Fire Protection: A Major Concern in Colocation

fireBusinesses evaluating their colocation options often focus on physical and cyber security. After all, protecting their data from falling into the wrong hands is vitally important, especially when you are dealing with large amounts of sensitive information.

However, there is another major risk companies need to be concerned about when looking into colocation providers: fire. All servers release heat; whenever you have heat, there is always a risk of fire. Unless the flames are contained and extinguished quickly, the result could be devastating. Losing all of your equipment and the data it contains in a matter of moments would be terrible — and it could mean several days or even weeks of downtime while you get everything back up to speed.

That is why, when you decide to make the move to a data center, it is important to evaluate the center’s fire prevention, suppression and containment protocols to ensure your servers will be safe and the risk of loss or downtime due to fire is minimal.

Active and Passive Fire Protection
Keeping your equipment safe from fire damage requires two types of fire protection: active and passive.

Passive fire protection is the fire protection built in to the facility itself in an attempt to prevent fires from starting or spreading. This includes using fire resistant materials on floors, walls and ceilings, installing fireproof doors and managing the temperature to keep the server closets cool. The idea behind these measures is in the unlikely event a fire ignites, it can be easily contained to one area of the building and not disrupt the function of the unaffected servers. In fact, if the passive fire prevention works as it should, you may not ever realize there was a problem at the data center.

While you should evaluate the passive fire protection at your data center, active fire protection is also important. Active fire protection encompasses the equipment and procedures activated if a fire breaks out. Obviously, smoke detectors and alert systems are necessary, but to completely protect the server closets, the provider needs more than a smoke alarm and a sprinkler system.

Fire Suppression
The best way to prevent a fire from causing major damage is to keep it from happening altogether. Most data centers use ultra-sensitive smoke detectors, called Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus, or VESDA. A VESDA draws in air from sensitive areas, and if there is even a hint of smoke, it triggers an alert to initiate a manual investigation. In most cases, these investigations reveal the problem and allow technicians to address before it develops into a full-blown fire.

Beyond the VESDA, most data centers also have secondary systems in place to protect equipment. These systems either shut down all of the equipment in the area until it can be fully investigated, or shut down the equipment and launch a fire suppression system.

The fire suppression mechanisms in data centers are not your typical sprinkler systems. Using water-based fire suppression is not recommended, as the water could permanently damage sensitive equipment. Instead, fire suppression systems use gas to remove oxygen and heat from the air and extinguish the fire. The most common type of gas used is FM-200, a halocarbon that can put out a fire in a matter of seconds.

Some of the more advanced colocation centers offer individual fire suppression systems in server closets. The benefit to such an arrangement is if there is a fire, the gas suppression system will immediately extinguish it without any effect on the surrounding closets. Again, with such a system in place, you may never even know there was a fire near your equipment. Without individualized systems, if one closet in the area has a fire, the surrounding servers could experience some downtime during system discharge and cleanup.

When you are exploring your data center options, do not overlook the importance of fire protection and management. A fire could cost you thousands of dollars in equipment, and additional collateral damage due to data loss, server downtime and increased insurance rates. You need a provider who can not only prevent fires from happening, but if there is an emergency, take care of it and get your server reset and back up and running in a short time.