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Sunday, August 07, 2016 9:40 am

Surge-proofers set up shop

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Three little letters send shivers down the spines of information technology specialists: EMP.

Electromagnetic pulses are bursts of energy that can create power surges in electronic de­vices large and small – think massive power transformers, entire ATM networks, household appliances and even smartphones, according to EMPact America, a nonprofit agency. One significant surge could be enough to permanently disable everything with a circuit board within a 1.5 million-square-mile area.

That’s about half the entire continental United States.

"This threat, from either a hostile nuclear source or a natural occurring solar flare, would destroy our critical infrastructures," the bipartisan organization says in its mission statement.

A new Fort Wayne data storage center is being equipped to withstand the force of an EMP.

Lifeline Data Centers is investing about $17.5 million to renovate a former Target store on the city’s south side. That’s $2.5 million more than officials originally said in September 2014, when the project at 7601 S. Anthony Blvd. was unveiled.

Six months after the announcement, the Indianapolis data storage provider decided to increase security to make the facility state-of-the-art and the company’s flagship location.

Lifeline’s decision to upgrade put the project more than a year behind schedule while it sought input from physicists who had previously consulted for the U.S. military.

"There was an awful lot of additional engineering and research to be done. That fully accounts for the delay," said Rich Banta, a co-owner in the business. 

Crews are about three months into construction and expect to be ready to move in customer equipment in January. The 110,000-square-foot building includes about 60,000 square feet of usable data center space. The rest is for support services, generators and air-conditioning units.

Lifeline operates two computer rooms in Indi­anapo­lis, a total of 120,000 square feet. But this will be the company’s first facility protected from EMP effects. As far as company officials know, it’s the first commercial one in Indiana.

Eugene Spafford, a Purdue University computer science professor, is also unaware of any other commercial facilities in the state that are protected from EMP. He assumes so-called "hard" facilities that have state-of-the-art cybersecurity might be at the Indiana National Guard and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division in southern Indiana

Although Spafford doesn’t see man-made attacks as a highly likely threat right now, "there are natural oc­cur­rences that could be an issue," he wrote in an email. He referred to an 1859 solar storm, the largest on record. 

Lifeline is trying to be on the forefront of guarding from such catastrophes.

CIOReview, a technology magazine from Fremont, California, in June named Lifeline one of the 20 most promising data centers of the year. Privately held Lifeline, which employs 27, doesn’t release revenue figures.

Dana Carroll, Lifeline’s controller, said it’s less expensive to install EMP protection at the beginning of a project than to retrofit a working data storage facility. 

For Lifeline’s customers, it’s less expensive to lease storage space than to build a secure area at their location, she said. The firm’s contracts forbid officials from revealing customers’ names for security reasons, but Carroll said they include the banking, health care, education and pharmaceutical industries in addition to state and municipal governments. 

"It has become entirely impractical for a company to build their own computer room," Carroll said, adding that some customers use Lifeline for primary data storage and others put only backup systems there.

Lifeline employees will be on-site around the clock, she said, to monitor and protect the information technology systems. The local facility will also be a data carrier hotel, where all local data carriers converge.

Banta believes his firm’s services fit a specific niche.

"People who have a low tolerance for downtime and a lot of auditing requirements," he said, "are our target market." 

sslater@jg.net