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That sound you hear? The next data center problem

Data center consolidation, added equipment make noise control an issue

July 31, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The more servers that are added to a data center, the more cooling that center is likely to need. And the more cooling those servers require, the more "whoosh" is generated. Whoosh, for the uninitiated, is the annoying noise of fans and humming power supplies that can feel like a pressure in your head.

Data center workers live with this noise. It's part of the job, part of the culture. But there may be reason to start giving the noise issue more attention: Data center consolidations and the adoption of high-density equipment -- both big industry trends -- are bringing more equipment, and denser and hotter systems, into data centers.

There's a dearth of scientific data assessing noise trends in data centers, its health consequences and the impact on productivity. Noise is simply taken for granted by data center managers, who spend little, if any, time measuring sound levels. For the most part, data center workers just learn to deal with it.

"It's pretty loud; it's pretty stressful," said computer operator Bruno Skiba, who works at a financial services firm and wears ear protectors similar to those used on a firing range.

Noise, of course, varies from center to center, system to system. It's now fairly common for data center workers to spend a lot of time off the data center floor and manage systems in separate rooms. And on a system level, noise can vary. While some racks may have high-speed, whiny fans, some Itanium-based servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. have larger fans that are less noisy. Skiba's firm recently got a delivery of those quieter servers.

Taken in concert, the noise generated from all the equipment in a data center can be distracting. That fact prompted data center workers at C I Host Inc., a Dallas-based hosting company, to get Bose noise-canceling headphones to help make the work environment more comfortable, said Christopher Faulkner, CEO at C I Host.

"The noise -- the pressure on their head, if you will -- is very distracting and causes serious issues with [workers] being able to concentrate and do their jobs," said Faulkner.

Faulkner said he has never measured the noise in his data center, and that isn't surprising to Tad Davies, executive vice president of The Brick Group Inc., a St. Louis-based company that designs and builds data centers. Davies said he can recall only one IT manager who asked for sound-level measurements. "It's been, universally, an issue that has not been brought up," he said.

Without naming the customer, Davies shared a schematic of the data center showing the decibel levels measured in 12 different places in the facility. The lowest was 70 dB and the highest 79 dB. The highest levels were recorded near HVAC equipment. At those levels, you have to talk loudly to be heard, but they are considered safe levels under federal standards.

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