Moving computing power to the edge has become essential for many business functions, but some environments, like oil refineries, cell towers, and even battlefields, present much harsher and more complex conditions than traditional, or even indoor, IT settings. Traditional IT environments provide the ideal conditions for sensitive equipment: controlled temperature, restricted access, environmental separation. Harsh IT environments differ significantly, oftentimes featuring unpredictable, wide temperature ranges and unrestricted access to the space. This added challenge can have a detrimental impact on equipment, operations, and the environment itself.

Yet, at the same time, the demand for IT infrastructure in these settings is only set to increase in the coming months and years as at home shopping and delivery, US-based manufacturing, and 5G applications continue to rise. Many industries will need to grapple with the risks associated with building IT equipment in harsh, outdoor environments. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these risks and prevent costly equipment failures.

Potential risk factors in harsh environments

Even in the best setting, IT equipment faces risks, like humidity and dust. However, the level of control that facility managers have over surrounding conditions is significantly limited in outdoor environments. Risks are considerably higher outside due to variable ranges in temperature, high degrees of dust or other contaminants, and the potential for exposure to water or vibrations. 

For example, at cell tower base stations, necessary IT infrastructure is often in direct contact with weather conditions. This vulnerability to extreme highs and lows can be damaging to equipment that is designed to live in a temperature-controlled setting. Similarly, on an oil and gas field, dust and water can easily seep into cracks and crevices, corroding or breaking equipment. These are just a few risks that make hosting IT equipment in outdoor environments hazardous, increasing chances of reduced life spans or lost functionality of important equipment. Considering these risks, companies are turning to a multitude of solutions designed to protect equipment from harsh conditions.

Top tips for protecting IT equipment 

A common solution for protecting hardware in outdoor environments is using “ruggedized” IT equipment, which is built to withstand harsher conditions. While ruggedized IT can be a reliable solution for protecting equipment exposed to the elements, it does not come without its own set of disadvantages. It may be durable, but due to its high cost, lower performance, limited availability, and short service life, it is not always the best option.

Given the drawbacks of ruggedized IT, finding best practices to manage standard IT equipment in less-than-favorable habitats is a simpler alternative. In fact, there are four top considerations for companies when building micro data centers in difficult edge environments to help protect equipment and bottom lines by ensuring that it will reach peak life spans and functionality.

  1. Regulate temperature to prevent humidity or frost. Extreme highs, lows, and rapid changes in temperature can affect the life span and reliability of IT equipment. Dedicated air conditioners and heaters for micro data centers that experience fluctuations in temperature can be a solution. There are systems that have self-contained air conditioners, which are ideal for environments where equipment is isolated from indoor air conditioning. 
  2. Provide additional cover. Water and IT equipment don’t mix. If the IT equipment could be exposed to precipitation, creating protection using an umbrella or hood is a necessity. In environments where rain is not the only risk, more robust protection, like a micro data center enclosure, should be considered.
  3. Seal equipment to keep damaging particles and dust out. Airborne particles pose a serious threat to IT systems, yet are all too prevalent in outdoor environments. Implementing strategies to incorporate an air filter or seal off IT equipment are essential to keeping particles out of the innerworkings of the machines.
  4. Install mounts to lessen the impact of vibrations. Large machinery can generate vibrations that alter the functioning of data center equipment, causing hard drives to fail. Certain mounts, such as isolated spring mounts can reduce the impact of these vibrations and save equipment from unnecessary stress. 

Failure to protect equipment can be costly — not just financially

Facility operators who neglect the implementation of protective practices face the significant potential that mission critical equipment could falter or become irreparably damaged. The main risk associated with damaged equipment is downtime due to loss of connection. Downtime can result from security gaps, environmental conditions being out of tolerance for the IT equipment, or failures in physical infrastructure systems, which can lead to halted operations that ultimately hurt the business. It is important for managers to first assess what type of environment they are building their infrastructure in and then conduct the best practices required to keep equipment safe and prevent downtime.

Protecting IT equipment is difficult in outdoor environments due to risk factors ranging from temperature fluctuations and dust to wild animals chewing on power lines. These dangers add a layer of complexity to safeguarding the longevity of equipment in micro data centers. Fortunately, by proactively performing the actions required to keep machinery running smoothly, companies can operate efficiently even in the worst conditions — meaning less costly maintenance and replacements, which ultimately improves overall resiliency.