Getting Ready for a Power Play

Internet data centers won't go dark during California energy crisis.

Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio is afraid of the dark. Specifically, Nacchio doesnt want any of Qwests data centers to go dark as a result of Californias ongoing energy crisis.

"My boss and Joe Nacchio are asking me all the right questions," says Tom Schill, VP of hosting operations at Qwest. "Weve had a series of discussions with Californias utilities. Given the steps weve taken, we dont expect to see any problems maintaining power in our data centers."

Nacchio has good reason to be worried. Companies like Qwest, Digex and Exodus Communications host thousands of Internet sites in their respective California data centers. Some of those data centers rely on electrical service from utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE).

In recent months, PG&E and SCE have warned customers that brownouts may occur because energy is in short supply across the West Coast. The energy crunch got so bad in December that PG&E asked residents not to plug in their holiday lights until after 7 p.m. daily.

Californias energy crunch could soon go from bad to worse. PG&E and SCE say they desperately need to raise rates in order to avoid possible bankruptcy. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last Wednesday proposed short-term rate hikes ranging from 7 percent to 15 percent, but PG&E and SCE are pushing for increases of 26 percent and 30 percent, respectively. The rate dispute remained unresolved as this story went to press.

With potential brownouts or blackouts looming, solutions providers are drawing up contingency plans for their customers. "Crisis equals opportunity," says John Miller, an independent security consultant in San Francisco. "My customers are reading about the energy crunch and asking me about products from American Power Conversion and [power] generators from Honda."

Ironically, Internet data centers—which consume an inordinate amount of energy—may be the safest bet for customers that cant afford a system outtage.

"Everyones focused on the issue of rolling blackouts in California," says Jim Stoddart, senior VP of facilities at Exodus. "But the reality is theres intermittent power problems [across the globe] all the time. And were ready for them."

Indeed, Exodus, Digex and Qwest all have redundant power feeds into their respective data centers. The trio also has massive diesel generators that can keep Internet data centers online during a brownout or blackout. And Qwest, for one, is on several utilities uninterruptible power supply list. The designation means Qwests power would be cut only during the most dire situation.

As a backup measure, Qwest is working closely with four diesel fuel suppliers to make sure its backup generators dont go dry during an extended brownout or blackout. "Were paying a premium to be at the top of [the diesel suppliers] list," says Schill.

That move will pay big dividends if California goes dark. Maybe Qwests Nacchio can finally rest easy.