Fireproofing the cloud

What’s the fire survivability of the data center where your cloud provider retains your company’s information?
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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

“Is my cloud provider secure?” That’s a question security integrators often pose as they move their data off site to the cloud. But another important question they also might want to ask of cloud providers is: “Does the server farm where you’re storing my valuable data have optimal fire protection?”

As more and more businesses turn to cloud storage, such server farms, also known as data centers, are growing, not only in number but also in size. In fact, some centers cover an area more easily measured in acreage than square feet, according to Mike Ramey, executive VP of Alarm Tech Solutions. That Severn, Md.-based life safety solutions company serves the District of Columbia, as well as Maryland and Virginia.

Ramey said that because of their size and the fact that they store the key data of so many businesses, the data centers need “to meet a higher standard of survivability” when it comes to fire.

“They can’t be down, because not only do they have your information, but they have hundreds of companies’ information on their same server,” Ramey told Security Systems News.

Alarm Tech is among the Gamewell-FCI by Honeywell engineered systems distributors that are seeing an increasing demand from the data center market for specialty fire detection—aspiration, gas and flame detection products, according to Ramey and Gamewell-FCI.

Don’t look for the cloud in the skies—it’s actually here on earth and subject to such risks as fire. End users access cloud-based applications through a network, with their business software and data stored on servers at a remote location.

“In the cloud environment, the cloud is theoretical. The cloud actually sits on the ground somewhere and it’s in a building,” Ramey said.

He made an analogy between businesses storing their information in the cloud at large data centers—and the associated fire risks—to homeowners or apartment dwellers renting storage containers to keep things they don’t have room for in their homes.

“If  I don’t have the capacity to store all my holiday ornaments or my past financial records or my summer clothes or whatever,” Ramey said, “I’m going to go to a large facility and rent a small space within that large facility to keep my stuff.”

However, he continued, “that large facility has to protect your stuff. So they have to have a security mechanism in place, and they have to have fire suppression in place, and they have to create a storage configuration so that if you happen to have a situation in your storage space that causes a fire then it doesn’t have a catastrophic effect on everybody. It’s kind of a similar situation.”

One source of fire risk at large data centers is their power source. The centers rely on fuel-fed generators for power, which Ramey said are housed in rooms so big you could drive a tractor-trailer through them.

To protect areas where fuel could be ignited, data centers increasingly need advanced flame detection technology that is more typically associated with industrial facilities, Ramey said.

“Because they are designed specifically for the support of a data center, the redundant backups are larger, the fuel-driven generator numbers are larger in quantity and obviously the fuel-storage capacity is higher,” he said.

And because even a very small fire at a data center could cause huge disruptions to myriad businesses, many centers also require aspiration smoke detection to provide early indication of smoke, Ramey said.

“It gives the very early warning activity, allowing them to address a problem before it becomes a crisis,” he said. “They can sense a condition much earlier than waiting for it to simply become an activation of a suppression system, which they don’t want.”

Aspiration smoke detection technology works by continuously pulling in air samples through a pipe network to instantly detect even a trace of smoke.

But the increasing size of the data centers can lead to smoke detection challenges because the equipment-filled facilities generate so much heat they need to employ energy-saving strategies that involve directed air movement.

That is why the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Protection Research Foundation is doing a study on how detection systems work in the high air flow environments of data centers and telecommunications centers, according to Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Quincy, Mass.-based foundation.

The first phase of the study has been completed and the goal is to complete the entire study by this summer, she said.

She said data centers are “huge heat generators” that require a lot of air conditioning and other cooling strategies.

“There are some new energy-saving strategies for those facilities that involve air movement in certain ways, directed air movement so that it goes around this big energy-generating data center,” Almand said. “So, the question is, ‘How does a detection system perform in that environment with all that wind blowing around?’ Because if a fire starts over here—and I’m being very simplistic here—and the wind blows it away from the detector, will the detector perform? And of course in those environments, it’s critical to have early detection because you’re trying to minimize damage to the data center, which of course is a very important communications link for a lot of people.”

Sponsors of the project, “Detection Design Modeling Tools in a High Air Flow Environment,” include Simplex-Grinnell, Honeywell, Kidde-Fenwal, which is part of UTC Climate Controls & Security, Verizon and FM Global, a commercial property insurer.

Almand said the study “involves modeling of the detector performance. And we’re actually doing some full-scale testing at FM Global’s research center [in West Glocester, R.I.]. It won’t be fire testing but there will be lots of air blowing around and looking at the performance of the detector and probably introducing some smoke.”

Two NFPA standards govern fire protection requirements in data centers. They are NFPA 75, titled “Protection of Information Technology Equipment,” and NFPA 76, “Fire Protection of Telecommunications Facilities.”

However, Almand said, “right now, because we don’t really understand the performance of detection systems very well, there are very conservative requirements in [the standards].” For example, she said, detectors are required “all over the place.”

But the study, she said, “is designed to give someone who is designing a fire protection system the information they need to install these where they need to be.”

Almand said, “Our goal is to have this project finished this summer because [NFPA 75 and NFPA 76] are in cycle for revision.”

A key role of the research foundation is to provide data to the NFPA’s codes and standards committees “so they can make better-informed decisions,” Almand said.

In addition to having optimal fire protection systems in data centers, it’s also key that the systems are properly inspected, tested and maintained on a regular basis, according to Arnie Miesch, alarm system program manager for Intertek testing laboratories, and Nick Scolaro, Intertek senior auditor and senior technical leader.

London-based Intertek, a third-party testing and certification company, has its American headquarters in Arlington Heights, Ill.

“One of the things you need to keep in mind is that the inspection, testing and maintenance on these systems is as crucial if not more crucial than the actual installation,” Miesch told SSN.

Scolaro said, “More and more jurisdictions should consider having third-party verification people like us, Intertek, nationally recognized testing laboratories, to come in and be that extra set of eyes to verify the companies are doing the proper things.”

He explained that engineering staff associated with most fire departments “do a fantastic job of verifying at the time of plan review, building construction, and the initial installation overview and testing, when the system is new.”

However, Scolaro said, as years go by, “you have a different set of individuals in the fire department and local jurisdictional offices” who typically aren’t inspection specialists and weren’t involved with initial installation, so the building is new to them. Their inspection, “at the end of the day, is not going to be as thorough as the original,” he said.

By contrast, Scolaro said, “we would come in and we would almost be duplicating the original to verify it. If we're going to put our name on it, if Intertek is going to have a certificate issued, we're going to assure that it's functional and meets the requirements of the appropriate standard for the application.”