The average data centre may appear to be a sterile environment, but there are threats in the air.
Dust, particles of human hair, dead skin, wool and artificial fibres can get into servers, clog up the heatsinks on sensitive chips, causing overheating and early chip death. Gases can also cause damage, affect the performance of equipment, increase energy consumption and sometimes threaten the loss of data.
It can apply to hosted and co-located centres as much as in-house operations. Sometimes it is down to shortcomings in the initial design, when contamination control was not even on the agenda, but is now causing invisible damage.
Efforts to keep a data centre clean can make things worse when the wrong methods are being applied: hovering can suck in particles from air ducts, and vigorous polishing can throw up microscopic clouds that can damage equipment.
There are also risks from unsealed concrete floors allowing contaminants to seep in, and corrosive gases from standby batteries and exhaust fumes. There is even a danger from 'zinc whiskers', which can grow on metalwork when high rack density generates a lot of heat.
Dusting for danger
The Data Centre Alliance (DCA), a UK based organisation with 160 organisations and 350 individuals in its membership, has declared all this a real threat and taken its first steps to spread awareness and best practice in the industry.
It has formed an anti-contamination steering group, which met for the first time at Leeds University in February, and has launched a consultation for the industry with the aim of producing a best practice document by the end of May.
Simon Campbell-Whyte, Executive Director of the DCA, says this is an issue for the business using data centres as it can lead to the loss of valuable data.
The problems are sufficiently widespread to cause concern, even though they are usually played down because neither data centre or customer wants to broadcast when something has gone wrong. He declines to provide examples, but says there are horror stories about contaminated data centres, and that new designs are intensifying the problem.
More air is being driven through smaller ducts, which can increase the build-up of contaminants. This is an ever-increasing threat.
"This is especially so when many data centres are moving towards non-refrigeration solutions and fresh cooling," Campbell-Whyte says. "You get a lot of benefits from those solutions, but they have to be tempered with mitigating the risk with a more intense anti-contamination strategy."
He adds: "There are risks that the data centre is not applying the right cleaning strategy; it could be an office cleaner doing the job.
"At one time most data centres were connected to offices and the regular cleaners would do it, but now they are high powered with sophisticated cooling systems and need a specialist to come in and clean them properly. They should know what they can clean and what they should leave alone."
Campbell-Whyte, who is also a director of data centre consultancy Colofinder, says that small businesses using a third party data centre, either with their own servers on the site or using a hosted service, are usually unaware of the risks, and don't take them into account when making a choice.
"Most people make their minds pretty quickly based on the initial impression rather than facts and figures, and data centres have not necessarily given customers the best information," he says.
"It needs expertise to know if they are designed and run properly, but people usually make a choice based on the general feel of the place, or go down to the lowest cost denominator. They don't know other ways of measuring it."
He urges them to take a more demanding approach.
"The first thing I would do in their shoes would be to ask about the cleaning strategy. Is a specialist cleaner used to clean the data centre?"
They should ask for evidence that the cleaners are aware of the dangers and use methods that minimise the risks of contamination.
Stay clean, stay safe
The DCA hopes that its best practice document will produce a clear guide to the techniques, and that its adoption will be included as part of its new certification programme. This includes various elements of best practice, such as energy efficiency, professionalism and access control and security, and anti-contamination standards will be incorporated during the spring.
"It will help the customer understand what they are dealing with in a non-technical way," Campbell-Whyte says.
"It references accepted standards and accepted guidelines if they do the job. It's not designed to re-invent the wheel."
As for businesses that maintain their own data centres, and the smaller firms that run all their mission-critical equipment in-house, they are subject to the same risks, especially as their equipment becomes more sophisticated.
Campbell-Whyte says they should realise that cleaning the relevant areas should not be part of the regular office cleaning regime, and that they should be ready to adopt the DCA's best practice when it is published.
One of the steering group's members, Gary Hall of specialist data centre cleaning company 8Solutions, says it will mark a step forward in maintaining high standards in data centres.
"Everyone from designers to operators to cleaning contractors will benefit from the understanding this best practice document will bring when it is published later this year."