From January 2020, for anyone keeping up with the news from across the world, it was like a gathering storm: a mystery virus affecting people in Wuhan. Hospitals overwhelmed, panic, lockdown…

And then, one by one, regions across the world were affected: northern Italy, the US, the UK – all saw cases emerging at pace. Lockdowns were introduced for the first time ever, non-essential shops were closed and staff told to work from home.

It could have been a recipe for disaster, with networks going down under the strain, and websites and services suffering from brownouts. Instead, not only did they reliably hold up, but they perhaps, pointed the way forward to new ways of working.

And, behind it all, working hard in the background, were the operators of thousands of data centers around the world, adding capacity as fast they could, load balancing where required, and trouble-shooting events before they could cause problems in order to keep services for users running smoothly.

Indeed, it is only when disaster strikes that people and organizations find out who they can rely upon. Over the past year, people have turned to a diverse range of platforms to keep on working and communicating: Slack, Microsoft Teams and Skype, Zoom, Cisco Webex, and Google’s many different communication tools have all stepped up. And, bar one or two outages, have successfully met skyrocketing global demand.

So, how did the data center teams, working furiously behind the scenes, make it all, on the surface, look so easy?

Rapid upgrades

First, while some of the pandemic decision-making by authorities around the world might end up, in hindsight, looking somewhat questionable, the categorization of data centers as essential services helped ensure continued mobility for both labor and the supplies that data center operators needed to help them quickly scale up. It isn’t just the makers of laptops and webcams that have struggled to keep up with demand throughout the pandemic, but also the providers of servers, uninterruptible power supplies, and all the other hardware required by data center operators.

At the same time, data center operators were also required to implement various health and safety measures, just like any other business premises. Data centers, of course, are designed to be secure environments, permitting only limited access, but extra measures still had to be put in place.

These measures included segregating and ‘socially distancing’ operations teams, reorganizing rotations and handovers, and deferring all non-critical activities. Data centers have also been subject to increased cleaning and hygiene regimes, with team members briefed and protected through internal communications, best practice advice, and primary screening.

While many workplaces and offices were able to close, either fully or partially, to implement such measures, data centers had no choice but to implement such measures while, at the same time, turning the operational dial all the way up to eleven to keep clients’ services ticking over.

However, work on the construction of desperately needed new sites has been disrupted. In the UK, early on, even construction sites were closed down for a number of months. In Frankfurt, Germany, one of Europe’s major data center locations, delays in processing permits has added months to construction times.

Furthermore, while there have been some delays reported with larger projects, the need for suppliers to prioritize resources has meant that smaller projects have suffered even longer delays. Investment in enterprise data centers, in particular, has also suffered due to supply chain breakdowns. More organizations will shift to colocation and the cloud in response.

But it is in emerging markets that operators have faced the biggest challenges, and for a number of reasons.

First, with a smaller pool of skilled local labor to draw upon, emerging markets are most affected by travel bans and the various barriers placed in the way of labor mobility: tests before traveling, quarantines and so on. Getting engineers to sites to repair equipment, for example, is therefore more of a challenge in such locations.

Second, emerging markets are also more vulnerable to the supply chain failures that have vexed operators elsewhere.

Lessons learned

Hopefully, 2021 will see the pandemic abate and there will be time to digest the lessons learned. In particular, there is strong evidence that some data centers need to invest more in automation technologies and the tools to enable them to respond to problems more proactively. Supply chains, too, have proved to be less robust than expected, and this will need to be addressed by both operators and suppliers.

Perhaps, too, governments will see that data centers are not just essential services, but part of every nation’s critical national infrastructure, and reprioritize them accordingly.

Finally, of course, those oft-cited disaster recovery manuals will need to be updated and the importance further underlined. After all, how many of them will have had detailed chapters covering what to do in the event of a major outbreak of a highly infectious virus?

Download the full report, including our observations of how the data center industry is currently responding to the pandemic and the likely long-term impacts on the industry.