The Stack Archive Feature

Looking at the business impact of fire suppression in the data centre

Thu 23 Nov 2017 | Carl Bryan

Carl Bryan of Wagner UK looks at how fire suppression can go further in the data centre, to protect crucial business assets.

Until very recently fire protection, although a legal building requirement, has been viewed as an afterthought by many in the IT sector.

We are now deep into the digital age, where technology and electronic information plays a vital part of daily life. How can it be then, that protection from the effects of fire is not seen by IT stakeholders as a vital component of infrastructure in much same the way as adding a roof to a building?

Consultants are often focussed on utilising the latest smart technologies, insulation, cladding and flame-retardant materials in order to make the building both efficient and safe. However, operationally the end user still remains at risk from “the effects of a fire”.

Do existing fire regulations go far enough, or should we now look at business continuity in the same light as life safety and structural integrity?

It is entirely possible to install a fire detection and alarm system designed to meet the minimum level of building codes, legally ensuring the safe evacuation of personnel, but allowing enough time for the effects of fire to make the infrastructure unusable for a significant time following the incident.

So, aren’t automatic water sprinklers the answer? Not always!

Fire suppression and data centre functionality

The presence of automatic fire safety systems does not always protect the functionality of the facility, particularly in terms of the electronic equipment rooms which are required to maintain a business’s effectiveness.

John R. Hall, Jr’s. Computer Rooms and Other Electronic Areas report in March 2012 for the NFPA showed that 78% of non-residential electronic equipment room fires begin with the equipment within the risk, electrical distribution, lighting equipment heating, ventilating or air conditioning.

Detectors were reported present in 77% of these non-residential structure fires and even where sprinklers were reportedly used in 35% of those fires, the associated annual average estimated loss was $11.9 million (approx. £9 million) in direct property damage.

Building fire regulations focus on life safety systems and structural integrity, and while they are to be applauded for bringing about a reduction in the number of deaths and serious injuries year on year, does it go far enough? Or should we now look at business continuity in the same light?

High-risk areas such as the maritime, oil, nuclear and chemical industries have put an emphasis on rapid detection and extinguishing in the past 30 years to prevent the spread of fires. Whilst driven initially by safety authorities and classification bodies the risks and subsequent downtime have also reduced over decades.

Marine facilities essentially maintain their integrity to stay afloat and thus allow personnel to survive. The same could be said of technology businesses, which must maintain continuity to transmit digital information for business survival.

There is an old fire industry adage that 40% of businesses don’t survive beyond 12-18 months after suffering a fire. Looking longer term, FM Global has found that within three years bankruptcy affects almost a third of all fire-affected companies.

Detection at the early stages of a fire

Fire protection engineers attempt to maximise the benefits of specific extinguishing media ranging from water to gas, powder to foam and various combinations to create fire extinguishing systems that essentially still follow similar basic extinguishing principles – ‘the removal of oxygen and/or heat.’

When used in combination with the appropriate fire detection methodology, activations should occur at the initial stage of a fire (limiting false alarms). There are a number of alternative methods to fire protection, such as creating a low oxygen (hypoxic environment) to prevent a fire propagating, whilst ensuring a safe level of oxygen to sustain life, but low enough to reduce the possibilities of flame taking hold.

The key is to choose the appropriate clean extinguishing agent that limits equipment damage, maintains continuity and remains environmentally acceptable.

Hospitals, traffic control, factories, distribution centres and infrastructure rely on enormous digital conduits to deliver large volumes of electronic information virtually instantaneously. A critical path analysis and stress test conducted on networks can illustrate numerous instances of single points of failure, particularly located close to the end-user.

Large data centre outages can have far-reaching and significant effects for individuals as well as specific businesses. Consequently, web-hosting and major internet service providers often design multipoint failure paths and build in redundancy to their systems. Recently they have also begun to ensure that their fire strategies are robust, assisted by such bodies as VdS and FM.

Hospitals, factories and university campuses that contain computer and plant rooms are just as essential to end to end network communications. Unfortunately, individuals using these networks are often reliant on local IT constrictions and single points of failure that leave them exposed to loss of data should a fire break out.

The advent of the cloud and the planet seemingly connected by the web rather than physically, has pushed the danger of exposure to fire in the background.

In businesses that don’t recognise the worth of additional capital investment, the fire engineer’s advice for additional, non-legislated equipment is often ignored, instead opting for specifically focused fire protection equipment.

The long term benefits of good fire systems

Well maintained installations can last for up to 20 years, which is often greater than the envisaged lifespan of the building. As such, an investment at the beginning can be a major factor in maintaining continuity.

The advent of the internet of things, cloud-based technologies and our planet seemingly connected by the world wide web rather than physical infrastructure, has pushed the danger of exposure to fire in the background.

Are we now at a point where it is necessary to force those designing, building and managing IT facilities to act? Is it possibly time to call for legislative support to protect critical information hubs, in much the same way that we have rules for ‘life safety’ detection and alarms systems as a minimum?

Additional regulation may be a step too far as the benefit of lower insurance premiums can sway the decision makers, but it stands to reason that when automatic fire protection systems are employed, lower incidence rates of medium and large fires are able to propagate before the arrival of the fire brigade.

As a result of this, less damage is caused, which alone must have some bearing on the need for more active fire protection systems being installed.

One stumbling point could be that if broad brush legislation were pushed through, it could lead to a U.S. style of protection of all buildings by sprinkler deluge systems thereby protecting the fabric of the buildings and egress but again not specifically targeting the stored information and critical transmission conduits.

For a deluge water sprinkler system to be activated the fire must either have already reached a stage of development with sufficient heat to activate the bulb or alternatively be triggered directly by a smoke detection system. The downside being the secondary damage caused, with resultant financial losses and increase facility downtime.

Facilities protected with either hypoxic systems or using high sensitivity smoke detection system to trigger an extinguishing system at the earliest possible moment can avoid initial operation of the sprinkler systems and allow un-affected areas to be utilized.

In 1894 Oscar Wilde said, “it is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.” 100 years later DARZ GmbH, an award-winning German data centre service provider, has as their motto: “Data is more valuable than money!”

Raising the fire protection bar for critical IT infrastructure to those levels attained by other industries is definitely feasible. Protection and prevention solutions are already available but there has to be the will to use them. As such, an emphasis on the effects of fire on business, as well as lives, could be instrumental.

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The WAGNER Group GmbH has been developing and producing technical fire protection systems since 1976 and has established itself internationally as an innovative provider of solutions and systems with more than 700 patents worldwide.

Experts featured:

Carl Bryan

Managing Director
Wagner UK


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