David Dunnagan, director of Chubb Systems, discusses the challenges data centres face in keeping critical equipment safe from fire.
Due to the growing usage of mobile data, the production and consumption of rich internet content anytime and anywhere, as well as secure data storage demand from a variety of industries, our lives now rely on data centres. These data centres host and manage the data that makes our day-to-day activities possible – from energy and lighting, to urban traffic management, collaborating with friends, family, co-workers and customers, and even security systems.
Data centres are one of the fastest-growing categories of real estate assets in our cities, and London alone has over 300 data centres. According to commercial real estate firm JLL, there are currently 63.4 million square feet of data-centre space globally and another 4.3 million square feet under construction. The US and EU currently have the most, and the number in the Middle East and Asia is also growing rapidly.
Data centres are large, complex and mission-critical facilities. The high-value equipment contained within them needs to be running 24/7/365 with uninterrupted electricity and a constant flow of cool air to secure IT equipment and information. Any interruptions to its operation can have an enormous ripple effect. The operational risks around any disruption are high, in terms of time, money and reputation. A recent report found that, on average, a single hour of downtime can cost an organisation around $300,000.
One of the key operational disruption risks to a data centre can be from a fire event. The threat of fire at a data centre is higher than people might imagine, with electrical fires a significant risk given the vast networks of power, cabling and electronic equipment used. The risk of fire not only poses a threat to property and human safety, it can also pose a dramatic threat to a business. For co-location and cloud service providers, fire events can be highly significant as service providers are often held to strict service level agreements for application availability.
Businesses rely on highly technical, advanced computer storage and networking resource availability. These are dependent on the availability and performance of the underlying critical infrastructure of which fire systems are an important component. For some businesses, a power outage at a data centre would be detrimental to its survival. For example, ‘business as usual’ at a financial services institution, such as a bank or trading platform, would be seriously compromised by a data centre fire. Hospitals also rely on huge swathes of readily available data and computer power, and so are dependent on the fire and security measures in place to avoid an outage. It is true that fire events are not commonplace, however, they can be costly and catastrophic.
The dependence of businesses on data centres is only going to increase, with the global roll out of 5G in addition to the rise in company outsourcing to third parties for their data needs. This has resulted in the development of large-scale data centres, utilising Internet of Things (IoT) technology or providing AI/ML capabilities, which use high speed and high power. Seconds matter when dealing with data centres, so the solutions need to be fast-acting. They also have to be very reliable, as false alarms result in unnecessary stoppages, which must be avoided at all cost.
There are a number of different ways of protecting a data centre from fire. Before deciding on the type of system required to protect a data centre, it is important to conduct a risk analysis to understand the needs of the organisation, the environment and the main risks. This analysis is complicated by the fact that the data centre industry is constantly evolving, with the development of new technologies and systems posing new challenges for fire and security professionals. For example, edge computing systems feature high-powered and advanced data processing at the edge of a network and are typically “lights-out” compared to a centralised data processing centre. This means that fire and security systems have to be set up and engaged remotely, often without industry professionals present. Adding to this complexity, is the high speed processing and power densities that can result in higher temperatures across the network.
In the case of the Hong Kong financial markets operator, after a thorough study of the existing operational and fire and security protection requirements, Chubb designed and recommended an intelligent, integrated solution. This leveraged 3,000 fire detectors and a surveillance system with 400 CCTV cameras to enhance building safety.
One of the choices for fire and security protection methods is between a water or gas solution. Gas protection consists of injecting halogenated gas into the room, which both reduces the oxygen content and interferes with the combustion process.
A second method is to reduce the oxygen level by injecting an inert gas into the room. When activated, gas systems may require evacuation of staff if the event is not localized. However, in order to minimise disruption to the data centre, the extinguishing gas nozzles can be fitted with sound absorbers that limit the noise reduction associated with gas release and prevent damage to data centre equipment.
Alternatively, there are two water-based options to consider – conventional sprinkler or water mist systems. Water mist will spray a fine, high-pressure water mist into the burning area. It may sound strange to introduce water into an area with electricity and mission-critical information, but in fact the high-pressure water mist system brings together the best of sprinkler and gas methods and is highly suitable for suppressing fires.
Indeed, it can be favoured in certain instances because in order to incorporate methods using gas, the room housing the data centre needs to be either purpose-built with gas suppression in mind or retrofitted to withstand a semi-pressurised environment.
The systems involving water do not require the room to be pressure sealed, the ventilation system to be switched off, or require people to be evacuated. The discharge is localised so it minimizes the water damage, and resetting to standby position is both fast and inexpensive.
However, recently, a shift has been taking place across our cities, as buildings utilise integrated solutions to manage their fire and security solutions. An integrated system can include surveillance systems, fire suppression systems and alarms – all aligned to optimise response time and protect vital internal infrastructure. In Hong Kong, we helped a financial client utilize 3,000 fire detectors and a surveillance system with 400 CCTV cameras to enable them to have real-time video of fire alarm scenes. The data centre operators can see the actual fire situation, so the whole process of identification to extinguishing takes 10 seconds, reduced from 15 minutes with a traditional fire alarm response.
The dependence of businesses on data centres is only going to increase. Key considerations across all these system choices are safety, cost of implementation and best utilisation of the space available. In addition to this, it is important to be mindful of the impact on the environment and operations around the systems that make up part of the data centre’s infrastructure. Ultimately, business continuity is the most important factor for data centre fire solutions.