Article: Clean the Data Center
February 27, 2009
By Jean Thilmany, “Processor Magazine”
Optimal cleanliness starts with a well-planned layout and continues with policy enforcement and a regular cleaning schedule.
Most data center managers at small to midsized enterprises agree: A stray bit of dust is not likely to take down a server, let alone your data center. Taken together, though, experts say those dust motes can definitely affect the way servers and other important pieces of data center equipment function.
But data center cleanliness involves more than the routine dusting, vacuuming, and picking up the place like you would do around your house.
Data centers, with all the sensitive equipment they house, are different from any other business environment. Not only can dust particles affect equipment operation, but the super-sensitive smoke detectors that dot server spaces can also pick up contaminants in the space, misinterpreting them as smoke and sounding an alarm when particulate counts rise, says Doug Alger, IT architect of physical infrastructure at Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com). Alarms blaring in your data center are, of course, best avoided.
Cleaning the data center and keeping it clean is no small matter. Getting a leg up on cleanliness is twofold, says Mac Scofield, administrator of the OnePartner ATAC (Advanced Technology and Applications Center; www.onepartner.com), a commercial hosting facility.
Scofield speaks from many years of experience, both at his current job and as a data center manager at Eastman Chemical, where he designed a new data center. He says that a pristine data center results from two factors: planning the initial layout with cleanliness in mind and cleaving to posted regulations that all IT employees must follow. “The key to this whole thing is planning far enough in advance and well enough so you eliminate concerns about keeping your space orderly,” he says.
The First Step
Scofield and Alger both say the first step IT personnel need to take is to dedicate an area outside the data center where new equipment is removed from crates and boxes. They each stress that no cardboard, wood, or packing popcorn shall enter the data centers at their respective facilities.
“Cardboard is filthy and is a hazard to have lying around; you could trip over it,” Alger says.
The dedicated area is vital because most gear is delivered in packing crates or cardboard boxes, Alger says.
“Your dedicated unpacking area can be as simple as taking equipment from boxes on a receiving dock, though a lot of companies have a build-up or fit-up room where they place equipment into the cabinet and test it before rolling it into the data center,” he adds.
Not only has Alger worked as a data center manager at Cisco Systems, he also wrote the book “Build the Best Data Center Facility for Your Business,” which includes a chapter on maintaining data center cleanliness and a downloadable instruction sheet IT managers can use to guide their cleaning vendors.
Bring In Help
Speaking of cleaning vendors, Tom Deaderick, OnePartner director, suggests having a service that specializes in cleaning data centers come in annually, if not more often.
“Because we take such care, we don’t generate dirt or dust, so we usually have this thing cleaned quarterly,” Deaderick says of his company’s data center facility. “We escort cleaning company personnel into the secured spaces and allow them to do a damp mopping. We don’t allow them in unescorted, and they can’t take in watering buckets and pails.”
The cleaners also wipe down equipment surfaces with a damp rag, he adds.
Alger says bringing in the specialized cleaning service quarterly, biannually, or even annually should be fine, depending on data center policy.
He recommends the cleaners wipe out air-handling areas and use a HEPA-rated vacuum cleaner for horizontal surfaces. They should also vacuum in the plenum to remove any particulate matter lingering there.
To ensure data center cleanliness at the small center he manages for XNet (www.xnet.com), Tim Courtney consults a monthly cleaning checklist that includes wiping down servers with a damp rag. He also runs a Roomba vacuum through the facility as needed.
For his colocation facility, cleanliness also serves as a sales tool, Courtney notes.
“Many times, prospects have complimented us on the level of neatness and cleanliness in our data center,” he says. “If you’re touring a data center looking for colocation, don’t work with someone who allows food in the facility.”
Don’t forget to have your cleanliness policies posted and make sure all employees are aware of them, Scofield cautions.
OnePartner policy prohibits individuals who don’t have to access the data center from entering the space. This keeps dirt and dust from shoes and clothing to a minimum, says Deaderick.
“At our facility, management is done with remote systems, so the only time people need to be in there is for racking new equipment or switching out media,” Deaderick explains.
Food and drink are, of course, also forbidden in the data center.
As Scofield points out, the data center plan and design are integral to maintaining cleanliness going forward.
“The better you plan your center, the less aggravation you’ll have through all other clean aspects,” he says.
The ATAC makes use of a pressured subfloor raised 2 feet above a concrete floor. The actual floor is sealed with an antistatic product to prevent static buildup and to keep dust from clinging to the concrete floor.
A cooling system that IT personnel can reconfigure, depending on equipment location, runs below the subfloor. In this way, staff can move cooling ducts below the floor when needed to properly cool the center and to keep dust circulating around ducts to a minimum.
“Any place you have airflow, you’ll accumulate dust, so you’re keeping dust from going up the cabinets themselves,” Scofield says. That airflow is supplemented with a mechanical air-handling unit that delivers air under the subfloor so that air comes into the room through the perforated floor tile, Deaderick says.
The cutouts that surround air ducts and the cable entry areas have been tightly sealed to prevent dust from circulating above or below the floor, Deaderick adds.
The ATAC also features cabling and wires running below the subfloor in two separate tray systems. The top tray carries low-voltage and structured cabling and the second tray carries electrical wiring.
“Any electrical considerations and cabling considerations are addressed in cable trays so floor is pristine,” Deaderick says.
As Scofield mentioned previously, a pristine data center starts with planning and continues with planning and policy enforcement.
“You’ll always have challenges keeping it clean going forward,” he cautions. “But the better you plan the center in the first place, and the clarity and follow-through on your policies, the less aggravation you’re going to have.”