Virginia’s Data Center Alley Prepares for Lengthy COVID-19 Lockdown

March 31, 2020
As Virginia begins a COVID-19 lockdown for the next 2 months, Loudoun County has created a task force to help Data Center Alley’s critical infrastructure sector navigate the crisis,

Virginia’s Data Center Alley is in lockdown mode for at least the next two months, as Gov. Ralph Northam has imposed a statewide “stay at home” order extending through June 10 to halt the spread of COVID-19. As the enhanced restrictions take effect, the data center industry in Northern Virginia is mobilizing a task force to navigate the Coronavirus crisis.

The new guidelines in Virginia underscore the lengthening time horizon of the pandemic, with government-ordered social distancing stretching from weeks into months.

Phillip Sandino, who is coordinating who is coordinating the Digital Infrastructure Pandemic response on behalf of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, says the prospect of a lockdown lasting more than 10 weeks is a sobering reality, driving home the growing seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia now has more than 1,000 cases and 25 deaths from the Coronavirus.

“This is turning into a much longer-term event that I could have foreseen,” said Sandino, who shared the Governor’s latest directive in a Monday afternoon meeting of the 7×24 Exchange Washington DC chapter. “This really does get your attention. The room got really quiet when I said June 10. It took a moment to sink in.”

Sandino’s early priorities include ensuring that staff and key vendors can access the region’s data centers, pursuing access to essential resources (including cleaning products and COVID-19 testing kits), and adapting contingency plans for operating through many Coronavirus scenarios – including the potential of a major storm or other disaster while the region remains under lockdown.

A Mission-Critical Industry

Northern Virginia is home to more than 100 data centers and more than 10 million square feet of data center space, including a major cloud cluster forming “Data Center Alley” in Ashburn. As the cloud grows, having servers in the region has become the table stakes for companies with ambitions in cloud computing.  It sits atop the world’s densest intersection of fiber networks, making it an ideal location to store and distribute data. It is unique in its connectivity, and its data centers are laying the physical foundation of the digital economy.

The critical nature of the data center industry led the Department of Homeland Security to include communications infrastructure as one of the essential businesses that must continue operating during social distancing measures.

Buddy Rizer, the Executive Director of Economic Development for Loudoun County, is keenly aware of the strategic importance of the region’s cloud infrastructure, and turned to Sandino, who has lengthy experience with emergency management in disasters, to head the data center task force.

Phillip Sandino, head of Data Energy Consulting. (Image: Kristina Sherk Photography)

Sandino, the principal at Data Energy Consulting LLC, is an energy and data center veteran who led Dominion Energy’s regional response to Hurricane Sandy and the Derecho storm in 2012. He served as the Vice President of Data Center Operations for RagingWire Data Centers in Ashburn, and has working relationships with state and local government.

Sandino is working closely with a wide group of industry stakeholders in Northern Virginia, including the Data Center Coalition, NVTC Data Center and Cloud Committee, the AFCOM Potomac Chapter, the 7×24 Exchange, the Ashburn Data Center Security Working Group, and Prince William County Department of Economic Development.

A Mission-Critical Industry

As we’ve noted in our previous coverage of the Coronavirus crisis and data centers, each service provider has its own best practices and contingency plans. “It’s great that individual companies are prepared,” said Sandino. “But that doesn’t mean that the whole ecosystem is ready.”

The task force will also create an information clearinghouse for the region’s data center industry to share best practices and respond quickly to operators requiring assistance. Although data center providers compete fiercely in Northern Virginia, they also collaborate on issues of common interest, including uptime.

“If one provider failed, that would wind up being the public legacy of this event,” said Sandino.

A key priority will be to ensure that the data center industry can speak with a unified voice in outlining its needs to the Virginia emergency response leadership. That includes communicating clearly with local Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs).

One of the first questions from the industry concerns travel under the lockdown orders. How will someone travel into Ashburn/PWC from another jurisdiction that has been locked down?

“During this event batteries will need to be replaced, equipment will need to be serviced and vendors will need to access the data centers,” said Sandino.

The solution was the development of a “carry letter” system, in which data center staffers carry documents they can present to law enforcement officials.

The documents include a cover letter from the DHS Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) defining the essential status of data infrastructure, along with a document outlining the staffer’s position and destination.

What About the Supply Chain?

An emerging issue is the supply chain and the availability of resources.

“Critical facilities people have to be in the data center, and have to be able to practice good hygiene,” said Sandino, including hand-washing but also keeping surfaces and equipment clean. “The shortage of cleaning supplies extends to data centers as well. Where are we in the priority order for cleaning supplies?”

Given the mission-critical nature of data center employees, a question is whether data center providers will have access to COVID-19 testing kits to test employees, vendors and visitors who
want access to the facility.

One of Sandino’s concerns is a confluence of challenges amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

“It may be that the industry can handle this,” he said. “But what about when the next Black Swan (outlier event) is put on top of this one? What would happen if there was a hurricane or another derecho? If this really is a long-haul event, we’ll have other challenges to deal with as well. This is not something we’ve done before. I need the industry leaders to get behind this.”

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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