Keeping Business Flowing: Protecting People and Data from Fire

Today, 35 million servers worldwide are processing an ever increasing quantity of data. From power plants, airports and large manufacturing facilities to the high rise building that houses the activities of a myriad of different businesses; data is crucial to their day to day operation. However, about 6% of infrastructure failures in data centers are related to fire.  

Business continuity and disaster recovery plans therefore often originate from a corporate data center position since an incident here has such far-reaching consequences. Central to this is the provision of effective safety and security. In a data center context, security is primarily focused on people and protection of the integrity and privacy of data. However, physical security measures are also crucial, as is fire safety, if that data is to be protected from both external and internal threats.

The prime concern in protecting data is ensuring business continuity and providing a robust disaster recovery plan which will enable a quick and efficient return to normal operations in the event of an incident.  Companies rely on their information systems to run their operations. If a system becomes unavailable, company operations may be impaired or stop completely, bringing business to a standstill.

According to latest researches and studies the average loss of a data center due to downtime is approximately $ 7,300 per minute or $ 610,000 for one downtime event. It is therefore necessary to provide a reliable infrastructure for data center operations in order to minimize any chance of disruption. Information security is also a concern, and for this reason a data center has to offer a secure environment which minimizes the chances of a security breach.

Perfect system interaction

The most important objective in a data center is maximum availability (99.995% per year). Simply put, the central task of a fire safety system is to keep the business functioning, even in the event of a fire. Early detection plays an integral part since the earlier a fire can be detected, the earlier the operators can be notified of the event and the earlier the required technical and organizational measures can be initiated.

Furthermore, analyses show that a major cause of fire safety failure is the interface between detection, alarming, control and extinguishing. For this reason, the different elements of a system need to effectively integrate and communicate to optimize performance.

Early and reliable detection is crucial

Data centers provide their own specific challenges in fire safety terms.  Heavy power loads or a defective component in data center equipment can quickly lead to overheating or a short circuit. A typical fire will start slowly with a long period of overheating and smoldering before erupting into flames. To detect overheating and avoid the onset of flames, very early smoke detection is required. If smoke is significantly diluted by high ventilation – a characteristic of data centre environments where high air flows are used to cool the servers – aspirating smoke detection (ASD) will provide the earliest possible warning, even when the smoke is barely discernible to people.

Air samples are continuously taken at the danger spots, usually in the circular airflow as well as among the server racks, and carried to the sampling device. As soon as smoke particles are detected by the air sampler, a pre-alarm or an alarm is triggered, depending on the smoke concentration. The response characteristic is determined according to the application. Sensitivity ranges from normal to high, allowing even a minimal smoke concentration to be identified unequivocally at an early stage. This saves valuable time needed to clarify the cause and take countermeasures, such as cooling system deactivation, gentle shut-down, data export and selective shut-down.

Shutting down equipment at the earliest indication of fire will stop even corrosive combustion gases from developing further. In a “gentle” shutdown, intelligent server management is activated to divert valuable data to neighboring server racks. This can only be achieved by combining an appropriate software/hardware environment with the earliest possible fire detection. The final shutdown of power only takes place when the transfer of data is complete.

If such a “gentle” shutdown is considered too risky, an alternative method – aspirating smoke detection with verification by point-type detectors – may be used. In this system, the cooling system is shut down after pre-alarm while the point-type detectors verify the presence of combustion and trigger the extinguishing system.

ASD systems are available which are based on a dual wavelength technology to verify that particles aspirated in very low concentrations actually are smoke from a fire. Full integration of the device into the fire safety or management system ensures the safest operation possible because all the ASD warnings and possible maintenance messages are available at the management level so corrective measures can be taken.

Efficient, safe and quiet extinguishing to prevent collateral damage to HDDs (Hard Disk Drives) and irreplaceable data

The most important factor when designing an extinguishing system in a data center environment is to make sure that the chosen agent extinguishes the fire without harming sensitive electronic equipment. For this reason, water should be avoided at all times.  Furthermore, the agent must be environmentally friendly, safe for people working in the protected area, and not harm the HDDs in operation. Both clean agent and inert gas systems can be excellent and reliable systems if they are properly designed and commissioned.

Even though dry extinguishing systems are the best choice to protect data centers, the latest technological findings show that in very rare cases computers and HDDs can face problems after the extinguishing process has been triggered. These problems may range from automatic shutdown of an HDD with no damage after restart to more severe disturbances. It was found that the main cause of these problems was the high noise level caused by the discharge of the agent during the extinguishing process.

To answer this challenge, Silent Extinguishing Technology is now available to ensure quiet and safe extinguishing in data centers and server rooms. This technology reliably protects IT operations and minimizes the risk of business interruptions following a fire extinguishing system discharge.

Integrated solutions

Electronic security and safety solutions can help protect a data center and in doing so protect an organization’s application availability, its confidentiality, its integrity and, ultimately, its ability to function. Integration of security and safety measures is one of the prime methods of enhancing business continuity through protection of business-critical data. Central management of operational systems provides a more efficient and dynamic use of resources, focusing them when and where they are needed. Fire safety and security can be integrated through danger management stations. This allows for centralized supervision and alarm handling from a number of different sources, including fire detection, video surveillance, access control and intrusion detection.

The benefits of integrating fire safety and security are numerous: video surveillance allows the danger zone to be viewed immediately, offering a visual means of verifying and assessing the situation; integrated access control provides monitoring of escape routes and the means to quickly open or close doors, an important part of the evacuation process; integrated intrusion detection means that data and electronic equipment are protected not only from the threat of fire but also against unobserved theft or sabotage. All of this through a single, centralized station which guides personnel through the step-by-step processes to be followed in the event of an incident.  

This integrated view of what is happening not only helps to resolve an incident but also provides the capability to learn from incidents which is crucial in enabling process adaptation in the very dynamic risk landscapes which characterize today’s business environments. Although safety and security are not a direct part of IT operations, they definitely help to ensure the business continuity environment of a data center.

Integration through a single vendor

To ensure the highest possible safety and security, it is important to control the interfaces and use the latest scientific findings for the best solution. Systems with real interoperability from a single source are therefore the preferable option in such a mission critical environment as a data center, requiring a partner with competence not only in the detection and extinguishing technologies but in the interoperability processes themselves.

Stefano Valdrighi is the Director Global Business Development at Siemens Building Technologies