Figure 1. From the ASHRAE TC 9.9 Whitepaper


The attitude in Iceland is apparently “wait and see.” Other than totally disrupting air traffic, there seems to be little concern that the Eyjafjallajökull eruption would affect data centers on the island. After a week of constant volcanic eruptions, Iceland’s President Olafur Grimsson has warned Europe to prepare for worse. He says that aviation experts need to draw up plans on how to cope with a possible eruption from an even bigger volcano named Katla, yet there remains little chatter about the effects of the ash plume on data centers.

All but one of the participants in a discussion on the Data Center Knowledge web site saw no immediate danger. The Icelandic data centers are all upwind of the ash plume, and occupants were confident that the trade winds would remain consistent. To the east and on the European continent, others stated that the plume was in the upper atmosphere and as such was not a concern at the ground level.

Daniel Lowe, managing director of UKSolutions (UKS Ltd) made the strongest statement on the Colo Cooperative discussion, “We (UKSolutions - operator of two sites close to Birmingham in the U.K.) utilize indirect-free air cooling, and in doing so pass large volumes of fresh air though the external coils. The volcanic ash risk resulted in us uprating our inspections and sampling of the coils/veins from a weekly check to 12 hourly - this is a process we usually use to monitor the risk of pollen build up during the summer season.

We recorded no identifiable build up of foreign matter; though intend to continue to inspections for the foreseeable future until the particulate level in the ground level atmosphere has fallen back to normal levels.”

For now it seems that the volcano poses no visible danger, but what about the invisible dangers?

The ASHRAE white paper “Environmental Guidelines for Datacom” written with participants from AMD, Cisco, Cray, Dell, EMC, Hitachi, HP, Intel, Seagate, SGI, and Sun, addresses airborne contamination in the data center. The report cited a “recent increase in the rate of hardware failures in data centers that were high in sulfur-bearing gases.” The report goes on to discuss the three primary airborne contaminants as chemical, mechanical, and electrical, with the two most common chemical effects being “copper creep corrosion on circuit boards and the corrosion of silver metallization in miniature surface-mounted components.

Finally the report specifically references “volcanic activity as a source of corrosive dust high in sulfur content that may find its way into a data center.” The full report can be accessed at:

The corrosion effects of these contaminants is a slow process that is sometimes accelerated by the presence of moisture and high humidity levels so it remains to be seen if there is an increased incidence of hardware failures in areas downwind of the volcano. To be sure technology manufacturers will be watching this closely.

On the facilities side of the house, it appears that visible contamination in data centers with air-side economizers may be less of a problem than open-cell cooling towers in data ceners. Sites with air-side economizers have sophisticated filtration systems that stop particulate matter like high annual pollen consentrations..

Open-cell cooling towers tend to precipitate the contaminants out of the air into the condenser water basin and piping. If not closely managed these systems can rapidly clog and the typical side stream sand filter may not be able to keep up.

As logical as all of the above is, it is still mostly conjecture. A small few are preparing back-up plans should volcanic ash become a real disaster. A few more are monitoring the situation but mostly everybody is taking the wait and see approach before reacting. Time will tell if we should have heeded President Olafur Grimsson’s warning to prepare for something worse.