Temperature@lert: Low cost, high value data center monitoring

In this interview, Temperature@lert's Harry Schechter talks about data centers, temperature monitoring, humidity, and the new ASHRAE guidelines. We also provide an overview of the company's products.

One of the biggest consumers of energy in a company is the data center. Specifically, cooling the data center costs a lot of money, but keeping the data center cool is key in ensuring continuous operation of equipment.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Harry Schechter, founder and CEO of Temperature@lert, a low cost provider of data center temperature, humidity, and flood monitoring products. Temperature@lert has been in business since 2005 (the products are on their fifth revision), and he told me that the company has more than 10,000 products in the wild. Read what he says about temperature monitoring, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recent announcement that it will raise the data center temperature limit recommendations to a point above the current level of 81°F (27°C), and more.

How proactive are your customers? Are they buying to avoid a disaster or are they buying because they had an incident? Schechter: Temperature@lert customers are generally proactive by nature -- they install OS patches, manage backups, update anti-virus, etc. on a regular basis, but it's tougher to find best practices on temperature monitoring, so it often gets overlooked. Or, the budget for temperature monitoring hasn't been created yet. What's counterintuitive from that is that most of our customers have already experienced a failure when they come to us. Monday's are big order days because someone will have walked in after the weekend to their new server room / sauna and discovered the AC has been out all weekend. How do you feel the ASHRAE's new guidelines will affect server room or data center design and ongoing management and monitoring? Schechter: New designs will easily benefit from the revised guidelines. Anytime you're starting with a blank slate, it's a no brainer to implement and justify the guidelines when the savings go right to the bottom line. The harder part is retro-fitting existing centers to take advantage of the new guidelines due to legacy equipment. Reviewing the manufacturer's guidelines on maximum temperature ratings will be crucial to know whether or not you can begin standardizing on the new ASHRAE guidelines or if the changes are best implemented in smaller segments of the data center. Ongoing management and monitoring will become more important than ever -- as the recommended temperature is raised, it greatly shortens the amount of time available for a response to a disaster. Instead of going from warm to hot very quickly, we're now looking at going from hot to very hot very quickly. Sloppiness is not an option here. Do the new guidelines do anything to either prevent or mitigate environmentally-caused data center disasters? Schechter: The new guidelines will certainly be welcomed by most administrators since the end goal is to prevent or mitigate environmental disasters. ASHRAE exists in part to help disseminate the best practices learned by the legions of association members who've unfortunately experienced far too many real life disasters. Setting up hot and cold aisles, running regular maintenance checks on things like air filters, consolidating underutilized equipment are all great recommendations from groups like ASHRAE. I'm confident that if followed (and that's often a big if) the new guidelines will be beneficial. Do you know to what level ASHRAE intends to raise the temperature limit? Schechter: It hasn't been released yet, but I can't imagine that it would be more then 3-5 degrees tops. What is the worst heat or humidity-caused issue you've seen in a data center? Schechter: I've seen 120 F (inside the equipment), which was closer to 100 F outside. The underpowered cooling system was not N+1 redundant. When one unit failed, the rest of the system couldn't keep up. It got so hot that the servers, router, and other IT equipment started locking up and shutting down on their own due to the manufacturer's design. In your experience, what does heat do to equipment lifespan? Humidity? Schechter: Overheating equipment shortens the lifespan of that equipment drastically. Let's say the temp accidentally rises to 95 F for a while. First of all, the temp inside the equipment is hotter than that. Second, even if the equipment doesn't ever reach the automatic shutoff temperature, running higher than the manufacturer's specs can decrease the equipment's lifespan by 50% or more. So a temperature elevation today could cause your systems to fail much sooner and unexpectedly sometime in the future when your AC is running properly. At least with temperature rises, you've still got some lifespan left in the server. Humidity on the other hand is much less forgiving. Too little humidity and you can instantly zap your equipment with a static charge. Too much humidity and condensation can also instantly short out equipment requiring costly repairs and downtime.

Temperature@alert's product line

Before I spoke with Mr. Schechter, I had some knowledge of the company and its products, but after speaking with him and learning more about the product line, I am thoroughly impressed with Temperature@lert and the company's "keep it simple" philosophy.

From the smallest single server closets to the largest data centers, environmental monitoring is a key need. After all, when temperatures get too hot, bad things happen -- equipment fails, services go down, and the business is negatively impacted. Continuous temperature issues can also reduce the overall lifespan of equipment, directly impacting the organization's bottom line. The same goes for humidity issues. And, no one wants a flood to make its way into the data center.

Temperature@lert doesn't just sell systems to companies that want to make sure temperatures don't get too high in their data centers -- the company also has customers in health care entities for which low temperatures are, literally, a matter of life and death. This is one of the reasons that Temperature@lert sells vehicle power adapters for their products. For food and medical applications in which mobile refrigeration is key, companies buy these products. Mr. Schechter shared with me stories about bio labs that transport samples from New York to California. These companies placed Temperature@lert hardware on their trucks and configured them to take temperature readings at five minutes intervals.

Now that I've explained some of the business needs for Temperature@lert's products, I'll provide a brief overview of it product offerings. From a base unit perspective, the company sells three products:

  • USB Edition. This device plugs into a Windows computer's USB port and takes periodic temperature settings. This is the most basic edition and can't be extended to monitor humidity and for water. List price: $129.99
  • WiFi Edition. This works on wireless networks. This edition (as well as the Cellular Edition) can accept up to two environmental probes for complete monitoring. (I'll discuss the probes later.) The WiFi and Cellular editions are completely standalone and don't need to be connected to a computer. Once connected to your WiFi network, the unit can send environmental alerts to you via email. List price: $299.99.
  • Cellular Edition. This is the top-of-the-line model and is completely decoupled from the internal infrastructure. It provides many more notification options, including email, text, and phone (even multiple recipients). This edition has a battery backup that can last for weeks under the default configuration and assuming that cellular signal strength isn't so weak that the battery is drained more quickly. Because this unit is battery backed, it can also alert you when there is a power loss to the device; this adds another level of monitoring beyond the other editions. Through contracts with T-Mobile and AT&T (which are purchased when the device is purchased), the units are fully separate from your internal network. So, if there is a power issue or some other issue preventing network communication, the monitoring device can still operate and can still alert you if there are environment issues in the data center. List price: $399.99 / Monthly service plans start at $15/mo.

With the Cellular Edition, Temperature@lert includes access to its Sensor Cloud. This is a web-based application that provides a historical look at monitored environmental conditions in the data center. For the USB and WiFi editions, Sensor Cloud is an optional service.

Optional add-on products

These optional add-on products are available from Temperature@lert:

  • Temperature probe. List price: $34.99
  • Combination temperature/humidity probe. List price $49.99
  • Ten port splitter. Allows one monitoring device to monitor up to 10 probes, each up to 300 feet away. This extends the product's usefulness to larger data centers.

A flood sensor is under development. The list price is expected to be no higher than $49.99.

More to come

I plan to place an order with Temperature@lert for a cellular-based unit with a combination temperature/humidity probe (in the interest of transparency, I will be paying full price). I will report back in a few weeks about my real-world experience of using Temperature@lert's product.

By Scott Lowe

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...