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January 29, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 3
Page(s) 16 in print issue

Cut The Noise
Tips For Knowing Whether Data Center Noise Is A Problem & What To Do About It

Key Points

• Data center noise can affect employees who work both inside and outside the data center.

• Although employees who work inside the data center can be helped out with earplugs, managers might have to take further steps to make surrounding employees comfortable.

• Warning signs of hazardous noise include the need to raise your voice to be heard and the inability to hear someone speaking 2 feet away from you, according to the American Speech-Language-Hear-ing Association.

It will come as no shock that smaller enterprises can lack the space to spread out. Many must situate their data centers and related equipment in the midst of an employee workspace. These types of setups can create more noise than is typical in an average enterprise, as the servers, fans, air conditioners, and other equipment keep up their humming.

The problem is, data center noise can be even louder than typical background noise, impinging on surrounding employees’ work processes and even causing potential hearing loss, says Doug Alger, IT architect for physical infrastructure at Cisco (

Combine that with the fact that noise inside the data center has become louder in recent years as installations have become smaller and more densely populated with hardware, and you have a real workplace problem, Alger adds. The first step is recognizing the noise issue. The next step: doing something about it. Luckily, noise issues can be rather easily solved, though solutions range from relatively inexpensive and hassle-free to a more complex task of relocating office workers.

Air Handlers & Fans

In the typical data center, the majority of noise is generated by the air handlers, which are essentially big air conditioning units, and from the fans running within the hardware. These units and fans work harder in the smaller and denser data centers typical of smaller enterprises, Alger says. “As the data center gets more equipment doing more processing, it generates more heat, and these noisy systems need to work harder to cool it,” he says.

In his years in the industry, he’s heard firsthand the increase in data center noise. “A lot of time I give tours of data centers, and I’ve noticed with the higher-density installations, I’ve had to talk louder as I tour those spaces,” Alger says. “You can’t even have a normal conversation with someone a few feet away; you have to raise your voice. That background noise is pretty loud.”

Warning signs of hazardous noise include the need to raise your voice to be heard and the inability to hear someone speaking 2 feet away from you, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

To test his theory—that data centers can be loud places—Alger and his team took decibel readings using a portable decibel monitor. “They were in the high 70s and flirting with 80 decibels at the time,” Alger says.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards call for employers to provide hearing protection such as earplugs when employees are exposed to noise at 85 decibels or higher for eight hours or more.

Alger recommends data center managers offer the option of hearing protection to employees who work in noisy data centers. Employees who don’t work in the data center, but who might be affected by its noise, might also be offered hearing protection. “It’s an inexpensive thing to do, so why not do it,” he says.

Alger’s team used a widely available, inexpensive portable decibel monitor to take noise measurements. Managers interested in checking data center noise levels can use a similar device and should also take measurements outside the center itself to gauge how noise levels affect employees who sit nearby.

Nuisance To Intolerable

Employees who work directly outside the data center can experience noise problems that range from nuisance to intolerable, Alger says. The noise issue, too, is of greater concern to employees who need silence to concentrate or hold phone conversations.

“Sometimes with a large, mixed-use building, employees near the data center can kind of hear it rumbling and sometimes feel it vibrating,” he says. “That [noise] level . . . could be very, very distracting for some people.”

But even when noise levels are only slightly distracting, they can affect employee efficiency, says Bernard Woytek, senior associate at Gensler (, an IT consulting firm.

Data center managers can take steps to minimize the noise that leaves the center, he adds.

The first step, says Tom Deaderick, is a well-designed data center. Deaderick is director of OnePartner Advanced Technology and Applications Center (, a commercial hosting facility.

Because air-handling systems cause the majority of noise inside the server room, he says, data center designers and managers should be attentive to airflow within the server space. An efficient server layout will streamline cool air delivery and hot air exhaust and minimize cooling requirements.

“The primary objective of any server room is to provide an ideal environment for hardware,” he says. “Do that as efficiently as possible, with as little waste as possible, and reduced noise is a byproduct.”

Designers and managers might also consider moving the air-handling equipment to an isolated room adjacent to the data center but still located away from the enterprise’s main working environment, Woytek says. Managers might also investigate padding ductwork and locating it under the flooring to reduce air-handling noise, he adds.

Further Insulation

The data center can be further insulated to keep noise from the surrounding environment. Because noise can leak out around a door frame, managers might want to consider hanging an acoustic sound-deadening blanket in front of the data center’s doors, Woytek says. “A server space at a small business might essentially be a small closet with this blanket on the door,” he says.

Some data centers feature ceilings that are open to the surrounding structure. In this case, installing a separate ceiling for the center—ideally using sound-deadening tiles—is an obvious choice, he says.

If noise is still an issue for enterprise employees, even more radical action may be needed, Deaderick says. Consider letting employees work remotely or at home some days of the week. This is also an option for employees who work inside especially loud server rooms. “No one complains about the noise in a server room when they are using remote management tools from an office five miles away,” he says.

by Jean Thilmany

Top Tips

• Enterprises looking to save space and to move employees away from noisy environments might consider moving employees offsite altogether.

• Most data centers can be managed remotely, says Tom Deaderick, director of OnePartner Advanced Technology and Applications Center ( Some consulting companies offer this capability to enterprises. VoIP and commonly available software make working from remote locations easier than ever, he adds.

• Noise abatement starts with trying to alleviate noise from the air-handling system. Further measures might involve insulating the data center and relocating surrounding employees.

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