What the Ukraine civil war has to do with data centers by Wendy Schuchart

With the unrest in the Ukraine over the last months, European businesses are feeling a gas crunch as their supply of natural gas is at risk. Ukraine is not only a major producer of Europe’s natural gas, it’s also the main transit route for half of the gas produced in Russia, which provides a third of Europe’s natural gas. About a quarter of Europe’s energy comes from gas.  Russia isn’t terribly shy about raising prices and then cutting off the supply when customers balk over the increased costs. Since Russia has the world’s largest proven reserves of natural gas – and more than a quarter of the world’s supply — that’s a pretty hefty threat.

CIOs are already concerned about politics – but for different reasons. From the NSA snooping in their data centers to the grants and tax cuts offered for sustainable data centers, the savvy CIO is watching the national news sections of the New York Times just as carefully as they watch the technology and business sections.  And when we talk about security in terms of the data center, we’re typically referring to the legions of hackers trying to breach the firewalls – or the best design for man trap doors to prevent physical penetration attacks.

But what about power security?

Sure, CIOs already know the drill – you have a great UPS in place, secondary backups and batteries at another facility and… and then you keep your fingers crossed. A good risk management strategy is all about the immediate problem. There’s also the risk of an interruption of a supply chain.

One risk that CIOs are less likely to consider is a long-term risk to the power supply. We always assume that when we flip the switch, the lights will turn on, the servers will power up and problem solved. However even as the U.S. is once again poised to become the largest supplier of natural gas, this won’t always be the case and the U.S. is also tremendous consumer of that same natural gas.

Before we get into a debate about fracking or the efficacy of coal mining (illegal or otherwise), let’s think about this a different way. Regardless of which nation has the most gas and which wants to sell it for the lowest price – that stuff is all fossil fuels. It’s a limited resource. The price is going to go up – and keep going up – until it’s worth its weight in diamonds.

The power grid needs to be reliable if we’re going to achieve any kind of consistent service for our data center users, right, so we’re at the mercy of the utilities. Suddenly, the unrest in the Ukraine actually has a potential impact on the cost of running a data center served by a natural gas-fed power grid.

The interesting element of sustainable energy sources is that often they’re linked to the very location where you’re using the power. Solar arrays are in place in sunny climates, wind energy is cycled back into the local grid, etc. You don’t have to worry about bringing in, say, wind from somewhere else. While the supply chain is somewhat unreliable – it might be an overcast day – chances are solid that the sun is going to shine again and start feeding the power grid.

As U.S. President Obama pushes the nation toward sustainable energy, the big focus has been on climate change. And while avoiding that potential global disaster is certainly good and saving the world gives us lots of happy warm feelings, it’s interesting to consider sustainable power sources as a way to reduce potential risk to the energy supply chain. It makes sense to keep your power grid supply close to the geographical area where it’s being used – or as close as possible. That means wind energy in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest and solar in the Mojave Desert, and hydroelectricity wherever you can muster it.

But will CIOs find the potential risk to their data center’s “food supply” be a compelling enough reason to urge the utilities toward sustainable local energy sources? I’m skeptical but time will tell.


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Author: Views and Opinions on Green IT

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