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Coronavirus prompts cross-industry collaboration from datacentre operators to keep UK online

TechUK positioning document reveals datacentre operators are putting their competitive differences aside to share best practice on how to keep staff safe and keep the UK online during the coronavirus outbreak

Competitors from across the UK datacentre industry are pulling together and sharing best practice about how to protect their staff as the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak fuels demand for online services hosted within their facilities, TechUK has confirmed.

In a positioning statement aimed at datacentre operators, the technology trade body ran through the work that is going into ensuring that as coronavirus infection rates continue to rise, the activities of the sector will not be unduly affected.

This is particularly important, the document states, given that the virus is already accelerating society’s growing reliance on internet-based services, as more people work from home, self-isolate and the school closures announced by the government last week drive demand for online learning resources.

“The spread of Covid-19 means that the demand for digital communications, and therefore for the datacentre services that underpin them, is rising sharply. Europe’s largest internet exchanges have seen record traffic [last] week as more people move to remote working, teleconferencing, and (possibly for those with time on their hands) some extra Netflix streaming,” the document states.

“As schools close, many pupils are already switching to remote learning through Google Classroom and similar tools. And, as social distancing bites, online shopping for food and other commodities is rocketing, with many supermarket delivery services at capacity.

“For people self-isolating, especially those living alone, tools like Skype and WhatsApp help keep them connected to friends and family. Internet communications, underpinned by datacentres, also enable government to share the latest information and advice to individuals, especially those in isolation,” it adds.

To ensure the sector is able to cope with the unprecedented levels of demand server farm operators are already seeing, TechUK confirmed in a follow-up statement to Computer Weekly that it has been working with the government to ensure datacentre infrastructure staff were included on its list of keyworkers.

However, the document suggests datacentre staff were previously omitted from the list, which entitles them – if required – to continue sending any children they have to school, despite the widescale closure of educational facilities across the country in response to the outbreak.

From an industry-wide perspective, the TechUK document sets out how the coronavirus has led to competitive differences being set aside, as operators share best practice with one another on the steps they are taking to reduce infection rates between staff, decontaminate facilities safely and manage supply chain issues.

As reported by Computer Weekly previously, operators are being warned to brace themselves for datacentre hardware shortages, as production lines in China and across Europe grind to a halt as a result of virus.

“TechUK has been running weekly calls to share best practice and identify issues. Operators have been comparing notes on how they are identifying and managing these Covid-19 risks and the precautions they are putting in place,” the document states. “These calls will continue until they are no longer needed.”

The document also sheds light on some other challenges the datacentre industry needs to be ready to weather in the event of the UK government announcing a total lockdown, and imposing even stricter travel and movement restrictions on citizens.

This may, the document acknowledges, make it harder for operational and key support staff to get to the datacentres.

As well as shortages in the supply of various types of datacentre hardware, another key concern for operators will be ensuring the equipment that does arrive is decontaminated

“The complexity of the datacentre supply chain means that even equipment sourced from low-risk areas contains components from high-risk areas,” the guidance states.

There is also a low-level concern, the guidance adds, that any disruption to the gasoil distribution network as a direct consequence of the pandemic could lead to energy supply issues at some sites, which is a scenario operators are planning for, the document confirms.

“The reliability of utility supply is not an immediate concern for operators: all have emergency standby capacity and are equipped for outages,” the document states. “However, very long-term outages could put pressure on the gasoil distribution network and this second-tier risk is being addressed by operators, although [the] likelihood of such a scenario is considered to be low.”

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