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July 2, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 14
Page(s) 17 in print issue

Environmental Monitoring Buying Guide
What Options Are Available & Which Are Best For SMEs?

Key Points

• The move to wireless sensors cannot only improve security but also allow data centers to achieve a more appropriate sensor count compared to prior times with wired equipment.

• Environmental monitoring may only be part of the real picture. When weighing new solutions, keep an eye on those that can scale to include other areas, such as power consumption.

• Effective monitoring vendors should be able to help managers distinguish objective needs and display experience with integrating their solutions with any existing equipment.

If only to help ensure operational uptime, environmental monitoring of factors such as airflow, temperature, humidity, and wetness are increasingly prevalent in data centers. As data centers increase in size, so does the value of environmental monitoring. But as with any other technology, some ways of going about buying environmental monitoring are better than others.

Narrowing The Field

Before anything, managers need to understand what monitoring options are available. Until two or three years ago, wired sensors were standard issue. Unfortunately, this entailed so much plugging and running of cable that many businesses would only deploy a handful of sensors. Meanwhile, ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) specifies six temperature sensors on each rack—top, middle, and bottom, both front and back. According to Mark Harris, vice president of product management at Modius (www.modius.com), many enterprises feel that although ASHRAE is too strict, only having a few sensors is too risky. A happy medium is best.

Fortunately, the broad range of wireless sensors on today’s market makes right-sizing a monitoring deployment much easier. Harris states that modern wireless sensors small enough to fit in one’s palm are just as dependable as wired alternatives.

Next, managers must decide if and how tightly various monitoring products should be integrated, both with one another and with the enterprise network. After all, there will be less of a need to make sensor data available to IT staff if the monitoring will be outsourced to a services provider. Standalone sensors may be fine for smaller businesses with fewer feature needs, but larger organizations will likely find their product choices determined in part by features that will help IT be accountable for its systems.

Dave Ruede, vice president of sales at Temperature@lert (www.temperaturealert.com), notes that data centers have two tasks: keep running and keep data secure. Managers need to decide how much monitoring will play into supporting these two functions. In the former task, environmental monitoring can watch for such factors as power fluctuations or outages, vibration, smoke or fire, water leaks, or temperature excursions due to AC or chilled water system failures. These are the usual suspects with environmental monitoring, but a similar array of options also pertain to security.

“When working to keep data secure,” Ruede says, “sensors include some of those included in the ‘keep running’ category. But additional sensors may be added for intrusion—like proximity, motion, door open sensors—sound, light, and in some cases, video recording. The rule of thumb is more data requires more sensors, bandwidth, etc., with video requirements adding significantly to the bandwidth and memory requirements.”

Ruede adds that managers shouldn’t forget to account for personnel, whether internal or contracted, to respond appropriately to all possible alarm conditions.

Entering The Spend

Buying environmental monitoring equipment is like buying life insurance. Buy too little and the worst case scenario could be catastrophic for everyone. Buying too much means throwing good money away for no reason. The monitoring must be commensurate with the value of what’s being protected.

According to Temperature@lert’s Ruede, a simple USB-based solution with temperature sensors and monitoring software can be had for about $100. “Rackmounted enterprise-based monitors complete with Wi-Fi and hardwired sensor interfaces can cost several hundred to a few thousand dollars, and sensors would be extra,” he says, and that’s before any video monitoring and installation. Sensors that can signal out via cellular are more costly at a few hundred dollars, but they have the security advantage of not being dependent on a local network.

Modius’ Harris points out that with environmental monitoring, one thing often leads to another. Data from a set of sensors breeds questions about other data center equipment, particularly about power. In smaller operations, this means power strips and UPS statuses, but bigger organizations will also want to monitor PDUs, CRAC units, and generators.

“Because monitoring is so easy to do these days,” Harris says, “you don’t want to be in a position where you say ‘If only I had looked at outside air temperatures, as well, I could have weighed this other set of business analytics against the data I have.’ Monitor the things that you can see as likely being part of your decision processes: temperature, power, backup power, cooling, server loads. But don’t kill yourself. At some point, a diminishing returns curve kicks in.”

Vendors & Choices

Any environmental monitoring purchase involves compromise based on hard choices. Often, an outside set of eyes from an expert vendor can help in making objective decisions, and the first thing a vendor should help managers determine is their needs vs. their wants. The answer to this is often enough to indicate if a responsible vendor with the customer’s interests foremost in mind is on the case.

Ruede recommends assessing vendors in part on their ability to provide a turnkey solution. If an end-to-end solution isn’t needed, can the vendors answer questions about integrating with existing equipment? Do the vendors offer monitoring services, and which providers do they have listed as key partners?

“Ultimately,” Ruede says, “the choice will come down to, ‘Whom do I trust to really understand my needs, help do this right, bring it in at or under budget, and be there in the future when I need help?’”

by William Van Winkle
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