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Data Center Operators Are Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

The March 19, 2020, guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) declared what global citizens appreciate more each day as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis unfolds: "Functioning critical infrastructure is imperative during the response to the COVID-19 emergency for both public health and safety as well as community well-being."

CISA's guidance to "state, local, tribal and territorial jurisdictions and the private sector" details the importance of "essential critical infrastructure workers" having a special responsibility in these trying times to continue operations.

  • CISA specifically includes "data center operators" within the core definition of "essential critical infrastructure workers."
  • As state and local governments consider and issue stay-at-home orders or other restrictions to limit operations to workers involved in essential businesses, officials must ensure that their orders align with the CISA guidance and include data center operators in essential business exemptions.
  • Alignment of CISA guidance and state and local directives is fundamental to smooth, efficient maintenance of the essential Internet networking and communications key to supporting public health, safety, and economic continuity and recovery as our nation and the world weather the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

When some people think of essential critical infrastructure and services, the medical sector, electric, gas, and water utilities, police, and other emergency responders might immediately come to mind. But who keeps these vital sectors and all of the rest of us in communication?

It is the skilled workers who keep the Internet's infrastructure operating.

Many consider the Internet as a primarily virtual space, but a major part of the Internet's core operating infrastructure includes sophisticated physical equipment installed inside globally-connected data centers that must be properly manned and maintained, most especially during a time of crisis. These complex, high-security operations depend upon the skills of multitudes of technical specialists managing climate-controlled physical facilities that house the servers and other equipment that keep websites, data and applications running. Among their many responsibilities, data center staff oversee electrical and cooling systems, monitor capacity and workloads, add new equipment when needed, and repair or replace malfunctioning hardware as quickly as possible — all to protect network reliability and security.

Data center operators support the entire global digital economy in myriad ways. In the U.S. as COVID-19 was breaking, many local medical communities quickly pivoted to offer much broader telehealth services to diagnose and support non-critically ill patients, helping to preserve limited physical resources such as hospitals for those who are most ill and vulnerable. Data centers are facilitating the operation of online economic lifelines, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses.

Similarly, in Europe, Internet infrastructure has been largely deemed "essential." Europe's data centers and other Internet infrastructure providers are stepping up to meet their nations' extraordinary COVID-19 challenges. For example, DE-CIX Frankfurt — a major Internet exchange — reached an all-time traffic peak of more than 9 Terabits per second without going down. This networking feat underscores the ever-greater reach, power, and essential nature of the Internet's role worldwide.

Keeping the Internet's infrastructure reliable, secure, and operational for the benefit of all by ensuring that data center operators are included in essential business exemptions of state and local COVID-19 orders is imperative to achieving CISA's immediate "community resilience and continuity of essential functions" goals. Consistent and clear standards among CISA and state and local governments in support of critical Internet operations are the best way to keep communities and citizens safe and informed as we respond together to the COVID-19 crisis.

By Christian Dawson, Executive Director, i2Coalition

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Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet

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