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Major storm knocks out power to Amazon web services, throwing cloud safety into question

For more than a year broadcasters have heard the hype promoting the benefits of remotely based cloud computing: Redundant backup to the hilt with almost no chance of failure. Low costs and the ability to allow someone else to manage a storage infrastructure. How could it not be good?

Well, this summer reality has set in. Massive thunderstorms recently knocked out power to Amazon’s web services and the cloud giant was still struggling to get service back up a day later. The failure affected major customers like Netflix, Instagram and Pinterest.

It all raises the question of just how safe and reliable is cloud computing and the power systems that support it. The website GigaOm reported that some Internet companies are already experimenting with generating their own power onsite for parts of their data centers and using the grid for back up power.

The website eBay recently announced that for an extension of its data center in Utah, it plans to power that new capacity with 30 fuel cells from Bloom Energy, making that section of the data center grid independent.

Apple, GigaOm reported, will be producing 60 percent of the power needs for its data center in Maiden, North Carolina on site with a solar farm and a fuel cell farm. Apple plans to build its next huge data center at The Reno Technology Park in Nevada, which is set up to provide data center operators with ample capacity for onsite clean power and potentially some level of grid independence.

The public power grid is still the dominant and best way to the power data centers that enable “cloud” computing. The grid is generally reliable, and with data centers consuming between 20 MW and 100 MW, their power needs are generally too great to go off grid.

Backup diesel generators, GigaOm reported, are the most common way to back up data centers when there’s a grid outage like the summer storms, but some data center operators are looking at the next-generation of fuel cells for backup, too.

Experimental Internet leaders, GigaOm reported, see value in freeing data centers from the power grid in situations when utilities are at their most vulnerable. While grids are reliable 99.9 percent (or more) of the time, it’s the emergency situations where they tend to fail. Power blackouts during heat waves and winter storms can knock out sections of the utility grid for days at a time.

This summer has driven a large hole in the argument that cloud computing is totally reliable. Until data centers that support cloud-computing systems are completely independent of the electrical power grid, they will always be susceptible to failure during extreme weather.