Japan Earthquake: Internet a Communications Lifeline as Telephone Lines Fail

by: Paolo Gorgo

Japan’s devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami put the country's telecommunications and Internet infrastructure under intense pressure. Millions of telephone lines were unavailable soon after the quake. Carriers were limiting voice calls on congested networks, with NTT DoCoMo (NYSE:DCM) restricting up to 80 percent of voice calls. Mobile networks were also congested or unavailable. Data connections were actually the least impacted, so that many Japanese turned to Web access in order to send out e-mails or updates to social networking services to communicate with families and friends. People were reported to be relying to Twitter, Facebook and Skype to communicate.

Japan’s tsunami warning system worked properly, likely helping limit damage and loss of life. Here is a quote from Technology Review:

The earthquake warning system, which has never been triggered before, automatically issued alerts via television and cell phones shortly after the first, less harmful, shock wave was detected, providing time for many people to prepare for the more powerful shock wave that followed. It also caused many energy and industrial facilities, and transportation services to shut down automatically. A string of detection buoys in the Pacific Ocean detected the tsunami that resulted from the earthquake, sending warnings of possible catastrophe to many different nations.

Given the fact that Japan is an island, there were also major concerns about the impact on the undersea cables connecting the country to the outside world.

According to TeleGeography, as reported by GigaOm, the quake likely damaged APCN-2 intra-Asian cable, but the web traffic in the region was not disrupted.

In this small article, we'll mainly focus on the Japanese data center infrastructure, which supports critical services in communications, healthcare, banking, as well as the stock exchange.

ZDnet Japan immediately reported (via Google Translate) that data-center operations at a number of providers were continuing without interruption.

Data Center Knowledge also commented that "many of Japan's data centers remain operational."

Penny Jones, at Datacenterdynamics, contacted some data center operators after the quake and was informed that facilities had so far fared the earthquake well.

Savvis (NASDAQ:SVVS) has a data center in Tokyo. Company spokesman George Csolak confirmed that “all Savvis employees are safe and our clients are not experiencing business disruptions. The damage is being assessed and disaster recovery is under way, in accordance with plans we have in place for these types of emergencies."

Amazon Web Services (NASDAQ:AMZN) reported that its services are continuing. Salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM) also indicated that its Japan and Asia Pacific instances are up.

US based data center provider Equinix (NASDAQ:EQIX) has two data centers in Japan, with a third being built now. Equinix is a perfect example of the importance of data centers for the telecommunication infrastructure. Its data centers give customers the opportunity to connect with over 50 different networks including both international and domestic carriers. The facilities are also connected to the Japan Network Access Point (JPNAP), Japan's largest Internet exchange point. Its locations are preferred collocation sites for interconnection to the Tokyo Financial Exchange (NYSE:TFX), Japan’s largest financial derivatives exchange.

Last night, the company issued a press release to announce that its two data centers in Tokyo (TY1 and TY2) are operating as normal that also gives some insight into what is happening now at these key infrastructure hubs:

“We have concerns about the power supply from Tokyo Electric Power Company (OTCPK:TKECF). We have fueled the generators at our Tokyo data centers to their full capacity, which will provide emergency backup power in the event of any power disruption. We can keep our Tokyo data centers up and running as normal,” said Kei Furuta, managing director, Equinix Japan. “Our local operations team in Japan and our Asia Pacific Network Operations Center (APNOC) have been closely monitoring the situation and will continue to provide services to our customers. They are available 24x7 to our customers to provide the latest information and assistance.”

More information about the Equinix facilities are available at this link. The article, by Akito Ohtsuki, also explains very well how Japanese data centers differ from the ones in the USA:

Land in Tokyo is very expensive and limited in size. Data centers I toured in Silicon Valley are housed on a huge site and in a single-story building. The Equinix Tokyo data center is housed in a seven-story building. Before the meeting, I walked around the building but could not find a generator. The generator is housed on the first floor, inside the building, so as not to bother the surrounding apartment complexes. They are extremely careful not to disturb surrounding communities. The second floor is used for power and mechanical equipment. The third to seventh floors are used for operating IT equipment. They use a raised floor for cooling rather than a slab floor, unlike data centers in the U.S., which have power, networking, and cool air coming from above. Other things are subtle but show good and neat Japanese ways. When we entered the data center floor, we changed our shoes to the ones for the floor and put antistatic covers on the shoes.

Akito also reminds us that Japan was, until a few years ago, a key hub for the whole APAC region:

Until about three years ago, the infrastructure for networking and other things was not well prepared in either Singapore or Hong Kong, so the only place to go to support APAC was Tokyo.

Above all, data center operators performed very well in Japan and are strongly contributing to vital services like communications, banking and Internet being available to most Japanese people.

Web monitoring firm Keynote Systems noted that Internet access in Japan remained good in the hours following Friday’s earthquake and tsunami, as reported today by Data Center Knowledge.

With forecasts saying that the power rationing could continue for weeks or months, data center operators are still facing operational issues, as underlined in Equinix's press release. Rolling blackouts for three to six hours daily are being implemented in the Tokyo region, and facilities will have to operate thanks to their emergency backup power. As Rich Miller notes, government agencies are often supportive of efforts to keep data centers online:

An example: After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, city officials worked to support diesel deliveries for the Telehouse carrier hotel facility at 25 Broadway after it experienced fuel shortages and generator problems that left its customers offline for more than two days.

Apart from government intervention, many major data centers rely on special arrangements that provide priority access to diesel fuel, as mentioned, for example, by Digital Trust (NYSE:DLR) in its press release issued back in 2008.

Disclosure: I am long EQIX.

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