Alpharetta’s Most Likely Disaster

I’m pretty sure that an apocalyptic disaster is not likely to befall Alpharetta anytime soon. After all, we made it through the lunar eclipse/solstice double whammy this winter as well as the May 21st doomsday prediction. I’m not a fortune teller and I can’t predict the future, but I feel reasonably sure that I know what disaster is most likely to cause financial distress to Alpharetta. It isn’t what you think! First let’s review what we’re safe from before I get to the most dangerous threat posed to our little burb.

Hurricanes

Being so far inland and a thousand feet above sea level, hurricanes simply don’t pose a threat to us. Sure, from time to time one will strike the Florida panhandle and cause us grief. Worst thing that can happen is…

Floods

We’re fairly safe here as well. North Fulton lies on the Chattahoochee River, but we are just downstream from a dam designed to help in flood control. Big Creek spills its banks every few years but only poses a danger to homes in the immediate area.

Earthquakes

We’re not near any major fault lines. On rare occasions a tremor in the mountains might shake windows, but that’s it.

Terrorism

What about man-made disasters? I suppose anyone could be a target for terrorists. I’m no expert, but I’d imagine Alpharetta isn’t on Al Qaeda’s target list. What are they gonna do, plant IED’s on North Point and go after our minivans?

But there is one man-made disaster that could inflict significant damage to Alpharetta…

The Backhoe

In misguided hands, these machines can become instruments of financial mass destruction. Work with me here…

Alpharetta is home to several large data centers. Ever driven around town and noticed them? They can be hard to spot. You might see row upon row of chillers and diesel storage tanks. Most of the companies I feature on my monthly jobs report host mission-critical data centers right here in Alpharetta. These data centers are vital to everyday commerce for millions of Americans.

Tying it all together is a backbone of high speed fiber optic cabling. Disruption to this infrastructure, be it directly on the backbone or on a line leading onto a high-tech campus, could cause significant downtime to critical software hosted in Alpharetta. Downtime could mean unfulfilled financial transactions, many of which add up to millions of dollars. What might cause this type of disruption? One misguided scoop of a backhoe. Snap!

I’m being a little silly, yet serious at the same time because it’s happened before. In 2006 a backhoe mistakenly dug up a fiber optic cable in Arizona. Instantly long distance and wireless coverage for customers in the Rockies went down. Transcontinental internet traffic slowed to a crawl. Operators that relied on this single provider were digitally isolated.

Data centers live and die by building in redundant backups of systems. Hopefully they have multiple data lines going onto their property in different places. For example, the new T5 data center being constructed on Webb Bridge Road uses six fiber optic providers! The idea is that if one goes offline, there is a second in place to take over. But if this scenario happens, often routers, switches and other equipment are not capable of handling the additional load. It can be a nightmare, something that keeps IT guys awake at night. The lowly backhoe has become a symbol of what data center managers fear the most.

Given Alpharetta’s relatively safe location, I feel pretty confident with my assertion. Disruption of our high-speed data communications infrastructure is Alpharetta’s most serious potential disaster.

Photo credit: Senior Airman SerMae Lampkin, USAF

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