As the COVID-19 pandemic forced employees to work from home, an enormous strain was placed on corporate servers, IT equipment, and infrastructure not originally designed to accommodate an entirely remote workforce. Businesses had to adapt in real time to ensure business continuity. This challenge was of particular significance for companies that operate mission critical facilities, such as telecommunications, utilities, and banks, to keep their data centers and systems operating safely, reliably, and efficiently — not only to support remote working but also to ensure the crucial services these companies provide were not interrupted. 

Following a year of large-scale disruptive events, from the pandemic to climate events to geopolitical issues, companies around the globe are adjusting to the emergent realities, and there is finally time to readdress how their data is being protected. After all of the lessons learned, it’s clear the demand for cloud-based services will continue to increase and, with that, new challenges will need to be addressed.

Data Centers Move to Cloud-Based Systems   

IT systems operate everything from a company’s communication systems to storing valuable records vital to financial continuity. These critical systems allow businesses, such as banks, health care companies and flight control towers, to function around the clock. Now that the pandemic is starting to subside, many companies are looking to understand the lessons learned and ensure their IT systems are more robust and stable. 

Because of this, it’s likely we’ll see more cloud-based systems housed in large data centers instead of local-based networks with servers and IT equipment on company premises. The cloud-based server has many strategic benefits: storage is more scalable, and upgrading storage capacity is easy as needs grow. Since IT equipment is not on-site, the real estate required to house the IT equipment and the employees necessary to maintain it can be significantly reduced. 

Cloud-based information is accessible, automatically backed up, and can be done anywhere with an internet connection. Cloud-based storage services have exponentially gained popularity over the past decade. They are a widely utilized option for secure, easy, and scalable access to information.

Fire Protection for Cloud-Based Systems

First and foremost, life safety and occupant safety are paramount when discussing any fire protection system. The basic building codes do an excellent job addressing the essential life safety items, such as egress, emergency lighting, and general structural requirements. All of these are directly related to occupant safety. When discussing fire protection for business continuity for data centers, the focus is on protecting IT equipment, with the primary emphasis on protecting data. 

When the discussion of protecting data happens, a lot of focus is put on electronic and cyber protection, i.e., how to protect data from getting hacked or stolen. However, protecting data from being lost due to a fire is equally essential for cloud-based system safety and security. When deciding if a cloud-based provider solution is right for your company, several questions should be asked.

The first question is what type of fire protection is present within the facility?   Computer equipment is highly susceptible to temperature and byproducts of smoke. A rise in 10° to 20°F can damage computer boards. Still, the primary damage to electronic equipment comes from smoke and the corrosive byproducts produced during the combustion process. When added to the moisture in the air, the particulates left after the smoke is removed can corrode the sensitive electronic connections in computer boards. In many cases, it is the smoke and residue that does more long-term damage than the fire. To ensure electronic equipment in data centers is protected against fire and smoke, there are two key factors to consider.

  1. Sophisticated smoke detection systems to detect a fire in the earliest stages, minimizing damage to adjacent server racks. 
  2. Compartmentation and passive protection components (smoke dampers and fire-rated walls and doors) to contain the fire exposure to a small area.

The second question is what type of suppression or extinguishing systems are installed to protect the IT equipment in the event of a fire?  A wide range of these systems is available, and the building codes do not mandate a specific type of system. Examples of systems currently in use are:

  • Traditional wet pipe sprinkler system.
  • Preaction sprinkler system.
  • Water mist suppression system.
  • Gaseous clean agent extinguishing system.

Each of the above systems has both positive and negative aspects for consideration. A traditional wet pipe sprinkler system is proven to contain a fire, but the response time is slow, and significant damage to IT equipment could occur. Plus, there will be pipes filled with water above all servers. Preaction systems have many advantages and disadvantages compared with a wet pipe system with one significant benefit: The pipes are filled with air, meaning no water in the pipes. The next is water mist — these systems can be designed as wet pipe or preaction systems and will significantly minimize the quantity of water discharged into the room, which reduces the damage to adjacent equipment. Still, these systems are traditionally more expensive than both preaction and wet pipe sprinkler systems. While the systems mentioned above can help contain a fire until first responders arrive, clean agent systems have been known to suppress a fire in a shorter period time — seconds in many cases.

In particular, many data centers use battery UPSs, which pose significant challenges in suppressing a resulting fire. Most traditional fire suppression systems are not designed to properly extinguish lithium-ion fires — the energy released during these events is simply too intense and lasts longer. Multicell packs can be the most problematic, as cells adjacent to the initiating cell can also be sufficiently heated, causing thermal runaway and setting off a chain reaction.

And, the last question is, has a fire risk assessment (FRA) of the facility been completed? The operations of a data center have inherent risks and hazards due to fire, ranging from minor hazards to potentially significant hazards. The FRA identifies and categorizes the hazards while providing information on the best methods to protect IT equipment. The National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 75 – Standard for the Fire Protection of Information Technology Equipment permits the use of the FRA when determining the fire protection requirements. This method has two significant benefits. First, it targets the risks, so specific fire protection systems can be designed to address the hazards. Secondly, the FRA helps spend the money designated for fire protection smarter by using a risk-based approach. The funds dedicated to life safety and fire protection can be directed to specific hazards.   

The Future of Mission Critical Industry 

With global cloud-based services booming over the past several years and their use accelerated by the recent pandemic, it is clear how vital mission critical services enable a global workforce. Using cloud-based IT systems will help companies better maintain business continuity and create more resilient data centers while supporting an increasingly remote workforce. As companies evaluate their plans, they also need to consider effective fire protection to mitigate future disasters.