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Ensuring data centre cleanliness: Flawless facilities, flawless performance

Ensuring data centre cleanliness: Flawless facilities, flawless performance

Facilities & ServersInsightsTop Stories

Data centre leaders must ensure their facilities are well maintained and advanced cleaning methods are used to ensure they can operate to the best of their ability. Mike Meyer, Managing Director at Critical Facilities Solutions UK, explains why having a clean data centre is essential for faultless performance.

As home to mission-critical equipment, it’s easy to see why you’d want your facility to be as contaminate-free and well maintained as possible. Yet, even with the necessary procedures in place, contamination still occurs. Everyday activities such as running cooling systems, employees opening and closing doors, installing new equipment — all of these are activities that introduce various levels of contamination.

Maintaining your data centre should take a ‘minimise, regulate and maintain’ approach to contamination control and cleaning, but how do you find a cleaning schedule and programme that is in line with your operational goals?

Hardware manufacturers such as IBM, EMC and Dell recommend you maintain your environment to ISO14644-1:2015 Class 8 utilising professional data centre cleaners. In fact, failing to do so may void your warranty in instances where preventable airborne contamination was found to be a cause of the device failure. ASHRAE recommends having an annual sub-floor clean and quarterly floor and equipment surface cleaning. Many of the ‘standards’ and ‘recommendations’ seemingly contradict one another.

Nevertheless, a clean data centre is essential and here’s why. Airborne contaminants are the unnoticed threat – the trouble with them is that the source (or sources) isn’t always easy to identify and harmful build-up can occur over the course of days, months, or even years.

You might not see the source, but airborne and contact-based contaminants build up on equipment. Even solid-state storage mediums can be compromised by build-up on heat sinks, bearings and vents. There’s no such thing as an air-proof data centre. Therefore, contamination from airborne sources is — for all intents and purposes — unavoidable. Electrostatic dust, corrosive oxides, volatile organic compounds, solvents and other contaminants put equipment at risk. Even seemingly mundane, everyday sources of contamination such as pollen, dust, hair and carpeting fibres can prove to be problematic.

Periodic indoor air quality testing, otherwise known as air particle testing, has long been the best and only method for ascertaining and confirming compliance to the ISO standard for machine room and data centre air cleanliness. The faults with this method are twofold; firstly, it’s a snapshot in time and; secondly, it only measures contaminates that are airborne and not those that have already settled.  

There have been significant new advancements in the equipment and methods used to test the air quality and the volume of particulate in the air. At Critical Facilities Solutions, we are introducing new methods of testing. While we still use hand-held, snapshot, air particle testing where necessary and relevant, we are also installing robust, cost-effective alternatives that measure the air quality on a constant or predetermined basis. We’ve coined the phrase ‘Constant Air Monitoring’. The product and system we supply and install can operate as a standalone system or be integrated into any BMS system.

While Continuous Particulate Air Monitors (CPAMs) have been used for years in nuclear facilities to assess airborne particulate radioactivity (APR) and pharmaceutical cleanrooms to measure air particulate (AP), the CPAMs have typically been extremely costly to install in other environments. This is especially when taking the test parameters of the ISO standard and integration into data centre systems into account.

Settled contaminants cause decreased performance and thermal clogging. When airborne or touch contaminants build up on the surface of equipment, this is known as ‘settled contamination’. These tiny particles make their way onto (and into) delicate equipment, resulting in thermal clogging, data loss and performance bottlenecks due to thermal throttling. Contamination-related failures can even occur with solid-state drives (SSDs).

Densely packed racks are more susceptible to contamination. Servers and drives continue to shrink and become even more compact. This is great for reducing floor space but it also means equipment is packed in tightly, creating opportunities for settle contaminants to go unnoticed. It’s important to note that the more contamination accumulates on equipment and in air filters, the less efficient equipment becomes, leading to performance bottlenecks and wasted energy mostly down to the additional cooling requirements which then lead to further environmental impact. 

On to lesser known risks, but for those that have experienced it firsthand, the threat of zinc whiskers — and how they cripple essential equipment — is very real. But, there are several factors that are making this once-rare phenomenon all the more common.

Zinc whiskers and noticing if your server room or data centre is at risk

Zinc whiskers are microscopic, crystalline slivers of zinc that form through corrosion. Whiskering can originate from any number of sources; flooring panels, duct work, ceiling hangers, server racks, electrical components and virtually any source galvanised with this brittle metal — even bolts, nuts and washers may exhibit signs of whiskering.

While it is now fairly well understood how whiskering occurs, tracing the source isn’t always so easy. For one, these ‘whiskers’ are incredibly light which means they can easily travel through HVAC systems and subfloor voids.

These metallic, fibre-like ‘whiskers’ are highly conductive and can cross circuit board traces, corrupt data, compromise hardware and cause extensive downtime. PCB boards and other pieces of electronic equipment (servers, SSDs, PCB boards, etc.) are all at risk of being affected by zinc whiskers.

To neutralise the risks associated with zinc whiskers, Critical Facilities Solutions offers a complete solution that includes:

• Sample collection and analysis

• Laboratory testing

• Remediation

• Specialist cleaning

• Testing and consultancy

Getting started with professional cleaning doesn’t have to be difficult. If you’re new to the concept of hiring specialists to clean your critical facility, a professional data centre cleaner can walk you through the entire process, explaining each step and making recommendations along the way. Since no two facilities are the same, its highly recommended that a thorough inspection and survey be commissioned before you set out to create a service profile and schedule.

Following a consultation, it is highly likely that a full deep clean will be recommend as the starting point for any ongoing maintenance cleaning (especially if your facility has never received a professional service, or if there has been a lapse in cleaning). A deep clean may include cleaning every square inch of the data hall, equipment surfaces, as well as flooring, stringers, pedestals and the sub-floor voids. These aren’t ‘precautionary steps’, but essential parts of preventing recontamination and ensuring your facility is as dust- and contamination-free as possible.

Selecting the best ‘starting point’ for your data centre’s maintenance regime can prove challenging. The Data Centre Alliance (DCA) has, in consultation with the leading UK Data Centre cleaning authorities and companies, produced and distributed an Anti-Contamination Guide which focuses on best practice and should be considered a great resource in determining your starting point for any maintenance schedule.

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