Preserving server hardware (Part 1)

by [Published on 29 Sept. 2016 / Last Updated on 29 Sept. 2016]

This first article in this short series of articles examines how to safeguard small business server systems and PCs from dust, smoke and other airborne particulates.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

While many small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) nowadays are embracing cloud solutions like Dropbox and Office 365 instead of deploying servers in-house, not everyone feels comfortable storing their sensitive business data in the cloud or running line-of-business (LoB) applications directly from the cloud. If you visit a handful of SMBs in your area you may be surprised at how many of them still rely upon using one or more on-premise servers to support all their day-to-day business operations. These on-premise servers might be managed and maintained by an external consultant or some other service provider, or in larger businesses they could be cared for by one or more employees tasked with multiple roles that might include being the IT administrator, security expert and tech support person all rolled up into one package.

Either way, the problem is that in-house servers can be a considerable CapEx (capital expenditure) investment for smaller businesses, and the business owner may prefer to minimize cost by budgeting as little as possible for OpEx (operational expenditure). As a result of this imbalance, the sole IT person of a small business is often overtasked with too much on their plate to perform and this typically leads to prioritizing reactive task items (i.e. fire fighting) over proactive ones (e.g. keeping servers healthy through routine maintenance).

Such problems are less likely to occur in large enterprises however. For although management of large companies does still tend to under-budget for ongoing IT needs, they do usually have the capital to invest in a proper datacenter environment with technologies for keeping their infrastructure hardware properly cooled, protected from dust, and otherwise safeguarded from disaster situations that might occur. They invest in such technologies because of the high cost of the racks of blade servers themselves, and their accounting department assigns such investments under the domain of insurance. 

Smaller businesses however rarely have the big bucks to set up such a "clean room" for their small handful of servers, and this series of short articles targets SMBs who want to ensure that their investments in server hardware won't go down the drain. And of course, even if the server room itself is "clean" the office areas where employees work on their PCs and laptops typically suffers from various forms of airborne particulates from a variety of different sources.

So now, to kick off this short series of articles let's begin by examining one of the key threats to the health of both servers and PCs: airborne particulates.

Types of airborne particulates

Airborne particulates that can wreak havoc with servers and PCs can come in various forms. Some common examples you might encounter in your business include:

  • Building dust from construction e.g. drywall dust, insulation fibers etc
  • Fine sand and salt particles used for improving traction on roads and which become airborne once winter is over
  • Pollen and other particulates from trees, shrubs and fields
  • Smoke from forest fires or from farmers burning stubble in the fields
  • Fine smoke from cigarette smokers

In addition, small-office home-office (SOHO) and pet-friendly commercial working environments can include airborne pet hairs. All of these different forms of airborne particulates can create problems for servers and PCs either by clogging fans which causes excessive heat build-up or by directly compromising circuit components e.g. by causing shorts. Even efforts to keep office environments and equipment clean, for example by vacuuming carpets or using cans of compressed air to blow dust out of keyboards, can result in increased levels of airborne particulates that can cause problems with servers, PCs and other IT infrastructure equipment.

Examples of hazardous environments

Some environments are more hazardous to server and PC health than others are with respect to the problem of airborne particulates. It may be instructive for us to examine a few examples. The following are some actual stories I've heard of from colleagues of mine who work in IT.

A classic example of an environment hazardous to servers and PCs is one where users regularly smoke cigarettes. While such environments are rare nowadays in North America, in many parts of Europe and Asia people still regularly smoke, and smaller businesses often don't have the same kinds of "no smoking within 15 meters of the front door" kind of rules that larger companies often have. A consultant from France once shared with me a story of how the chain-smoking owner of a small business kept the company's server in his own office. One day the server died and the consultant was called in, and when he opened up the server chassis he found the interior of the system to be completely coated everywhere with a fine layer of tar as if someone had spray painted everything dull grey. Naturally the fan in the server was so gunked up that it couldn't spin anymore, and the server had overheated as a result. The system also smelled gross to the unfortunate consultant who was hired to fix it and get it working again.

Other types of work environments can also have unexpected sources of airborne particulates. One example that was shared with me by a colleague is the mailroom of the company where he was the IT administrator. Besides the volume of paper and packages going in and out of them, mailrooms may also have a lot of copying, printing and even shredding going on in them. All this paper moving around and rubbing up against each other and being shredded tends to send lots of microscopic bits of paper flying around, and this kind of pollution can be lethal to the health of any computers in the mailroom. And it just so happened that to save money the guy's company kept the company's two server systems running in a closet in the mailroom!

Industrial environments can obviously also be extremely hazardous to the health of servers. One colleague told me a story about another friend of his who managed the IT for a sawmill, and one day one of the PCs controlling some sawmill equipment quit working. The IT guy was called in to resolve the problem, and when he opened the case of the PC he found it was almost packed full of fine sawdust!

What about putting the server in your garage? I've actually heard of several home business owners who didn't like the noise their server or NAS storage device made so they ran an Ethernet cable into their attached garage and placed the system there. That actually might not be a bad idea however. Dust on a garage floor tends to be larger particles that don't stay airborne as easily; homes however often have carpets, pets, smoke from cooking, and other common sources of airborne particulates. So as long as your garage is well-insulated and heated in the winter (and cooled in the summer) then storing your server or NAS there might not be a bad idea. Just make sure you protect them against other hazards like insects and vermin, for example by completely surrounding them with a fine mesh like window screening. And of course, if you use your garage for carpentry work then it's not going to be a good place to co-locate your server!

Some solutions

For servers, the best solution of course to this problem is to put your server in a location where there are few sources of airborne particulates that can damage its hardware components. But this might not always be possible, so the next best thing you can do is to find some way of filtering out particulates from the place where your server resides. One way of doing this would be to purchase a server enclosure that allows the server to run while keeping out dust. There are a number of different vendors out there that offer products like this, one example being Dust Free PC, LLC.

Protecting PCs from dust and other particulates in the air can be a little more difficult because of the constant in and out happening in office environments. Obviously having some kind of air filter or purifier can be of some benefit here, as can enforcing policies to prevent workers from smoking or bringing pets into the office. If PCs are turned off or hibernated at the end of each workday then a simple solution to dust might be to purchase plastic dust covers for PC cases, printers and other dust-sensitive hardware and ensure that all hardware is covered up at the end of each workday. You can find such dust covers on Amazon, for example this.

Laptops can be protected from dust by always putting them away when you're not working in tight-closing neoprene case bags like this one. You can also buy kits like this that provide you with a set of silicone dust plugs that can be used to seal off any unused ports on your laptop to prevent dust from entering into them.

As for finer particulates like those in cigarette smoke, the author of this article highly recommends this solution.

Conclusion

Preventing dust, smoke and other airborne particulates is important for safeguarding the health of your servers and PCs. We'll examine some other ways of preserving your hardware investment in future articles in this series.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

See Also


The Author — Mitch Tulloch

Mitch Tulloch avatar

Mitch Tulloch is a well-known expert on Windows Server administration and cloud computing technologies. He has published over a thousand articles on information technology topics and has written, contributed to or been series editor for over 50 books.

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