Data centres’ dirty secret
An invisible threat caused by inadequate design, poor cleanliness practices, poor cleaning and perversely over-zealous cleaning lies unseen in thousands of data centres.
The contamination to servers, hard disks, connectors and air cooling equipment caused by microscopic airborne particles and gasses can lead to early mortality of equipment, excessive use of expensive energy reducing the reliability of vital services, reducing data centre life expectancy and increasing running costs. This was the conclusion of the Data Centre Alliance’s (DCA’s) Anti-Contamination Steering Group.
The problem comes because the thousands of servers in a data centre together can consume tens or hundreds of megawatts of electricity, and while this is two to three times as efficient as computers in a company server room or office, most of it ends up as heat. That heat then has to be removed by continually circulating cold air through every server. If dust and other particles, such as human hair, dead skin, wool and artificial fibres, get into the servers, they can clog up the heat sinks on sensitive chips, causing local overheating and premature chip deaths.
According to DCA technical council director and independent consultant, Dr Ian Bitterlin, “It’s not a problem that is visible in the short-term, but many companies that deploy the latest energy efficient equipment for competitive advantage will find that advantage eroded over time as filters degrade and energy costs of cooling rise – sometimes by many megawatt hours (MWh).”
David Mclenachan of Initial, a specialist decontamination and cleaning company and a DCA steering group member, says, “Corrosive gasses from exhaust fumes brought into the building through the air supply and from standby batteries, airborne salt and even zinc ‘whiskers’, which can grow on metalwork inside data centres, can corrode sensitive connections or cause short circuits leading to failures and outages.”
“Even worse damage is often caused by overzealous cleaning, as equipment like floor polishers can cough up massive clouds of invisible particles as their abrasive wheels scour the floor,” adds Gary Hall of 8 Solutions, a specialist data centre cleaning company and steering group member.
The DCA has tasked the Anti-Contamination Steering Group to collate best practice knowledge into a working guide for data centre designers and operators to ensure that this issue is resolved as soon as possible. “Everyone, from designers to operators to cleaning contractors, will benefit from this document,” Hall concludes.