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If you’ve ever had to put a computer in a shop environment,
you know that its lifecycle may be shortened–even halved–by exposure to high
temperatures, moisture, air particulate, or other irritants to electronics.
Here are some lessons learned from deploying technology to harsh environments
that will help you maintain the IT equipment lifecycle in the worst of

#1: Solutions for visibility and security

As many members will attest, having good visibility is key
to being able to support a critical piece of equipment that’s outside the data
center–and possibly at a location that has no IT staff. This goes for harsh
environments as well. Products today offer many solutions to ensure both visibility
and security so that operators (and anyone else) can see “the red light”
on the server or whatever is deployed. For example, Figure A shows a server system pair in an enclosure.

Figure A

From outside the enclosure, you can:

  • See which server is powered on (with this
    equipment, green is on, amber is off).
  • See which hard drives are spinning (green is
    running, black is off, red is failed).
  • See the blue UID (unit identifier) light on the
    server (a handy feature of ProLiant servers).
  • Determine whether the external hard drive array
    (top) is spinning all drives.

This enclosure has a lockable front panel to keep unwanted
users out. Note that the batteries are outside the enclosure. In this case,
this was done to reduce the exhaust inside the enclosure.

If you choose this option, bear in mind that you may or may
not be able to fully support the system entirely remotely.

#2: Selecting an enclosure and air conditioner

This market has many offerings covering a range of quality,
features, and price. When deciding on an enclosure, make sure you can
accurately calculate:

  • Interior dimensions
  • Weight capacity and overall weight
  • Ergonomic considerations
  • Cable entry/exit accessibility

Most enclosures allow you obtain detailed technical information.
Figure B shows an ITS Enclosures
ICEStation 7219 rack enclosure. ITS Enclosures offers good technical information
for your planning phase.

Figure B

You may need to deploy an air conditioner with the
enclosure, and most providers will help you select the correctly powered air conditioner
for the system you’re implementing, sell you the unit, and attach it to the enclosure.
Be sure not to under-provision a system in cooling management from the start.
Thermal overloads in your integrated management logs are not pleasant.

Most, if not all, enclosure air conditioners detail their
information on the exterior in a visible manner, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

This label indicates that the air conditioner can operate
between 3800 and 4000 BTU for thermal cooling. The power requirements and
thermal ranges are also detailed.

A good rule of thumb is to add approximately 35 percent
utilization to your base BTU requirement to ensure adequate thermal
provisioning. Also consider using TFT screens instead of CRT monitors for less
thermal strain on the interior (unlike our photo examples).

#3: Power provisioning

Although most IT staffers are familiar with getting basic
power service in the data center, getting selected power in other locations brings
new challenges. When working with non-data center locations, be sure that you
clearly communicate the power requirements with the following traits:

  • Provide quantity and connection type
    requirements (e.g., QTY 2 NEMA L5-30P would be the “30 Amp Twist Lock” that is
    used by many UPS units).
  • Provide a picture of the connection type–you
    can obtain this from the technical information of all products you’re feeding.
  • Request separate circuits for your power
    protection (UPS) and air conditioner unit.
  • Know the input voltage requirements.

#4: Drainage for thermal management

This may be peculiar topic, but many air conditioners rely
on standard evaporation from a small tray for the liquid discharge that it
pulls from the interior air. As the air becomes more conditioned, less humidity
will come from the interior, but there’s still a drainage factor. Drainage
can’t be ignored, especially if there’s frequent access to the inside of the

Two basic options are available:

  • A heated metal plate that causes instant
    evaporation of the drip condensations
  • A bucket and flex tubing

The bucket and flex tubing may sound unsophisticated, but
it’s a $10 solution that’s quite manageable, and it doesn’t take much effort to
install. The heated plates require additional power, and installation is not at
all pleasant.

#5: Planning for accessibility

Just like in the data room, where you can extend a server
out of a rack, you should be able to do the same from the enclosure in the
remote environment. Many full specification rack enclosures allow you to mount
standard servers and fully extend forward. This makes installation and
serviceability much easier. You can also likely utilize cable management arms
in these types of enclosures.

#6: Ensuring phone line proximity

All IT staffers surely have access to a mobile phone, but
it’s still a good idea to have a telephone line close to the remote enclosure.
Support is much easier for operational staff (who may not have mobile phones),
as well as vendors who may be collaborating on the remote technology in the
enclosure. Regardless of the user, having a phone line accessible, or even in
the cabinet, can greatly reduce the time to identify and communicate a
potential issue, as well as increasing possible operational benefits. A phone
line also has a possible use as a contingency modem if the network link to this
station fails.

#7: Dealing with extreme cold

This may sound like a thermal management nonissue, right?
Think again. Having deployed technology solutions in freezer areas of food distribution
centers, I’ve learned that you may not be able to rely on the exhaust of a
system to provide adequate heat. For example, most technology equipment’s
operating temperature range is 50 degrees F on the bottom end. This is a far
cry from the -40 degree F environments in a large freezer complex. While
operating, a device may make enough
exhaust heat to keep it in the operating range. However during storage or idle
times, you run the risk of damaging the components and possibly voiding the warranty,
as ice may form on the inside of the components.

Just as air conditioners can keep enclosures cool, thermal
management heating solutions can keep an enclosure in an operating range for
equipment. Be sure to get one with thermostat-like control because if the ambient
temperature gets within a tolerable range, you want the heating source to idle so
it won’t overheat the interior. This is especially important if you deploy a
solution that uses an cold, or idle, secondary system.

#8: Facilitating support by nontechnical staff

Visibility and labeling are important for technology
deployed in harsh environments. You may not have IT staff working with the
system, and certain operational and troubleshooting elements may be done by
facility maintenance staff, operational staff, managers, or other non-IT

For example, take the rack shown in Figure D, which a TechRepublic member recently implemented for a
customer solution. The rack uses intuitive connectivity and labeling as

  • Red cables are Ethernet networking cables going
    to a local switch.
  • Gray cables are special long-haul serial lines
    going to an Ethernet-attached multiport serial adapter (not connected in the
  • Each cable end is labeled for its role.
  • A label panel on the cable management identifies
    each network port.
  • Cable management flex conduit keeps like cables
    together and run snug through the enclosure.

Figure D

#9: Preventive maintenance on the air conditioner

If your enclosure has an air conditioner with a replaceable
air filter, be sure to replace it. These are not expensive pieces but are critical
to the effective operation of the air conditioner in filtering airborne
particulate from entering the controlled environment inside the enclosure.

The other important preventative maintenance task is to
ensure that the air conditioner has adequate Freon. A common strategy is to
make a facility maintenance staff responsible for replacing the air filters and
keeping the Freon charged.

#10: Consolidated technology spots

Many factories, shops, and distribution centers have
networking cabinets/enclosures on the floor to extend the network
infrastructure for the technology elements. These enclosures are generally not
in environmentally controlled enclosures. If you deploy larger systems (e.g., servers
or critical workstations) in a harsh environment and have a full size
enclosure, consider consolidating the network infrastructure into the same
enclosure for a smaller IT footprint and consolidated enclosure space.