The Dutch blackout and our electricity dependance

Data Center LCL

As we’ve all read, The Netherlands had a blackout a couple of weeks ago. We didn’t, in spite of all the noise that was made over the possibility of a blackout. That is: we didn’t have one yet. In the North of The Netherlands, including in large areas of Amsterdam, there was no electricity for about two hours. When it finally came through, it took the provider two extra hours to restore the electricity in all areas. Yesterday, we learned that Belgium imported four times as much electricity this winter as we did last year. Given that we weren’t exactly freezing this winter (and so had a moderate consumption), if we didn’t have a blackout, we were probably just lucky.

The effect in The Netherlands was considerable. A lot of companies, including the airport and Dutch railways, bore the consequences. Next to 1 million families. And plenty of shops, where the security systems weren’t working. Traffic lights were failing, which created chaos. Police stations were inaccessible as their failing electric locks kept their doors shot. And the websites of several media, among which the national news service NOS, were down and unable to inform the public of what was going on.

We searched the internet for reports of the damage done to companies’ ICT systems, but these remain a well kept secret. Who will admit to the loss of data and/or systems for underestimating the consequences or because of a lack of precautions (such as contracting a data center)? As to the cause of the breakdown: provider Tennet did take its precautions: all high-tension cables are redundant. But then Murphy is never far away: there was a failure when both loops were connected because of works. So in spite of redundancy, there was still a breakdown. Where will Murphy be in our country when the electricity fails? There will be unexpected problems, such as failing internet lines. In The Netherlands, UPC’s cable network was dead. People also reported that the Vodafone mobile network was out as well as the KPN landlines.

Which is more frightening? That such a large area depends on one station, or that even redundant systems are so vulnerable… When we get an RFP requiring multiple data centers, sometimes they only need to be 5 km apart. How ridiculous is that? Like, you won’t have utilities in one area, and you will at a distance of only 5 km? They should be at least 25 km apart as the crow flies. Taking precautions is not enough. One should test them elaborately and frequently, by cutting the electricity off on a regular basis. We cut it off 36 times a year, just to make sure. There will still be unexpected problems, but at least you will have foreseen the obvious ones, and with some luck, you will be able to continue working… If you’d like some tips as to prepare for next year’s winter: there is a checklist some blogs further down.

Note that one can get a compensation in The Netherlands for damages following an electricity breakdown, but only if it lasts for more than 4 hours, which is an eternity if you don’t have a professional backup… Good luck!

Laurens van Reijen, CEO of LCL data centers