Fires are not super common in data centers, but they do happen, and most often when they do, they are not reported (at least not in the news). Much of the reason for this is that fires are usually small and quickly contained. It is unusual for a data center to become fully engulfed.
Even when such fires are reported on, details can be sketchy, causes, and investigations hidden behind NDA’s and are therefore difficult to learn from. While companies want to retain control over the narrative and how it impacts their reputation, the information around fires can and should be shared within the industry to prevent further similar events. And there are some things you can do now – such as remote monitoring – to keep your staff and facilities safe.
The OVHCloud Incident
On 10 March 2021, near midnight local time, a fire started in the OVHCloud SBG2 data center, quickly got out of control, and even damaged two other nearby data centers. The fire started near two UPS units, one of which was worked on that same day.
The company is considered a European alternative to the giant US cloud operators and is a key participant in the European Union’s GaiaX cloud project. Data centers serve some key functions in the French government, the UK vehicle licensing department, and others. Operations were directly impacted by the fire, although the company did have backup data centers, and quickly restored service to most customers.
But poor design and operational practices that seem to sacrifice dependability for innovation have caused some issues, including major outages, for OVHCloud. The fire just punctuated an ongoing issue but also caused many data center operators and customers to pause and think about something probably not mentioned often enough: the risk of fire in data centers.
What are the Fire Risks?
When broken down there are a few key fire risks common to all data centers, and most of the time they are relatively easy to mitigate.
- Electrical Equipment – temperature changes can increase this risk, and of course, a source of risk is also backup power equipment. Generator rooms that contain gas or diesel fumes can create intense fires quickly that would be hard to fight.
- Cables – data center power cables are usually not enough to start a fire by themselves, but a damaged cable can release sparks or overheat and cause a small fire or thermal incident that can then spread. Proper cable management and monitoring of underfloor and overhead cabling can help prevent these events.
- HVAC Infrastructure – heating and cooling units present some fire danger to data centers and should be inspected often and monitored carefully. Its operation is also critical to maintaining optimal temperatures in the data center to prevent other thermal events.
- External Fire Sources – California wildfires. The recent blaze in Boulder. The Texas fires last year. All are examples of external fire risk to data centers, specifically those Edge data centers in less populated areas.
Most of these can be controlled by properly managing the data center, but there are some events that can only be prepared for. Having fire suppression systems and plans in place is critical regardless of the likelihood of the danger.
Fire Prevention Systems
Of course, the best prescription for dealing with fire is prevention. The key to this in the modern data center environment is a complete remote monitoring system. The A150 Network Monitoring System is designed specifically for data centers, IT rooms, and confidential lab operators with virtual graphics showing temperature, rack power consumption, and humidity.
But most importantly for this topic, the system provides alerts for mission critical events like the sudden temperature changes associated with fires, smoke alarms, and sprinkler activation alerts. You can also be alerted to things like power spikes, a rise in server temperatures, or even UPS unit failures so you can make emergency repairs and mitigate fire risk before one starts.
The reality is that anything you can do to prevent fire before it happens is preferrable than anything you can do to suppress and extinguish an active blaze. However, those are contingencies you need to prepare for.
Fire Rated Power Distribution Systems
There are two primary principles when it comes to any fire safety plan, anywhere. They are the two P’s: prevent (which we discussed above) and protect. Part of both of these is the vital role of uninterrupted power. Enter the role of a fire-rated busbar trunking system.
These systems can be operational for a period of up to two or even three hours depending on their ratings. They’re also cased in a fire-retardant self-extinguishing resin that essentially protects the power supply itself. The idea is that this will give first responders time to extinguish the fire before it can spread.
How do you choose the right one for your data center? Well, there are established guidelines that indicate the type of fire, the duration they were tested for, how they endured water spray, such as that from sprinkler systems, and the power supply integrity in a fire situation.
Technically, they look like this:
- BS IEC 60331-1: 2019 – Tests for electric cables under fire conditions; circuit integrity
- BS 8602:2013 – Method for assessment of fire integrity of cast resin busbar trunking systems for the safety-critical power distribution to life safety and firefighting systems
- BS 6387:2013 (CWZ Protocol) – Test method for resistance to fire of cables required to maintain circuit integrity under fire conditions. Fire-resistant cables are classified by a sequence of symbols (for example, CWZ) in accordance with the fire resistance criteria they meet, the selected test temperature, and the length of the fire resistance test per BS 6387
- NFPA 75 – Standard for the fire protection of IT equipment
- ISO 834 – Fire resistance tests- elements of building construction
- ATEX & IECEx – ATEX certification is given to equipment that has gone through rigorous testing outlined by European Union directives and proved safe to use in specific environments with explosive atmospheres, according to the zone/s they are certified to be used in.
The most important part of this discussion is the planning stage. It’s vital to have a disaster plan in place and address both prevention and keeping a fire from happening in the first place to protect the data center and minimize the fire’s impact.
The more we learn from data center fires, the more likely we are to be able to prevent them going forward, and mitigate the damage in the rare event they do occur.
Need some advice on cable management, remote monitoring, or other aspects of data center planning? Contact us – we’d love to start a conversation about how we can help you with your data center management plan.
Physical Layer Environment Network Security Monitoring and Control
Full visibility, network security and control of your physical layer environment. Monitor your entire hybrid cloud and IT infrastructure from a cloud-based, integrated dashboard:
- Introducing the A150 System
- A150 System Architecture – High-Level Overview
- A150 System Features
- System Controller Hardware and Specifications
- Monitoring Controllers, Probes and Sensors
About the Author
Louis Chompff – Founder & Managing Director, AnD Cable Products
Louis established AnD Cable Products – Intelligently Designed Cable Management in 1989. Prior to this he enjoyed a 20+ year career with a leading global telecommunications company in a variety of senior data management positions. Louis is an enthusiastic inventor who designed, patented and brought to market his innovative Zero U cable management racks and Unitag cable labels, both of which have become industry-leading network cable management products. AnD Cable Products only offer products that are intelligently designed, increase efficiency, are durable and reliable, re-usable, easy to use or reduce equipment costs. He is the principal author of the Cable Management Blog, where you can find network cable management ideas, server rack cabling techniques and rack space saving tips, data center trends, latest innovations and more.
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