Few people are aware that having a gas fire-suppression system installed at a data processing centre can cause serious damage to the servers. Dutch bank ING found the hard way that the noise generated by a gas fire-suppression system is enough to damage hard drives. A sound of around 130 dB is enough to generate enough vibrations to move the heads of HHDs.
There are many ways to damage a computer, and sound is one of them. It takes a very loud one, otherwise many of us would have damaged our PCs more than once by shouting at them or cursing over a lost game or a botched work assignment. At a London data centre belonging to the bank ING, they discovered at their own expense the extent of the damage 130 dB of noise can cause – this is the maximum level reached by the measuring instruments installed in the data centre. It is more or less the sound of a firecracker or a gunshot. The 'bang' was produced during the discharge of the gaseous extinguishing agent from the fire-suppression system.
The fire extinguishing system protecting the data processing centre, originally chosen so as not to damage the electronic components, was an argon-type inert gas system. At the moment of activation, the gas quickly released through special nozzles, coming out at high pressure and producing a very loud sound. The vibrations produced by this sound damaged the hard disks, some irreparably, rendering the data centre unusable for several hours. ING's customers were unable to carry out banking transactions for the entire day until the damage was repaired the following day, causing enormous damage to the bank. As surprising as it may seem, it is not the first time this has happened.
In fact, there are researchers at IBM and SIEMENS who are investigating the damage created by the sound generated when compressed gas is released and the damage it can cause. The problem is the extreme sensitivity of magnetic hard drives, which are present in their thousands in a data centre. Modern hard disks are particularly sensitive because the increased density of data has reduced the available space, as two IBM specialists explained in the DataCenterJournal [see original article published on Motherboard].
Today the read/write head can only deviate by 26 nanometres before causing a problem, whereas in the past this distance was greater and perhaps this is why the sound issue never arose. This sensitivity makes HHDs more vulnerable to these issues related to high pressure. Despite research carried out by international giants such as Siemens and IBM, no reliable solution has yet been found that can 100% guarantee that the problem will be overcome.
Of course, the fire-suppression market offers alternative solutions that do not have this problem. Excluding water-based systems for obvious reasons of incompatibility with electronic equipment, the non-pressurised potassium salt aerosol system with its dielectric, non-toxic and environmentally friendly characteristics is the ideal choice for fire protection in environments such as data centres.