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December 31, 2010
Vol.32 Issue 27|
Page(s) 14 in print issue
How Airborne Contaminants Pose An Increasing Threat For Data Centers
In many data centers today, stealthy intruders are wreaking havoc even as employees and security personnel continue about their work, often oblivious to the invasion. These aren’t masked thieves looking to steal corporate secrets in the dead of night, nor are they sophisticated malware programs that slip in beneath defense systems. Instead, these are common airborne contaminants that might be relatively harmless in other environments but will trash data center components if left unaddressed.
“There are a lot of airborne contaminants that can make their way inside a data center,” says Phil Nail, CTO at Afford-able Internet Services Online (www.aiso.net). “In our case, if we were to use out-side air, we would be bringing in a lot of very fine dust and dirt, which could potentially get inside the servers and create major issues.”
• A study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calls attention to the increasing presence of airborne contaminants due to cooling data centers with outside air.
• Air filters can trap many particles, but smaller contaminants can infiltrate filters and lead to corrosion and other problems in data center equipment over time.
• Gaseous contamination is becoming more of a problem in data centers as equipment manufacturers ramp up their use of silver to comply with environment-friendly measures.
The problem of airborne contamination certainly isn’t new to data centers, but it’s growing more prominent. In fact, a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory takes a close look at airborne contaminants and attempts to determine whether they can lead to increased failure rates of IT equipment. This increased focus on these airborne intruders is due partly to the popularization of outside-air cooling, which many data centers now rely on to help save money and reduce energy consumption. Although data centers can benefit by turning to the natural cooling that exists just outside their walls, they could be forced to address the particulate-heavy downsides that can come with that air.
Inside The Intrusion
According to Tony Abate, vice president of operations at AtmosAir Solutions (www.atmosair.com), outdoor air can contain several contaminants—or even attributes—that are undesirable in a data center environment. One of these is particulate, in the form of dust or spores, that is introduced as a data center increases the volume of outdoor air that moves into the data center.
“Filters may trap some of the particles, but the very small ranges of particles [0.3 micron and under] can pass through many filters. Excessively humid or dry outside air will also have detrimental effects on electronic devices. Ozone can be present in outside air in unacceptable quantities in some areas. Odors, chemical gases, and VOCs [volatile organic compounds] can be introduced into the space through the outside air,” Abate says.
Your data center’s proximity to certain outdoor structures or areas can also affect the amount of airborne contamination that seeps inside your environment. For example, carbons from exhaust are a major contaminant in data centers located near highways or other heavily traveled roads, explains Bill Montgomery, founder of Premier Solutions (www.premiersolutionsco.com). He adds that if the air return is via the ceiling plenum and plenum air is delivered to the data center via the subfloor, the entire room can be contaminated. In fact, Montgomery says he’s seen instances where the carbon buildup over several years was evident from the ceiling to the subfloor.
If allowed to infiltrate the data center, airborne contaminants can cause a wide range of problems that can ultimately lead to equipment failure and costly downtime. Abate explains that contaminant particles are attracted to electronic devices such as servers, monitors, and other components because the particles have a natural charge that’s drawn to an opposite charge on the devices. As this process occurs over time—and it doesn’t necessarily take much time, depending on the conditions—equipment can fall prey to ad-verse effects.
Mark Blanke, CEO of OwlPoint (www.owlpoint.com), says that particulate contaminants such as dirt, dust, and soot can accumulate on air vents and reduce airflow, which in turn can reduce the effectiveness of cooling systems and cause overheating problems. For evidence of this phenomenon, he suggests looking no further than your own desktop PC, which likely collects these contaminants on its external vents. Montgomery adds that colocated data centers are especially susceptible to particulate contamination, because these remote locations often breed an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” approach.
Gaseous contaminants have an even more insidious effect on equipment, and these types of contaminants are difficult to detect if you’re not actively testing for their presence. “Gaseous contamination causes corrosion,” says Fred Stack, vice president of marketing for Emerson Network Power’s Liebert Precision Cooling (www.liebert.com). “The corrosion attacks the copper and silver found within the servers, both on the printed circuit boards and within the electronic components themselves. This risk has been increased as manufacturers have moved to make their equipment RoHS [Restriction of Hazardous Substances]-compliant, as this process has increased the use of silver, which is significantly sensitive to these gases.”
Don’t Panic (Yet)
Despite the many dangers of airborne contaminants, there may not be a need for outright panic among data center operators. OwlPoint’s Blanke says that most data centers aren’t sensitive enough to particulate contaminants for major problems to emerge, especially if outside air is being properly filtered using the same or similar filtration systems used to clear air through air conditioning. Nonetheless, many experts recommend visual inspections for particulate contaminant build-up on equipment and other areas, and data centers with more sensitive equipment can use data loggers that measure levels of airborne contaminants as well as other levels, such as relative humidity and temperature.
by Christian Perry
Crowd Of Contaminants |
Airborne contamination in today’s data centers derives from a stunningly wide range of sources, most of which are invis-ible to the naked eye. Fred Stack, vice president of marketing for Emerson Net-work Power’s Liebert Precision Cooling (www.liebert.com), identifies the airborne contaminants that cause the most concerns in data center environments.