Can a Loud Noise Really Bring Down a Data Centre?

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

This week, a Nasdaq Nordic stock exchange data centre in Finland was taken down by its fire suppression system. But these systems don’t use water to quench the flames, so how can they knock out a bunch of hard drives?

The answer, most likely, is loud noise.

It wouldn’t be the first time this happened. Similar incidents occurred last year at a Microsoft’s Azure data centre in Europe and an ING Bank center in Romania in 2016. “When those systems go off there’s a shockwave that can disrupt the technology,” Greg Schulz, founder of technology advisory and consulting firm StorageIO, told Gizmodo.

When a fire starts in a data centre, it wouldn’t make sense to dump water on all of the machinery. So these centres rely instead on a special kind of gas, usually consisting of carbon bonded to halogen elements like chlorine or fluorine. The gas usually serves to prevent oxygen from fuelling the fire.

But, explained Schulz, the release of the gas can come with a shockwave. Sound is ultimately just vibrations in the air, translated into noise by your brain. And inevitably, there are mechanical parts to computers, like spinning fans or even spinning disk drives. A recent study by Siemens found that vibrations from sound as loud as 110 decibels could damage a hard drive. The fire extinguisher nozzles could be as loud as 130 decibels.

Decibels, the rather obtuse unit of sound intensity, don’t work quite the way inches or degrees do. It’s actually a ratio of how much more intense something is than an agreed-upon threshold of hearing, 0 decibels. If you increase the sound by a factor of 10, you’re increasing it by 10 decibels. That means that something 130 decibels loud is a million times louder than ambient noise (60 decibels) and a hundred times louder than a chainsaw.

For this case, it’s not clear what specific part of the fire system malfunctioned, but typically these problems are a result of a chain of events, said Schulz. And typically, data centres have backup centres that should immediately kick in, but did not in this case, reports industry site Datacenter Dynamics. Nasdaq Nordic has yet to responded to a Gizmodo request for comment, but told Datacenter Dynamics that it was investigating the delay’s cause.

So yes, sound really can disrupt a hard drive (or an entire data centre). So don’t fly your jet planes near your hard disks. [Datacenter Dynamics]


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