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Fire Department
Know How To Fireproof Your Data Center

Of all the cool technology in a data center, there's one system that no one ever wants to use or even have tested: the fire protection system. Of all the dangers to a bank of machines, smoke and flames rank right up there with flooding and natural disasters as a top concern for IT managers. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the threat with careful planning and, especially, the right products.


For those fortunate enough to be able to build a new data center, there are fire protection options abound. Thanks to the increased importance of technology and the subsequent higher profile for data centers, architects and builders are more aware that these centers have special issues. That's led to the creation of more clean-agent fire suppression systems that use chemicals rather than water.

The systems work by breaking up the chemical reaction of fire. Each product employs this strategy in a slightly different way, but most target the oxygen that fire uses to spread. With no oxygen molecules, the fire essentially smothers, and equipment is safe because there's no toxic residue or chemical damage with the tactic. Systems include Inergen, Sapphire, and ECARO-25.

When building a new center, planning on incorporating systems such as these is essential, says Peter Sacco, president of design firm PTS Data Center Solutions. When you're constructing a new center, you're going to have to put in a different system than the rest of the building will have, he notes. Most likely, every other part of the building will have sprinklers, so an IT manager will have to be involved in the planning to make sure that's not automatically put into the data center, as well.

One of the newest fire suppression systems is aerosol-based, he adds, coming into the data center world from the space industry. These systems, such as Aero-K, either deliver an oxygen-snuffing aerosol gas or use aerosol to propel other types of gas that hang in the atmosphere and basically wrap a protective blanket around systems. Although these aerosol-based systems are only just starting to be introduced in new center construction, Sacco believes they should be more widespread within the next few years. (For more information on Aero-K, see the The Coolest Thing: Aero-K sidebar below.)

Buyer Beware

If a company is relocating or colocating its data center, fire protection should already be in place, but Sacco warns that there should be special care taken when signing the lease on a place that has Halon 1301 as its fire suppression system.

Halon is an odorless, colorless gas that extinguishes fire by tweaking the combustion process. It was embraced by places such as data centers, libraries, and art museums because it didn't leave any residue. But in the late 1990s, Halon was found to be environmentally damaging, as well as potentially harmful to anyone doused by it, not a good situation for IT employees who might be in the data center when a fire breaks out in the building.

Although Halon was banned for new construction, it wasn't outlawed, and refill tanks are still available for the systems that are still in place. That means if a data center manager is looking to colocate, and the facility in question was built before the mid-90s, its possible that a Halon system is in place. Besides environmental and health concerns, its worth thinking about stripping the system or looking for another facility, Sacco notes, because Halon is frequently considered a poor alternative to a water-based system. For Halon to work, the room has to be airtight because the gas is heavier than air. That means any raised flooring or open vents could render the system less effective.

Data Center Makeovers

For companies that aren't building a new data center but want to spiff up their existing facility, fire protection issues get more complicated. The replacement of one system with another isn't just a discussion for the architect and the IT department head; rather, the local fire authorities also have to be involved. Sometimes a municipality wont allow a non-sprinkler system to be put in place, no matter how effective it might have proven to be in other facilities.

Unfortunately, systems have to conform to rules set up by the municipality where the data center is located, says Sacco. The fire inspector could approve a chemical-based system in new construction but not approve the capping of a wet sprinkler system in a remodel. That's pretty common.

In that case, Sacco notes that data center managers should work with the architects to develop a preaction system, which holds water in check until its absolutely necessary. Such a system will fill the pipes with water but wont release it until there's a significant amount of heat in the room.

In general, Sacco recommends that every data center, whether new or old, should have a multilayered system in place for fire protection. That includes having the latest fire suppression system but also doing periodic testing, assigning responsibility for system upkeep, and integrating the fire protection with other temperature controls.

by Elizabeth Millard

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