Fire suppression – keeping the smallest data centres safe

9-May-2022

Chris Wellfair (pictured below), projects director at Secure I.T. Environments, looks at the rise of micro data centres in healthcare settings and what it takes to protect them from fire when they can’t be seen

Micro data centres are incrasingly popular in healthcare environments, but must be subject to the same strict fire protection protocols as larger facilities

Micro data centres are incrasingly popular in healthcare environments, but must be subject to the same strict fire protection protocols as larger facilities

Data centres are getting smaller all the time, and this has been a huge benefit to healthcare settings across the UK as they come to rely increasingly on a digital world.

Whether supporting communications, imaging scanners, or storage at various locations across a hospital site, they are finding a role in every aspect of patient care, the operational tasks of running a hospital, and making it easy for staff to access the resources they need, wherever they are.

In the past building a data centre would be a substantial undertaking requiring a large room, or entire area, of a site.

And such projects take a long time to plan and build, and inevitably lead to some disruption on site.

Micro data centres are enabling hospitals across the UK to upgrade and expand their digital offering

In some cases, a building or site may have planning restrictions that limit where a data centre can be located either due to listed status, or because of its proximity to residential areas.

For those settings in inner city locations, it can be a case of simply not having the space available.

Expanding the digital offering

Micro data centres are one of the key solutions to these problems and are enabling hospitals across the UK to upgrade and expand their digital offering, avoiding the challenges that we have just talked about.

Micro data centres can house the same technical equipment a traditional data centre might, or would rely on, beyond the servers themselves, including uninterruptable power supplies, cooling, environmental monitoring, power distribution, and fire suppression.

All of this power can be housed in discrete cabinets, located in spaces that would have been unthinkable before: plant rooms, disused cupboards, or very-small rooms. They can even run silently located in used office space or under a desk.

One of the key considerations for any data centre, though, is ensuring it, and the surrounding area, are protected from the risk of fire.

While many data centres are regularly staffed, or at least visited several times a day; by design, micro data centres are not always visible or are stored in locations where if they caught fire it could go unnoticed until the fire-rated cabinet was breached, an external room alarm triggered, or, worst of all, a fire door breached.

Of course, any public building will have in place a number of fire protection measures and systems, as well as complying with building regulations.

It is critical to ensure that your control panel is configured to not only alert teams to the fire, but to shut down the systems in the cabinet in a controlled, pre-defined order

But what is happening inside the micro data centre cabinet, and the processes in the data centre, matters just as much as whether the cabinet is fire-rated.

Here are our top tips for ensuring that you have the best-possible fire prevention strategy in place:

Fire suppression configuration:

The goal of any fire suppression system that is activated is not simply to put the fire out, but to minimise the damage to the assets and make it possible to resume operations as quickly as possible.

This is one of the reasons gaseous fire suppression systems are used as these starve the fire of oxygen and/or reduce the ambient temperature, quickly extinguishing it while preserving other assets in the cabinet.

However, preserving those assets is not just about the method used to directly deal with the fire.

It is critical to ensure that your control panel is configured to not only alert teams to the fire, but to shut down the systems in the cabinet in a controlled, pre-defined order. This should include all servers, power supplies, cooling, and air handling systems. The control should also trigger the switchover of services to a back-up if they are regarded as mission critical.

Maintenance and testing:

Fire suppression maintenance should be part of the standard preventative maintenance programme in the organisation, with both IT teams and facilities managers involved in the process.

This ensures that both departments are aware of the assets and how they are being maintained from a fire prevention standpoint, where we have seen cases where everyone thinks somebody else is doing it!

You may only need the system once in its lifetime – and you only get one chance at extinguishing the fire.

Fire suppression maintenance should be part of the standard preventative maintenance programme in the organisation, with both IT teams and facilities managers involved in the process

Testing should also be conducted at regular intervals and cover all aspects of the system including the full shut down and restart procedure for the cabinet, associated monitoring and alert systems, as well as ensuring that all staff are following procedures. This may highlight training needs, which again should also be conducted regularly and be part of the induction process for people that work in the immediate are of the data centre.

Micro data centres are enabling hospitals to upgrade and expand their digital offering

Micro data centres are enabling hospitals to upgrade and expand their digital offering

Data centre location:

Wherever your micro data centre is located it is important the ensure that combustible materials are not stored closely to it, and that the cabinet is not seen as a convenient shelf that becomes slowly buried under detritus. A fire extinguisher should also be easily accessible if it were needed in an emergency.

Environmental monitoring

The fire suppression system will activate when a fire is detected, but in truth the risk of fires at all can be avoided if the correct environmental control systems are in place in a cabinet.

Server and ambient temperature, for example, can provide a clear early indicator of problems; if a device is getting too hot due to a failed fan, or working too close to its peak processing loads.

Fluctuations in power demand can also highlight issues with a power supply or server, where an electrical component may be slowly failing.

It is really important to ensure you have a detailed asset register that is regularly updated and integrated into the monitoring and fire suppression control systems

Critically, this system should be providing pro-active alerts to teams, enabling them to investigate reports of a key performance indicators operating outside what would be regarding as ‘normal’.

Like the fire suppression system, the environmental monitoring system should be able to control the environmental conditions in the cabinet such as cooling and manage the shutdown of components where a risk of failure is imminent.

Know where your assets live:

Over time, organisations can often lose track of what assets they have and where they are located and this can have serious implications, particularly for IT assets, where a device may ‘fall off’ the maintenance programme or miss crucial software updates.

Equally, if an alert is raised, or a fire response triggered, teams should know exactly where that asset is located so they can respond quickly.

With this in mind it is really important to ensure you have a detailed asset register that is regularly updated and integrated into the monitoring and fire suppression control systems outlined above.

Micro data centres offer a huge number of benefits for healthcare settings. They can hold huge processing power in small spaces and house all of the support infrastructure that would be found in a traditional data centre.

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The key to success, though, is treat them in exactly the same way as any other data centres, with the processes and technology to minimise downtime and protect them from risks.

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