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Computer Room Risks

07 July 2007

The issues facing the large data centres also apply in more than 40,000 computer rooms in business and public services across the country. Only the scale is different, as Frank Booty reports

RISK MANAGEMENT EXPERTS AND FMS BEWARE - a key danger that threatens network availability and business continuity is not hackers, viruses, terrorist threats or acts of God: it is the unsafe state of computer rooms.

Keith Breed, research director at communications specialist consultancy BroadGroup, says, "Typically, we would expect businesses with 50 employees or above to usually invest in their own IT hardware, local area network or server. The DTI estimates about one per cent of UK businesses employ more than 50 people, which is a total number of up to 43,000 businesses (2005 figures). Not all of these firms will have their own IT. Perhaps some are not really office based but the majority we would expect to have some kind of communications or computer room - also there might be a number of business locations within that figure, which may boost the number of computer rooms. Previously we have estimated there up to 1,500 data centres in the UK (carrier; hosting companies; ISPs and large corporate) - so a 300:1 ratio could be about right."

Steve Yellen, VP, Aperture Research Institute (ARI a wholly-owned subsidiary of Aperture Technologies) also agreed this seems to be a prevalent statistic: "ARI has found that 25 per cent of companies surveyed are building new data centres and the majority of them are Tier 3/4 facilities that are larger than 20,000sq ft. Based on our experience, there are more smaller computer rooms than large data centres, although many organisations are looking to consolidate the equipment in these computer rooms into larger, better managed data centres to make the optimum use of the benefits of these new, hardened facilities."

Alan Fayers, business development director at Datacentience, says, "All the information I've seen coming out of the likes of Gartner and hardware manufacturers such as Cisco, has the consensus that for every greenfield data centre site in the UK, there are at least 300 small data centres, computer rooms or upgrade programmes under way."

Datacentience can be described as the first of a new breed of businesses, set up to meet the business and IT challenges of designing, building and operating data centres. A part of Semper Holdings Ltd, the company has a long pedigree in the data centre industry that dates back some 20 years. During this time, the company has been responsible for a variety of data centre projects. Datacentience aligns with other Semper Group companies and selected specialist M&E engineering businesses to deliver 'best-of-breed' installation services for data centres and computer rooms.

Market intelligence provider IDC reckons most organisations are still struggling with IT systems that are rigid and inflexible. IT professionals are faced with demands to improve operational efficiency, streamline business processes and hasten speed to market - but budgetary and time constraints have led to a fragmented approach to solving these problems.

The IT guys are charged with planning their infrastructure for greater business advantage, so reducing technology and business uncertainty. But much vision and technology insights are needed to sustain the leading edge IT resource and for many companies this is proving a complex task.

Many computer rooms (and the networks hanging out of them) have grown up piecemeal. More attention has been paid to installing and keeping systems running than to taking a holistic view and following a strategic plan that covers the whole operating environment. Environmental issues and concerns are not top of the agenda and are typically only recognised in a crisis situation.

According to Gartner Research power demands have gone up 15-fold since 2002. Market researcher Ovum reckons computer equipment is getting heavier and normal buildings were designed to support 75lb/sq ft but now need to support 300lb/sq ft, and it's not always possible to reinforce floors on upper levels to take that much weight.

What was once contained in an entire data centre now fits into a rack, yet still draws the same amount of power. It is vital facilities managers work closely with IT procurement specialists in reviewing product specifications relating to power requirements, redundancy features, floor loading factors and space and cooling. With high-density servers, heat and power demand can wreak havoc with buildings' power and cooling systems. Meanwhile, research done by Aperture Technologies on data centres shows physical space is becoming a premium and power density is reaching critical proportions. Average racks are using 7 to 18kW or more.

Computer rooms can be found in small businesses or larger businesses with dispersed computer facilities. Many will have been around for decades, and will have been expanded piecemeal over the years. "Some computer rooms in SME companies may only consist of a simple room with a few servers, a single ac unit and inline UPS and no back up generator. Computer rooms can just be a room with patch panels and a single rack. There will be no investment in redundancy, fire control, back up systems or security," says ex-BIFM chair Mick Dalton. "Coupled with there being no business continuity plan, the company will be at risk."

