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Texas National Guardsmen rescue a resident by boat during flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, August 27th, 2017. (Army National Guard Photo / Lt. Zachary West)

As Houston continues to deal with the widespread and devastating impacts of Hurricane Harvey, the rain, wind, and flooding affecting much of the city does not appear to have damaged its data center infrastructure, according to several companies operating in the area. But, unfortunately, Monday is just the start of what will be a long week for the Houston area.

Major cloud providers like IBM have data centers in the Houston area and key internet backbone company Level 3 also has a facility in the city. Home to some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, Houston is the site of several other data center operators and co-location providers that offer computing and storage services to businesses in the fourth-largest city in the U.S.

As the city soaks in the nearly 25 inches of rain that fell over the weekend, and braces for a similar amount to come later this week, it seems like most of these companies were still able to provide those services as of Monday morning. An IBM representative confirmed that its Bluemix facility in Houston was “fully operational & serving clients without disruption,” and a Level 3 representative said that despite a few isolated incidents that were addressed over the weekend, “currently, we have not experienced major service disruption.”

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As with most things, location is everything. Many of the city’s data centers are located around an outer ring road that sits outside the 500-year floodplain that is in play during this storm, something Digital Realty, one of the leading data center hosting companies in the country, actually calls out in the marketing specifications for its Houston site. (A Digital Realty representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Equinix, another leading data center provider, acquired a Houston facility from Verizon earlier this year. That facility is operational as of Monday afternoon, but “the streets surrounding the (facility) have been closed due to flooding and the site is not accessible to customers at this time,” a company representative said.

Data Foundry, a Houston-area data center provider, said both of its Houston facilities — one right downtown, and another outside the 500-year floodplain — were operational as of Monday. Data Foundry moved cots and food supplies into its data centers last week in anticipation of critical employees being stuck at the facility thanks to the flooded roads.

One of Data Foundry’s Houston data centers, still operational as of Monday afternoon. (Data Foundry Photo)

The real test will come as the rain continues: almost all responsible data center companies make disaster preparations that assume short-term chaos, but if the roads and critical infrastructure in the Houston area remain flooded beyond this week, the situation could start to change.

Flooding in New York City from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 caused major problems for data center operators, as even the best backup systems in the world don’t work quite as well under several feet of water. Another part of the problems in New York that might affect the Houston area is the amount of fuel on hand for backup generators. That might not be as much of a problem in an area with as many refineries as Houston, but if the roads are impassable, it could take time to move needed supplies around the region.

Each natural disaster that takes places is a wake-up call for data center operators in other parts of the country, especially on the earthquake-prone West Coast. Take Redfin, for example, which runs its entire site on a single data center in the Seattle region and warned potential investors in its recent IPO that “we could suffer a significant interruption of our website and mobile application, which would harm our business” if a major event, such as an earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, were to hit the region.

And it’s also a reminder to the customers of those companies that even if they’ve outsourced some of their risk by contracting with a cloud or data center provider to manage their infrastructure, assuring their data is protected and available in the event of a disaster is ultimately their responsibility.

(Editor’s note: This post was updated to correct the spelling of Digital Realty’s name, and to remove erroneous information provided by a Data Foundry representative.)

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