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Keeping cool in the server room

August 31, 1999
Web posted at: 1:07 p.m. EDT (1707 GMT)

by Deni Connor

Network World Fusion

(IDG) -- Let the temperature get too high in your server room and your gear won't have a snowball's chance in ... well, let's just say you're going to have problems.

Network professionals don't need to be reminded of this risk. However, so many server rooms have had their cooling systems pushed to the brink this summer by the nation's seemingly perpetual heat wave that many an administrator has exhausted his or her bag of room-cooling tricks.

"We have a location in Needles, Calif., where temperatures reach 115 to 120 degrees," says Tony Fortwengler, director of IS services at Southwest Gas Corp. in Las Vegas, another notorious hot spot. "Because of that, we are more sensitive to temperature and have an IT staff person who goes to facility management meetings to make sure our company pays attention to the weather."

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Server outages that may have happened three years ago are avoided today because of careful planning, Fortwengler says.

"It's 105 in Las Vegas today," he adds. "If we didn't pay attention to temperature, we'd know about it immediately."

Most IT managers plan for hot days and unexpected weather conditions, but when the heat index hits 115 degrees as it did in Lexington, Ky., earlier this month, surprises will happen. One network professional there, who requests anonymity, began to break out in a sweat - literally and figuratively.

"The temperature in our server room reached 80 degrees at 2:30 p.m., and the only chance we had to keep cool air inside was not to go in and out of the room except when absolutely necessary," he recalls. "We hoped if we could limp by for a few hours, things would take care of themselves that evening."

They did. And he is fortunate in another way, too, as his company is moving to a new building next month where air conditioning with dedicated ductwork has been installed to his specifications. Which speaks to another issue: Despite all the accommodations IT executives make for weather, there are times when they are at the mercy of other factors - most commonly, the property manager.

"In our leased space, we don't have any control over the air conditioning in the building," says Kevin Beattie, director of corporate information services at Nordson Corp. in Westlake, Ohio. "We did have a situation where the sole air-conditioning [unit] in the building stopped over the July 4th weekend." When staff came back after the extended weekend, the temperatures were unacceptably high.

Although the servers were equipped with sensors that shut them down automatically, if the data running on the servers had been for production systems instead of research, "it would have been unsatisfactory," Beattie says. "We would have taken other precautions," he adds.

Network executives report mixed results in haggling with landlords for cooler conditions during lease negotiations. As for the property managers, they say the success of such energy negotiations depends on the company's size, the amount of space it is leasing and the length of its contract.

Trammell Crow, one of the largest commercial real estate services companies in the U.S., rents space to a number of high-tech businesses in Austin, Texas, including eight separate Tivoli locations. Tivoli's offices are cooled on workdays and from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays as part of the company's standard lease. For evenings, overnights and rest of the weekend, Tivoli pays extra to have its server rooms air-conditioned. Servers outside those rooms remain vulnerable to rising nighttime temperatures.

Most property management firms are beginning to recognize high-tech needs and the costs associated with fulfilling them. The Building Owners and Managers' Association says corporate facilities with computer rooms or data centers have utility expenses 31% higher than those without the features.

Mickey Applebaum, a network consultant with Pro-active Network Management in Salt Lake City, has seen networks in companies that don't have dedicated air conditioning. He's developed some innovative and relatively low-tech, low-cost approaches to cooling his customers' computer rooms. Applebaum has gone as far as placing banks of fans inches away from servers to cool them down.

"In most cases, the problem is not that the room is not cold enough, it's that there is no air movement," he says.

Vendors offer some help and advice. Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard have thermal sensors in their servers, which can be monitored by software and shut down in an orderly fashion if heat problems occur.

Compaq subjects its servers to combined temperature/elevation tests to pinpoint their performance. Hewlett-Packard has laboratories where servers are designed to withstand sudden shifts in temperature.

Planning, haggling and perseverance may be important aspects of keeping gear cool during the dead of summer. But sometimes there is no substitute for plain old good fortune.

"Our server room situation worked out pretty easily," says David Jackson, director of corporate systems for MobilStar, a broadband and remote communications company for business travelers in Dallas. "We leased space that was previously occupied by a company that had mainframes. All our servers are located in that room and our temperature stays constant at 68 degrees."

Now that's cool.

Tips for extra server room cooling

  • Install fans to circulate air.

  • Vent doors to provide for cross-circulation.

  • Use portable coolers, such as those from Liebert or MovinCool, to reduce temperatures.

  • Allow proper airflow around servers.

  • Make server room temperature control part of a disaster recovery plan.

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