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Risk Assessment: The Key to Successful Data Center Planning and Design

Those planning a data center facility must consider not only geographic and security risks, but also the threat presented by acoustics from fire suppression and other systems.

Q4 2019
Facility planning is vital to ensure long-term data and equipment protection for data centers and mission critical facilities. To mitigate potential hazards and ensure uptime, data center owners and managers must develop risk management plans before and throughout the early site selection, planning, and design phases. There are a few key risks unique to these facilities to consider in order to fully optimize and protect a data center, including geographic hazards, security threats and, most notably, acoustic exposure from fire suppression systems and environmental factors.

Geographic Threats
In addition to acoustic risk, geographic risks should be evaluated during data center site selection and again during the facility planning phase once a location has been chosen. More specifically, areas at higher risk of natural disasters — like earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes — will require owners to explore the use of stronger construction materials during the building process. Additionally, effective emergency-preparedness plans should be constructed and implemented immediately.

Climate also plays a major role in the potential risks and costs for data centers. For those located in desert regions or areas facing water restrictions, facility owners need to consider water access and reliance before building, as data centers typically require massive amounts of water for cooling processes and other operations. Data centers in arid climates may require implementation of technologies that rely on other cooling processes, like hybrid models, to reduce total water consumption.

On the other hand, data centers that are built in cooler climates have more options when it comes to increasing water and power efficiency through free cooling technologies. Nordic countries have become popular for data center construction as the naturally cooler temperatures and access to renewable energy sources allow for year-round free cooling, which also decreases cooling expenses.

In addition to these climate factors, the physical geography surrounding a data center can present a security risk or protection to the facility.

Along with the risks associated with natural disasters and natural resources, power grid access and proximity to fiberoptic networks are important geographic factors for data centers. According to CBInsights, data centers currently account for 3 percent of global electricity consumption. Power surges and network outages can severely increase data center downtime and associated expenses, so owners should evaluate the state and reliability of available power infrastructure and network connectivity for their data center.

Along with the risks associated with natural disasters and natural resources, power grid access and proximity to fiberoptic networks are important geographic factors for data centers. Northern Virginia has been dubbed “Data Center Alley” as its popularity continues to grow as a data center building site due to the longstanding high fiber network connectivity and power access. Identifying locations with reliable, highly connected networks and access to a strong power grid will allow data center facility owners to prevent the risk of downtime and costs in the case of an outage.

Addressing Security Threats
Geography and network connectivity help ensure data center security, but additional measures can be taken during facility planning to ensure maximum protection and functionality. The growing number of external and insider threats for data centers requires more advanced access control and security monitoring within facilities to prevent potential breaches or damage to data integrity.

Access control and security systems such as real-time location systems (RTLS) use connected sensors and beacons to instantly track the location of individuals within the data center facility, ensuring specific employees and visitors have access to only the necessary areas of the facility. Combining this type of system with remote monitoring technology allows facility managers to monitor the data center 24/7, helping to prevent the risk of physical threats from within the data center. Further integrating security systems — such as video surveillance, biometric access, and intrusion detection solutions — allows facility managers to more easily focus on all systems in a more streamlined manner while enabling faster, more efficient response during a security incident.

The Risk of Acoustics
Acoustic exposure is often one of the most overlooked risks to data centers. Loud, or high-decibel sounds create vibrations within noise-sensitive hard disk drives (HDDs), which are one of the primary means of data storage in data centers. At certain levels, these vibrations can significantly decrease drive readability and performance, ultimately impacting data quality or integrity and increasing a data center’s risk for increased downtime. Understanding the sources of these acoustic risks can provide important context for data center and mission critical facility owners to better address and mitigate these risks.

Recent research found the optimal HDD performance occurred when sound exposure from fire suppression systems was less than 110 decibels. However, the same study revealed traditional gas fire suppression systems noise output could reach 130 decibels. For context, this is the same level of sound an airplane makes during take-off and almost loud enough to cause eardrum rupture.

When it comes to risk assessments and planning for data center facilities, there is no such thing as too much preparation to ensure efficiency, resiliency, and reliability. In addition to identifying gas and water suppression systems that limit the potential of water damage to equipment, acoustic suppression technologies should also be considered. These technologies are becoming more vital to reduce equipment exposure to sonic shockwaves and improve noise absorption from fire suppression systems. Ensuring the sound power of a fire suppression system is specific to the required installation flow rate, discharge time, and required coverage area can also help to limit acoustic exposure.

Environmental Acoustic Risk
Fire suppression systems aren’t the only source that presents acoustic risk. Environmental noises and building factors can cause damaging vibrations within hard drives. Hard room surfaces allow high-decibel sound vibrations to travel more easily throughout the facility, while loud HVAC systems or security alarms can consistently emit damaging noises. Even within the racks, vibrations can occur between HDDs, placing the data stored at risk of damage.

To address these risks, data centers should plan to use softer, room-dampening materials, such as sound absorption panels or softer construction materials, which reduce vibrations from traveling sounds. HDD placement within the data center can also be optimized to prevent exposure to high-decibel acoustics. For example, locating the HDDs far from fire suppression nozzle discharge paths or HVAC system fans and entry points can both reduce environmental acoustic risk. Implementing isolation mounts and similar solutions can reduce rack vibrations from transmitting to the HDDs.

Ultimately, not all high-decibel sound can be removed from your data center, but these practices can help reduce the risk the acoustics present to your most important asset — data. Data center facility owners should consider investing in technologies to identify and analyze the sound output of other systems within the data center to most accurately determine HDD exposure.

Understanding Risk Helps Builds Resiliency
When it comes to risk assessments and planning for data center facilities, there is no such thing as too much preparation to ensure efficiency, resiliency, and reliability. By investing time and energy to identify and prevent the risks specific to data centers and mission critical facilities, facility owners are able to utilize the most effective solutions, like acoustic suppression or RTLS tracking, to truly decrease data center risk. By designing data centers with prevention in mind, facility owners and managers can reduce downtime, lower operational costs, and optimize data security and integrity.

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