Tech Tips

September 25, 2015

Server Environmental Conditions: What Works, What's Dangerous

Servers need a certain set of environmental conditions to run well. Heat, cold, dust, and moisture can all disrupt or even damage them. Here's a list of environmental risks to a server, and what you should do instead.
What conditions do servers need for optimal security and performance?

Servers and network gear are built to run under certain environmental conditions. Factors like temperature, airflow, humidity, power, positioning, and cabling all come into play.

Bad Ideas: Examples of Poor Environmental Conditions for Servers and Network Gear

Check your servers carefully for any of these conditions:
  • Servers near metal fabrication machinery.
    Risk: Airborne metal particles drifting into the server closet, damaging fans and (if they magnetize, very common) hard drives.
    Takeaway: Expect to replace hard drives every 30 to 60 days and make sure you have a great offsite backup.

  • Server (or desktop) on the floor, resting on carpet.
    Risks: Carpet fibers & dust sucked into server or desktop fans, clogging them. Static Electricity from objects or people moving across the carpet. Spilled liquids.
    Takeaway: For desktops—buy small form factor computers you can place behind your monitor on your desk. For servers – they need a location without carpet. Racking is the best option.

  • Room with poor ventilation (or none).
    Risks: Overheating damages server components. Dust buildup damages fans, contributing to overheating. Moisture buildup causes short-circuits.
    Takeaway: Wherever a server is, it must have fans circulating air in & out. It regulates temperature, moisture levels and dust.

  • Open windows, doors, or air ducts leading into the room.
    Risk: No filters on vents means dust enters the servers’ atmosphere. One dust particle is 10 times bigger than the space between the disk heads in a server hard drive. Dust get in, scratches the heads…and hard drives start failing.
    Takeaway: Keep filters on all ventilation areas by a server room – windows, air ducts, etc. Never shut servers down for a long period either; 99% of disk problems occur if server hard drives rest long enough to sag & scrape against one another.

  • Halogen lights pointing directly at network cables.
    Risk: Melted cables! Work lights are high power; if they face a network cable or power cord for any length of time, the heat will destroy the cables’ casing.
    Takeaway: Point work lights away from network cables. Or keep the Fire Department’s number handy.

  • “Server Hay Bale”.
    Risk: If servers are haphazardly stuffed in a closet or stacked on a table, with wires strewn around them like spaghetti, you’re asking for overheating issues. If a server slips, the others will crash down too, causing severe damage to all of the network gear.
    Takeaway: Rack your servers and organize your cables. Doing so instantly removes the risk of overheat, collapse, damaged cables and backup problems.

  • Server right next to an AC unit with ice on it.
    Risk: Moisture buildup from the water vapor. Static Electricity is also a risk – too much moisture in the air contributes to static electricity buildup, which ruins backup tapes & hard drives.
    Takeaway: Air conditioners help servers. Just don’t put them right next to one another. Most server rooms should stay at 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Network gear installed in a ceiling crawl space.
    Risk: Ceiling spaces get hot. Too much heat causes network failures.
    Takeaway: Keep your network gear in a protected accessible location. Always buy business-grade equipment for business purposes (Netgear home routers won’t hold up).

The Environmental Risks Threatening Your IT

Each of the “Risks” above represents a potential for damage to the server. When setting up a server or network gear, you must consider all these Risks.
  • Heat: When too hot, electronic components inside a server (like the CPU) can melt. Or worse, start a fire.
  • Cold: A server can become too cold. If the environment is too cold, it can build up static electricity in the air. You touch the server with extra static in the air—ZAP!
  • Static Electricity: Walking on a carpet and then touching a server? You’ve just generated enough static electricity to destroy its motherboard.
  • Particles: Tiny particles in the air (e.g., metal shavings) get sucked into the server’s fans, causing a clog or damaging internal components.
  • Falling Objects: Objects falling on a server – or worse, the whole server falling! – means dents in the case, cracked components…and high chance of total server failure.
  • Dust: We’ve all seen how dust cakes onto a fan over time. When dust cakes inside a server, it can clog the fans keeping it cool. Then you have a “Heat” problem.
  • Moisture: Getting water into any computer is bad—instant short-circuit.
  • Access: Who has open access to the servers? Limit access only to people who need it. Not only is this a security issue, but too many people with access means higher risk for all the above.

Ideal Server Environmental Conditions

Now that we’ve seen what not to do, let’s look at what we should do. Here’s our best advice for companies who want to get the longest life out of their network hardware.
  1. Server Racks positioned on a raised floor. Raised floors allow for keeping the cabling and air flow beneath the server racks. This is safer and more efficient for cooling the racks. Plus, it protects the servers in the case of (non-excessive) flooding.
  2. Cables organized & kept off the floor, to prevent tripping.
  3. Temperature-controlled environment. 72–74 degrees is optimal if you do not have equipment to manage humidity. Install a temperature monitor for temperature change alerts.
  4. Redundant power to protect the servers in the event of a power outage. The older the server, the less it likes unexpected shutdowns. It may not reboot.
  5. Security to get into the server room. Limit access not only for security, but to prevent too much dust getting in from the door opening & closing.
  6. Proper ventilation to keep particles out of the air.