The disgusting secret inside too many data centres

The Data Centre Alliance is warning that construction standards need to be set to keep server farms clean and free of contamination. Because they’re certainly not free of contamination now


There’s something that feels pure about a brand-new data centre. You sense the clean, fresh air. The floors, walls and ceilings are immaculately clear—untouched.  Then, when the machines are wheeled in, they hum away happily in their safe, sterile environment, sealed off from the grittiness of the outside world.

When I got a tour of a newly constructed data centre in Ontario, I wouldn’t have bothered with the five-second rule—the floors looked clean enough to eat off. But a report from the Data Centre Alliance (DCA), a European-based organization that aims to set construction standards for server farms, almost made me lose my appetite.

Data centres are a lot dirtier than we might imagine, the organization says. Dust. Corrosive gases. Human hair. Dead skin. It’s all getting blown around by air circulation systems and sucked into the hardware, clogging it up, overheating chips and shortening its lifespan . Yuck.

Phil Turtle, managing director of UK-based Data Centre Industry PR, which works on behalf of the DCA, says while facilities may look pristine to the eye, any concrete surfaces that aren’t sealed will harbour such contaminants. These “seemingly little things” overlooked during the construction stage will lead to big problems in the future, he says.

Seal everything tight, or “you’ll probably have to live with the consequences for 20 years,” says Turtle.

Whenever a tile gets lifted, for example, invisible dust particles will float up. And trying to tidy up can actually make things worse, he says. Cleaning companies that “are not trained in the way of data centres” might bring in a floor polishing machine with a rotating disk that will throw the dust sky high, he says. And guess where it ends up? In all those expensive boxes you’ve taken so much care to protect.

But there’s something that doesn’t make sense here. The cleanliness of a data centre is so critical to its proper operation that it rather strains credulity to imagine any company would spend millions building one without the proper safeguards.

A network is only as strong as its weakest link, and having CPUs fried in just a few servers could lead to some serious communication problems. For vendors providing cloud services, the sanctity of data centre hardware is the most basic thing to preserve to keep problems from flowing down the pipe.

When I e-mailed Mark Schrutt, an IDC Canada expert on data centres who has visited more than a few, he said he’s been nothing but impressed by the cleanliness of the vendor sites he’d visited. Perhaps this is a problem with smaller firms in the corporate world, he suggested.

Turtle, however, says the problem is endemic in data centres. “It’s an issue across the board from the smallest to the largest.”

In fact, it’s because of the fact that companies spend millions of dollars that they tend to focus more on things like the “hundreds of kilowatts of electricity supplied” than sealing concrete surfaces, he says.  It’s only when the dust settles that it gets noticed. And by then it’s too late.

So, how do we clean up the mess? Well, it’s not easy to do after the damage is done. The DCA recommends getting it right the first time. A series of best practices for data centres that take these seemingly trivial matters into account during the construction phase is sorely needed, it says.

By May 2013, the organization plans to publish a comprehensive guide to preventing contamination in data centres. Might be worth a read. Just make sure you finish your lunch first.

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