Avoiding Damage—Or At Least Downtime—from a Data Center Fire

Written by Joe Kozlowicz on Wednesday, May 28th 2014 — Categories: Data Center Design, Disaster Recovery

data center fire suppression systems
Ruh-oh. Not what you want to see.

A recent post on Government Technology recounts the stressful tale of a data center fire in an Iowa government facility and the subsequent scramble to restore operations. Despite a second available data center, the team chose to get the original facility up and running. Thanks to the fire department and their own fire suppression systems, the equipment was salvaged and back online in just twelve hours.

With the amount of electrical equipment and heat generated in a data center, fires are a real and constant threat. Whether your company has in-house infrastructure or hosts with a data center service provider, knowing which suppression systems to use and how to respond if they fail is essential to avoid downtime should disaster strike.

Eliminating Water Damage from Sprinkler Systems

Traditional sprinkler systems aren’t ideal on the data center floor. Although most municipalities require a water sprinkler system in addition to other methods, flooding the room with H20 leads to a few thousand square feet of bricked equipment that must now be replaced. Hooray, you saved your servers from the fire—now they’re waterlogged!

To avoid these issues and still meet requirements for water fire suppression systems, many data centers (including Green House Data) use a pre-action system. Conventional sprinklers store water in the overhead pipes, so as soon as it is hot enough, the sprinklers release water. With pre-action systems, a fire detection event (heat or smoke detector) and/or sprinkler activation must occur before water is pumped into the overhead pipes. With a double-interlock system, both of these must occur. If the sprinkler operates or a leak influences the air pressure, a trouble alarm will go off instead.

An early detection (VESDA) system can also alert employees to smaller fires before the sprinklers are activated, giving them a chance to put out the fire with another less destructive method.

Dry Gas Suppression Systems

Using a dry suppression system in conjunction with the required sprinklers will protect equipment, as the dry system will deploy prior to the sprinklers. This is known as a double interact system.

Halon was the most common gas used to extinguish fires for some time, but it turns out it wreaks havoc on the atmosphere, destroying significant chunks of ozone. The two main alternatives for waterless fire fighting gas are clean agent systems and inert gases. Clean agent systems remove heat while inert gases remove oxygen (remember your fire triangle?) Generally, inert gas requires more storage space.

These gases can be corrosive to equipment, but the large majority cause no damage to IT infrastructure. They limit general smoke and debris damage in the rest of the facility as well, as water can carry ash and other particles throughout the facility.

At Green House Data, we use 3m Novec Fire Protection Liquid, which is non-conductive, non-corrosive, evaporates cleanly, and can even be used on active, energized equipment. This material also does not deplete the ozone, with a five-day atmospheric lifetime and a global warming potential of just 1.

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Failover Best Practices: Cloud Disaster Recovery or Second Site?

A fire is just one of many types of disaster for which companies must be prepared. Organizations with a second site or a disaster recovery plan may be more inclined to stick with traditional sprinkler systems, as in the rare case of a fire they can simply move their systems to the backup location while they restore equipment in the primary data center. This is still an expensive proposition, but inert gas or clean agent systems are also pricier than sprinklers, so a cost-risk assessment is in order.

For large enterprises or companies that handle lots of sensitive data, a second data center site may be the most prudent option, but even companies in these circumstances are turning to cloud-based disaster recovery more often. Deploying a completely redundant second location for critical systems can be pricey and time consuming. The backup systems may not be tested and ready to go on the day of a data center fire. A cloud disaster recovery solution can be a cost-effective way to setup a failover site, whether close to the original location or in a geographically diverse setup.

Even the best-prepared data centers can be unlucky enough to fall victim to a fire, and if clean agent or inert gas systems fail, water or the fire itself can destroy equipment. A disaster recovery plan is necessary to move operations to a second site or, as in the case of the Iowa government data center, to guide the restoration process in a timely and calm manner.

Posted By: Joe Kozlowicz

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