"The same issue occurs where IT managers don't understand the risks, the legislation or the issues with blade servers and AC/power," says Dalton. "Also, as companies grow, their storage requirement grows so more boxes are added, with no thoughts as to the drain on infrastructure and services. I see little difference to the problems affecting a data centre, but on a smaller scale."

IT managers are typically employed not for their technical skills but for their ability to see how their IT projects can benefit the whole business. In many companies, responsibility for the computer room and environment is still in the FM bailiwick, says Dalton. "Most IT directors don't understand H&S, let alone building regulations and maintenance of plant and equipment. Their concerns are the hardware and the software."

Conversely, many FMs don't have technical backgrounds and their expertise lies in property, contract management or maintenance. Dalton adds they have much to offer in areas of legislation intended to make working environments safe and efficient. However, getting or persuading any FM (or IT manager for that matter) to go on record about the state of their company's computer room facilities has proved 'difficult' if not impossible. No-one wants to put their head above the parapet.

Tom Howard, technical director at Qube Networks (, says, "Hosted or managed IT services are becoming increasingly popular in many business sectors because the benefits are clear. There is less reliance on in-house IT expertise, you don't have to duplicate large amounts of remote 'branch office' infrastructure that are out there 'somewhere' and you don't have to allocate precious capital to what many people still view as purely a support function. Finally, you never have to worry about server hardware or operating system upgrades, nor releases on software or patching, as it's all done for you. You can host any or all of your IT service functions ┬ĘC for example front-facing online infrastructure, back-office file and print, terminal servers, offsite data backups, Voice over IP gateways, etc, all for fixed monthly usage charges which never lay demands on capital and are easy to budget."

"But," he continued, "hosting business critical IT services isn't for everybody. Many organisations still feel it is more appropriate to host their IT equipment within their own organisation, which means the challenges currently being experienced in the professional hosting market, will also have an impact on these organisations in the near future. These challenges relate primarily to carbon footprint. At Qube Net's central London facility, for example, we have 20m volt-amps - enough to run a large town - delivered to the door. Most of it is turned into waste heat and it should come as no surprise that carbon dioxide emissions regulations will apply first to large energy users such as ourselves. Soon, they will apply to that wiring closet under the stairs in the basement. Be warned!

"A clever response might be to embrace the experience of the professional hosting market. Engage with them to apply the 'macro' lessons they have learned in large data centres, and apply them to 'micro' data centres bringing that wiring closet under the basement stairs, or that creaking IT room behind the filing cupboard, up to acceptable standards to meet any emissions regulations, statutory regulations, audit requirements, and, of course, your budgetary and business requirements."

Qube Net has a product designed to fit this requirement. By pre-assembling the latest generation of blade technologies, switches, firewalls, etc into one of its specially-designed cabinets, the company can have a new IT infrastructure 'up and running' within a few days - pre-built, pre-tested, and ready for immediate delivery.

"Our managed hosting business has taught us how to do this quickly," says Howard. "We can deliver it to a business location, and remotely manage it from our network operations centre. This approach means customers can still have all of the advantages of professional hosting, as well as retaining the advantages of having their IT and communications infrastructure at their own offices."

Meanwhile an often-ignored problem in computer room design and construction concerns excessive fan noise. Computer server racks, towers, and CPUs all have cooling fans built in. This computer fan noise is a highpitched whine that reduces employee productivity and efficiency. To quieten that computer fan noise, sound-absorbing materials such as acoustical foams should be used in the design and construction of these rooms. There are acoustical foams, which are class 1 fire rated and fibre-free, and which are recommended to be used behind the server racks to pick up the first point of reflection from the noise of those computer fans. Further, foam panels and ceiling tiles can be used on the walls and ceilings to reduce the overall ambient computer noise within the room. These products can be used in the initial computer room design and construction phase or added later as a retrofit.

If they weren't before, risk management experts and FMs must surely now beware of the hidden dangers in the computer room.

Top Tips
....IT must work closer with FM to manage risk

....IT must understand the impact on systems through failure to change control on upgrades to blade servers or other equipment

....FMs must understand the risks in computer rooms and data centres and proactively communicate the risks to IT and the business generally

....The business must consider business continuity planning

....Remember that collaboration between the IT, FM and property disciplines is key - the mantra is 'communication, communication and communication'

....Carefully manage all upgrades taking into account power, ac and weight restrictions

....Plan appropriately - something that is all too often overlooked

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