Spring cleaning your datacentre

Although domestic spring cleaning seems to have faded somewhat, perhaps we should consider whether a datacentre spring clean is a good idea

In olden days, when the winter weather abated, the days got longer and the warmer weather of spring appeared, people's thoughts turned to spring cleaning.

Carpets were taken outside and beaten, furniture was given an airing too, and floors were polished. For many, it was a chance for a top-to-bottom cleansing of all that winter had left behind: the real start of a new period of growth and relative happiness through the spring and summer months.

Such domestic spring cleaning seems to have faded somewhat over the years, but perhaps we should take to doing something similar in our datacentres and figure out whether a spring clean would be a good idea.

It used to be that a datacentre was, to all intents and purposes, a clean room environment. Nowadays, it will still be cleaner than most of the other facilities in an organisation, but air quality is no longer managed down to the nth degree. Dust will get into a datacentre, and dust can cause problems in many areas.

Let’s start with those areas that are out of sight. The raised floors and dropped ceilings of many facilities are perfect places for dust to build up. These are also places where the cable fairies go to create knots, to coil up spare lengths and to make interesting items of modern art based on the intertwining of different-coloured cables.

These are places where the cable fairies go to create knots, to coil up spare lengths and to make interesting items of modern art from different-coloured cables

Amidst all this mess of cabling, dust can build up. If the floor space is being used for cooling, the air currents can then create dust balls that blow around in the space trying to find a resting place. These resting places tend to be just where you need the air to flow.

So, the first thing is to sort out any wiring mess. Move to a more structured wiring approach. If possible, move all wiring out of the floor space to overhead wiring trays split into distinct trays for data and power cabling. If this isn’t possible, then at least sort out the mess as much as possible: ensure cables are of the right length, separate power and data cables from each other, and route them all away from the main cooling air paths.


Clean out all dust from the space – and vacuum all perforated tiles on both sides to clear all holes of any dust build-up. Apply grommets to cables coming through the floor to ensure air will go through the perforated tiles, not the cable holes. Deep clean the carpet tiles to get as much dust out from the weave as possible.

Do the same with the dropped ceiling: clear out dust and make sure everything is neat and tidy. Check any ducting to make sure it is still solid: hot air removal ducting with breaks will return hot air into the facility, causing cooling systems to overwork. Also, while working on the dropped ceiling area, make sure no dust and dirt is dropping down onto newly cleaned floors or racks. Use sheeting to catch any fall-out.

The other place where dust can build up is within the racks and rows themselves. Wherever possible, ensure that proper cleaning is built into scheduled maintenance plans. Use computer-grade vacuuming equipment to clean motherboards and other systems, with particular focus on fans. Most fans have plastic blades and as these spin, they build up a static charge that attracts dust. Dust and fan bearings don't go together well: make sure dust is cleaned from these as well as possible. Also, the fans will concentrate dust on the equipment close behind them – make sure the fan blades and the equipment behind is not only vacuumed, but also wiped clean with an anti-static microfibre cloth.

Use a blower

Pay particular attention to power supplies. These tend to be contained systems, but are also the one part of a rack that runs at mains voltage. A build-up of dust in these units could lead to sparking and fire. Try to remove as much dust as possible from these units, using compressed air if necessary to blow dust out, followed by vacuuming again. This cycle may need to be repeated multiple times – using compressed air once could just blow the dust further into the power supply.

Next, look at areas that should already be being checked fairly regularly – but which Quocirca finds are often neglected. Any air management systems will have filters. These need to be checked regularly and replaced either when they are noticeably dirty, or according to the vendor’s maintenance schedule – even if the filters look clean. New filters will improve air flows and reduce stress on the equipment – and will keep more dust and dirt out of your datacentre.

Finally, create a more formal plan of action, because such cleaning should be carried out on a reasonably regular basis. Try to ensure that “spring” cleaning is more like quarterly cleaning. Build cleaning into your equipment lifecycle management maintenance routines. If you do not have maintenance routines, then shame on you. Create a plan based on suppliers' advice for each item of equipment. If the time between maintenance is longer than six months, then ensure the equipment can be taken out of service for a period to be cleaned.

A one-off spring clean can be an eye-opener, but must not be a one-off event. A clean datacentre is a more effective datacentre, one where energy can be saved through clearer and more effective cooling air paths, and systems availability is improved through less failure of fans and other equipment.

Clive Longbottom is an analyst at Quocirca

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