Masaaki Moribayashi: We never expected a
40-metre tsunami like the one in March 2011. It was
lucky we didn’t have any data centres in the area
Masaaki Moribayashi, the managing director of NTT Europe, is in a room with one of the most spectacular views on the planet: right by the River Thames in London, just downriver of the famous Tower Bridge.
But first he wants to talk about something altogether more sombre: the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 2011 and the resulting tsunami. Following the disaster, nearly 16,000 people in the region of Tohoku were killed and 3,600 were missing. About 470,000 people had to leave their homes, and 8.4 million households lost power.
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake was the most powerful ever to have hit Japan and one of the five most powerful ever recorded in the world.
The world is familiar with many of the side-effects — in particular, the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power stations. But disasters such as this affect all forms of infrastructure, including airports, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and telecoms networks.
According to the World Bank, the earthquake had an economic impact valued at $235 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in history.
As the biggest Japanese operator NTT immediately assigned 10,000 staff to work on the effects of the disaster, says Moribayashi. “We wanted a temporary fix at first. Later on we could rebuild the networks.”
“There were 990 buildings without power, and 16 exchanges were completely destroyed. We had 90 trunk lines severed.” The company’s mobile business, NTT DoCoMo, was also hit, with 1,900 damaged base stations and many of its backhaul circuits cut.
How do you fix so much damage so quickly? With huge collaboration from the company’s equipment vendors, says Moribayashi. “We ordered equipment from the vendors and the vendors were very collaborative. They provided us with the necessary equipment.”
NTT’s key providers of IP network equipment are Cisco and Juniper, he says, “but we have many other vendors”.
But NTT also began measures designed to help the victims of the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. “It was very difficult to connect by phone, so we set up a message board. Once you left a message your family could find it by your name or your phone number.”
The physical damage was not restricted to NTT’s regional infrastructure, but also affected its submarine cables. “Fortunately we did have our own cable which had spare capacity, and that was undamaged.” That cable continued to operate between Japan and the US, “and so the earthquake didn’t have much impact on our global traffic”, says Moribayashi.
NTT, and other operators in the region, know about the susceptibility of submarine cables to earthquake damage. The worst so far was on December 26 2006, just off the coast of Taiwan, which damaged at least seven cables, disrupting internet and phone communications in the whole Pacific region.
“In that earthquake we suffered serious damage to our undersea cables, because most of the cables go through the same area,” says Moribayashi. “The earthquake was close to Taiwan and all the cables were damaged except one. It wasn’t only NTT that was affected.”
As a result of that experience — coincidentally two years to the day after the great Indian Ocean Earthquake of 2004 — NTT invested in other cables that aim to miss the most earthquake-prone areas of the sea bed. Importantly, it and other companies try to ensure that cables take diverse routes.
One answer is to put the cables in the deepest part of the sea bed, but “that makes the latency longer”, says Moribayashi, and the water pressure is higher — making the cable more expensive to make.
“The best place to put cables is not that deep, but for redundancy purposes it’s best to ensure they go by different routes.”
After a remarkable amount of effort by its own staff and the staff of vendors, NTT managed to restore almost all its exchanges by the end of April 2011 — only six weeks after the disaster struck.
The company then set about making its network as protected as possible from future earthquakes — which in Japan are inevitable. According to Tsutomu Ebe, the president of NTT East — the regional operating company most affected — it has set up a network design and reconstruction office for the Tohoku region. “It is supervising full restoration operations aimed at improving reliability of our networks by relocating damaged buildings to higher ground and securing inland transmission routes.” In the future, said Ebe, the company will “use the lessons learned from this disaster to further improve the reliability of our communications networks nationwide”.
Earthquake-safe data centres
Fortunately for NTT, the 2011 earthquake did not affect the company’s data centres, says Moribayashi in London.
“Our data centres in Japan are earthquake safe. There is a very strict standard that applies to maintain data centres in Japan. There are completely different standards for our data centres in the UK and Hong Kong, where we don’t have earthquakes.”
The equipment racks in Japanese data centres are different from those in non-earthquake zones, he says. “We drill down into the floor. And the buildings themselves are earthquake safe.”
But “we never expected a tsunami like the one in March 2011”, adds Moribayashi: the wave was up to 40 metres high. “So it was lucky we didn’t have any data centres in the tsunami area. Our data centres are mainly in Tokyo, so they were safe.”
However, that has given NTT and its customers pause for thought. “After the earthquake we and a lot of our customers considered what would have happened if we had a similar earthquake in Tokyo. So are customers are wanting redundant data centres in Osaka, Hong Kong and Singapore.”
This is a change from the traditional approach, he notes. “In Japan, most companies tend to have their data centres in Japan. They’re fine with one in Tokyo and one in Osaka. But now some think it’s not enough, so they’re wanting data centres in other cities.”
NTT is addressing these concerns, which fit well with the company’s goal to build cloud services that are available globally, “together with the network so we can have global backup and flexible resource allocation”.
The company has built a new data centre in Singapore, opened in April 2012. It has two already in Hong Kong, one more than 10 years old, and is building a third, due to be operational in early 2013. There are plans for new data centres in Malaysia and Tokyo. There are facilities in the US, on the east and west coasts, and now Moribayashi is planning one in London.
“Our plan is to provide cloud services by using our own data centres and the connected network,” he says. In addition, NTT will run the whole thing with its own operational support system. “It is very important to have one system, one OSS,” says Moribayashi. This means that the network can cater for outages, and data will be backed up. “We are doing this under our global cloud vision.”
So far, he admits, the company is still small in Europe. It has many Japanese customers, but “our revenue base is 80% from non-Japanese customers, 20% from Japanese”, he says.
“Our intention is to increase both Japanese and non-Japanese revenue in Europe, but we want a greater increase in the non-Japanese revenue. We are trying to double the global revenue from outside Japan.” The target is to get 90% of European revenue from non-Japanese companies “in the near future”, he adds.
The in-house OSS, which he attributes to the European technology team, is key to the company’s plans, he says. “More than 10 years ago we started making our own OSS for the hosting service. We proposed to the headquarters, and the headquarters decided to use the OSS for the global service. Now we are developing and upgrading that OSS for the global service.”
The plan is to have version one of the OSS upgrade finished by the end of June 2012, he says. “With that, we will be able to provide a one-stop customer portal for Asia, the US and Europe.”
With that he looks out of his window at the Thames flowing under Tower Bridge — a complete contrast to those violent scenes in eastern Japan in March 2011. GTB
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