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Oh No! Fire in the Data Center!

Data Center Fire Suppression

Here’s the thing, when it comes to investing in web hosting services, you are also investing in the data center in which your web hosting services are housed. This means knowing the tier data center your Cloud Hosting, VPS or colocation solutions are stored in. It means knowing all of the redundant systems at play within your data center. It means understanding the fire suppression systems your data center has in place. Fire suppression, you ask? Yes, fire suppression.

When you think about fire suppression systems, if you are like the majority of people, you think about fire suppression systems within an office or a house. Typical fire suppression systems within an office or home include easily accessible fire extinguishers placed through the building and an internal sprinkler system (a.k.a. “wet pipe”, more on this later) which, when triggered, dumps thousands of gallons on everything within the property. While this model of fire suppression is good enough for a home or a business, it isn’t good enough for a Tier 3 or Tier 4 data center colocation facility.

Due to this, we are going to use this space to chat about some data center fire suppression basics, some data center fire suppression best practices and why a gas called Inergen is something you need to know about.

Practicing Data Center Fire Suppression Bascis

This should come as no surprise, data centers create a lot of heat and use massive amounts of energy. As noted in our “The Secret of the Cloud” blog post, “data centers have the ability to use as much energy on a monthly basis as a small to medium sized U.S. city.” With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that data centers generate a ton of heat while using a ton of energy. Due to this, a mandatory aspect for data center fire suppression best practices comes in the form of pumping low level oxygen into data center colocation environments. As fire lives and grows on fresh oxygen, pumping low level oxygen into colocation facilities limits the ability of fire to spring up and spread.

Another data center fire suppression basic is knowing the difference between utilizing “wet pipe” and and “dry pipe” fire suppression vs. gaseous fire suppression methods. “Wet pipe” and “dry pipe” although being opposed in name, both offer the same solution to fire suppression within a data center. That method, use sprinklers to rain down thousands of gallons of water onto everything in it’s path. While this might work well for a room not filled with highly expensive and highly dependent on electricity web hosting equipment, in a data center, “wet pipe” and “dry pipe” aren’t options for stopped a fire. Sure, dropping thousands of gallons of water in your colocation space might put a fire out before it spreads however it will cause massive amounts of solution downtime. Good luck with that.

This is where Inergen and other inert gases come in.

Gas over Water

Data Center Gas Fire Suppression

For lack of a better explanation, Inergen is (as defined by the fine minds over at Wikipedia:

“Inergen is a blend of inert atmospheric gases that contains 52% nitrogen, 40% argon, 8% carbon dioxide, used for fire suppression system agent. It is considered a clean agent for use in gaseous fire suppression applications. Inergen does not contain halocarbons, and has no ozone depletion potential. It is non-toxic. Inergen is used at design concentrations of 35-50% to lower the concentration of oxygen to a point that cannot support combustion, but still safe for humans.”
“Inergen has replaced the use of CO2 in fixed firefighting applications due to the dangers associated with lack of oxygen following activation of a CO2 system.”

Data Center gaseous fire suppression systems work more effectively than data center water fire suppression systems for two reasons: From Wikipedia, “The nitrogen and argon components offset the weight of the carbon dioxide, which allows the Inergen blend to have the same density as normal atmosphere. This eliminates the need for special considerations to prevent agent leakage.” The other reason gas works better than water in a data center is because gas won’t flood, submerge and kill all of the web hosting equipment located in the facility. Again, it’s about downtime.

Additionally, gas works better than water in data center fire suppression because gas won’t impact the overall internal electric grid of a data center. Whereas the use of water could short out the entire electric grid of a facility (thus the need for a quick electric shut down switch), gas fire suppression systems won’t impact power within the overall data center.

Visual Fire Alarms Are Vital

Fire Alarms in Colocation Data Centers

Fire alarms are vital. Common sense, right? Yes and no. Within the world of data centers ever buzzing servers constitute background noise. Call it white noise or call it sensory overload, the average decibel level of a data center runs 80dB – 100dB. To put that in comparison, the average day to day conversation between two people runs around 50dB. Likewise, the aveage jet plane engine during take off operates between 115dB – 135dB. Data centers are loud. Now, your average fire alarm will run 87dB – 95dB. Point in case, for a fire alarm to be noticed in the noisy world of data centers, it a) needs to be as loud as a jet plane engine during lift off (not recommended if you are interested in keeping your hearing) or b) needs a sensory overload visual component to get the attention of data center workers. As point a isn’t acceptable, data center fire alarms need to have a sensory overload visual component – bright lights which flood and fully saturate a room – to receive proper attention.


Precognition for Fire Suppression

For anyone who has ever seen the movie “Minority Report” the concept of “precogs”, or precognition, is familiar. The basic idea is simple: recognize an impending event before it happens so it can be stopped. Data center fire suppression systems are no different. Without question the best data center fire suppression practice is to do everything possible to prevent a fire from breaking out. As we touched on before, this means every date center should be using depleted oxygen. With lower levels of oxygen, fire prevention turns into a spark not igniting vs. flooding a colocation facility with Inergen.

Prevent it before it happens.
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