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The Threat of Data Centre Contamination

Contamination is an ever-present threat to sensitive data centre equipment. Its potential effects range from impaired power efficiency to catastrophic equipment failure. However, with the right expertise, prevention is entirely possible.

Colleen Miller

September 14, 2010

5 Min Read
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Kaushal Doshi is group director at 8 Solutions, which is the UK's largest contamination and environmental services specialist to the IT and data centre industries.


8 Solutions

Contamination is an ever-present threat to sensitive data centre equipment. Its potential effects range from impaired power efficiency to catastrophic equipment failure. However, with the right expertise, prevention is entirely possible. This column discusses the risks and how to prevent them.

Contamination affecting ICT comes in two forms—particulate matter (PM) and gaseous. These cause problems for many reasons. If PM blocks equipment cooling fans and heatsinks, they must work harder to keep equipment within operating temperature limits. This can increase a data centre's power demand by 2% or more, as well as potentially shortening equipment lifetime and causing hardware failure due to overheating. Zinc whiskers and other PM can bridge between conductive tracks within electronics equipment, causing short circuits and hardware failures—a growing occurrence as ICT equipment shrinks in physical size, correspondingly reducing track bridging distances. Fibres longer than 5 mm have been found inside data equipment. Oxidisation arising from gas interaction can cause permanent corrosion, leading to irreparable equipment damage and failure.

Common contamination sources

External sources of contamination include cars, electricity generation, sea salt, natural and artificial fibres, plant pollens and wind-blown dust. Internal examples are particles from air conditioning unit fanbelt wear, toner dust, packaging and construction materials, human hair and clothing, and zinc whiskers from electroplated steel floor plates. Contaminating gases occur naturally or result from industrial processes. They can either act alone or together with other gases or PM, forming compounds that oxidize metallic materials.

Contaminants enter the data centre through air conditioning units, open doors, on clothes and anything else brought into the room. Activities such as equipment maintenance or lifting floor or ceiling tiles can also release PM which can then reach ICT equipment through gravity, diffusion or electrostatic attraction.

Preventing downtime

Contamination prevention starts with the design of the data centre and surrounding areas. Relevant factors include using air handling unit filters, positive pressurization, limiting the number of room entrances, using Takmats to capture footwear and trolley wheel dirt, subfloor area sealing and using suitable materials and fabrics within the data area. A policy for controlling and limiting visitors into the data area is also important.

Decontamination cleaning success depends on the frequency as well as the nature of the cleaning activities. Ideally, these should start before the first item of ICT or even associated hardware such as cable trays or suspended floors are installed. This is because cleaning areas consigned to such installations becomes more difficult or impossible once they are in place. And, clearly sensitive ICT equipment, once installed, will benefit from starting life in a clean environment.

For example a "Post Construction Clinical Clean" includes cleaning of the subfloor void, floor surface, equipment surfaces and the pedestal and stringer substructure to ensure that the data centre is ready following any building work. After the data centre's operational life starts, any cleaning schedule should allow for maintenance activities, which increase contamination levels.

Planning an effective cleaning program, in which both the schedule and nature of the cleaning activities are optimised, requires specialist knowledge of how locally prevailing conditions contribute to contamination problems, and how to prevent this. Therefore, working with a specialist data centre cleaning company is essential. Using a general cleaning contractor or DIY may seem cheaper in the short term, but a critical lack of knowledge could cause serious downtime problems later.

Standards and warranties

A specialist cleaning contractor should work to ISO 14644, the globally accepted standard for contamination management in clean rooms, including data centres. This Standard defines Cleanliness Classes from Class 9 to Class 1, specifying maximum allowable concentrations of particles from 0.1 to 5 μm. The lower the Class number, the more stringent are the concentration limits. Specialists recommend Class 9 to Class 6 cleanliness for data centres. After cleaning, a particle counting meter can measure and prove the level of cleanliness achieved. This not only assures the data room operator of his security from contamination, but also provides hard proof and certification that the room is clean to a universally accepted standard; essential as ICT vendors increasingly use insufficient contamination protection as a reason to void equipment warranties.

Sustained protection

Particle sampling provides valid proof of room cleanliness at the time of measurement, but it doesn't allow for any settled PM, or of contaminant later introduced into the area. An on-site risk assessment can reveal contamination sources, allow for nearby installations that could impact contamination levels, and check air filtration procedures. Access policies for people and materials can also be reviewed. This information will contribute to a cleaning strategy cost-effectively matched to facility needs. Sustained protection of on-site equipment from contamination induced failures will be secured. The facility's carbon footprint will also be reduced as unobstructed equipment cooling fans run more efficiently.

Using the right staff

A specialist data centre cleaning contractor will always use permanent staff rather than subcontractors.

  • Security clearance, training and expertise can be assured

  • They can work safely around live ICT equipment

  • They use the right tools and cleaning products for the job; ensuring that antistatic surface properties are not compromised, for example

  • They use highly filtered, specialist vacuum cleaners; ordinary cleaners blow out dust

  • Using water is normal practice for office cleaners, but dangerous in a data centre. Trained cleaners avoid doing so.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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