand how location affects the space weather threat. If possible, data center and disaster recovery (DR) sites should be located in lower latitudes. The Earth's magnetic field is concentrated around the poles. As a result, higher latitudes experience more harmful effects from geomagnetic currents. Also, data center and DR sites should be positioned closer to the point of power generation. In 1989, a major geomagnetic storm caused a blackout in eastern Canada. The length of the power distribution lines between the power plant and the affected area contributed to the blackout.

Monitor the threat. Space weather forecasting is a developing science. However, a three-day space weather forecast prepared jointly by the U.S. Deptartment of Commerce, NOAA, Space Weather Prediction Center and the U.S. Air Force can be found at http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/forecast.html.

Develop elevated operational posture. In the event of a looming geomagnetic storm, each data center team should be armed with plans for an elevated operational posture that is understood facility-wide. This operational posture should identify key personnel and maintenance vendors as well as establish protocols for communication in the event that normal communication systems are unavailable or compromised.

Maintain ample fuel storage. Facilities should have enough ready access to fuel to keep on-site power generation systems up during an extended utility outageand an interruption in fuel delivery.

Use UPS power. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) offers a "bridge" of electrical power between utility power failure and the start of on-site power generation. In addition, a UPS provides "clean" power to your sensitive data center loads.

Install transient voltage surge suppressors (TVSS). Electric utilities may attempt to prevent a complete blackout by performing extensive substation switching and load shedding. These actions may result in harmful transient voltages delivered to your facility. A TVSS system protects critical equipment from damage that results from transient voltages caused by the actions of electric utilities.

Entering a period of increased solar activity is similar to entering a period when hurricanes are more likely. Just as data center operators need to consider the effect of a hurricane on their operational continuity during hurricane season, they should make similar preparations now that we are entering solar storm season. The world may not be coming to an end in 2012, but the risk to mission-critical facilities will certainly be more real than a Hollywood special effect.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eric Gallant is a senior data center consultant for Lee Technologies in Atlanta. He has 17 years of experience providing solutions for mission-critical environments.

What did you think of this feature? Write to SearchDataCenter.com's Matt Stansberry about your data center concerns at mstansberry@techtarget.com.

This was first published in November 2009
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