I open my home PC to clean it about once a year. My office is relatively clean—there's no smoking, nor is the four-legged furball (aka Diskcatte) allowed in there. Yet somehow, the computer gets filthy inside.
It made me wonder what happens to the inside of servers in computer rooms and data centers. After all, too much crud inside a server (or storage or switch) can impede airflow, which creates extra heat, which causes all kinds of trouble related to overworked fans. A tiny metal particle could cause a short circuit, leading to the dreaded trio of sizzle, pop, and odor that's well-known to anyone who ever burned a capacitor.
Spec-Clean, in Brookfield, CT, is one of several specialists in data center cleaning services. Company president Rich DeBlasi estimated that 70% of data center owners hire such firms, and the rest either do it themselves or don't have a formal data center cleaning plan—at the risk of well-intended office janitorial staff using water-based cleaning fluids or non-HEPA vacuum filters.
Yet cleaning inside the actual computer equipment is underappreciated, DeBlasi said. In a data center in Buffalo, a Spec-Clean team had to open and clean 500 brand-new servers after construction debris went everywhere, he noted.
Other experts shared their thoughts on this subject by email.
Dave Eastman, vice president, ServerFarm: "Cleaning the inside of a server should never be necessary if it is installed in a clean and well-operated data center. However, if a server is taken down for servicing, cleaning inside the server chassis using high powered air to blow out dust particles is recommended. For servers installed in dirty environments the collection of dust and dirt particles inside the PC is definitely a problem, but taking a server down is most often a greater problem. Whenever a server is taken down one risks component failures when bringing it back up regardless of whether it is cleaned inside or not.
"When all things are considered I have two recommendations on this subject: 1. Install servers in a clean environment where accumulation of dust and dirt particles inside the server do not pose a significant problem. 2. Even if a server is in a dirty environment. do not take it down only to clean it. Rather, make cleaning it a standard practice when it is taken down for other reasons. It would be a 'cry'n shame' if a server were taken down for cleaning only, and it couldn't be brought back up."
Tim Lynch, president, Psychsoftpc: "Dust is the major killer of computers, so servers should be cleaned from dust every year or two. Servers should not be taken apart to clean, but compressed air can be used once the covers are off. Some servers now have air filters near the power supply air intake. These should be cleaned to ensure free air flow. It should go without saying but folks should NEVER use liquid products like spray cleaners in the computers. The best time to do this cleaning is after business hours when down time will not effect work."
Jacob Ackerman, CTO, SkyLink Data Centers: "Servers located in a properly maintained data center should never have to be opened up for cleaning, even after 5-7 years of use. It's when they're not inside a proper data center where things can become an issue. Open warehouses and manufacturing plants are by far the worst environments for servers. Those servers should be shut down and cleaned at least yearly, sometimes more frequently depending on conditions. What most companies don't realize is, manufacturers like Dell actually produce special server faceplates and filters for dirty environments. There are even server racks specially made for harsh environments.
"Where we really run into issues are servers in an environment where the dust and debris is laden with oil or similar sticky substances. Simple compressed air just won't take care of it and in these cases, the focus is on prevention. Little critters and insects are also another consideration. We used to deploy servers in telco huts, those brown looking masonry buildings at the base of cell phone towers. Due to our high air flow servers, insects were never an issue but here in Florida lizards and geckos were. They never caused any damage, but we would need to go through and remove them from the equipment about once a year."
- Photos: Real-world server room nightmares (TechRepublic)
- Gallery: 28 scary photos of IT gore (TechRepublic)
- 10 stupid things people do in their data centers (TechRepublic)
- Microsoft drops data center into the sea: 'It will keep working for five years' (ZDNet)
- Six reasons why companies hang on to their data centers (ZDNet)
Evan became a technology reporter during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers" in 2015 and is executive director of Vintage Computer Federation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. His vices include running and Springsteen.