The Digital Realty 365 Main data center in San Francisco is one of the few data centers in the U.S. with a base isolation system for earthquake protection. (Photo: Digital Realty)
The topic is especially relevant to data center operators on the West Coast, where three major data center markets – Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Seattle – have a history of destructive earthquakes. Despite the mission-critical industry’s focus on risk, building-level earthquake protection systems are rare in the United States.
Those questions are at the heart of a new project in Silicon Valley, where RagingWire/NTT is creating a base isolation system to provide an extra layer of earthquake protection for its first data center in Santa Clara. The decision is influenced by NTT’s experience in Japan, where base isolation is commonly used in high-rise buildings in urban areas.
There are about 9,000 buildings in Japan that use the advanced earthquake systems. But the story is very different in the U.S., where only about 175 buildings are equipped with base isolation, a discrepancy explored in a recent story by The New York Times. They include the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. along with Los Angeles City Hall.
In nearly 20 years covering the data center industry, I’ve encountered only one data center in the United States with a base isolation system – the 365 Main facility in San Francisco. To get a fuller understanding of earthquake defense in data centers, we’ll review system installed at 365 Main, and the plans for the RagingWire/NTT facility. But first, some background on trends in earthquake protection.
Although Japan mandates strong earthquake defenses, governments in the U.S. leave the choice to real estate developers. America has long maintained stronger building codes than many other countries, and had fewer seismic catastrophes in recent years. As a result, earthquake disasters can be viewed as rare events, with a different risk frequency profile than other disasters. These systems involve additional cost, and most builders opt not to invest additional funds to add base isolation systems, despite the awareness of the potential that a “Big One” is a possibility.
“We seem intent on creating buildings with a minimal level of protection,” said Bob Woolley, Senior VP of Operations for RagingWire/NTT Data Centers. “People often don’t really understand the risk from earthquakes. They have a false sense of security. In the world we live in, people never take the risk until something happens.”
Woolley said that California building codes are designed so that buildings will remain standing, but can move quite a bit during an earthquake. That’s an issue for a building filled with racks of servers and power equipment instead of offices.
“Our intent is to create a building that not only keeps people safe, but keeps the equipment safe inside it,” said Woolley. “You have to create space for the building to move.”
U.S. data center companies that are concerned about earthquake risk typically adopt rack-level isolation units, which are installed under racks and cabinets and employ a ball-and-cone system to allow the equipment to gently roll back and forth during an earthquake. Worksafe Technologies has been a leading vendor of these systems.
Providing earthquake protection at the building level involves similar concepts, but a lot more engineering. Let’s take a look at base isolation systems and how they work.
San Francisco is home to a vibrant tech community, but experienced widespread devastation from a 1906 quake and sustained another big hit in the 1989 Loma Prieta (“World Series”) earthquake.
In 2000, colocation provider AboveNet acquired a former tank factory at 365 Main in San Francisco. The structure is built atop a chunk of bedrock on Rincon Point that supports the pillars of the Bay Bridge (which runs alongside the site) and outside the liquefaction zones were earth is likely to be displaced by an earthquake. We recently toured the building with the team from Digital Realty, the current owner and landlord.
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