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July 2009: Protection of Information Technology (IT) Equipment

Information technology equipment/systems include computers and peripheral support such as memory, programming, records, storage, and human activities. Guidance can be found in NFPA 75-2009 "Standard for the Protection of Information Technology Equipment," which forms the basis of this article.

The IT Equipment Area (ITEA) is considered to be the IT Equipment Room (ITER) itself as well as support rooms - all served by the same special HVAC equipment. This area in turn is located within a building.

The surrounding building should be automatic sprinkler protected or constructed to specific levels of fire resistance based on NFPA 220 "Standard on Types of Building Construction". When the surrounding building is sprinklered, the ITER and ITEA should also be sprinklered. This system should have a separate sprinkler control valve. Where the building is not sprinkler protected, sprinklers or gas extinguishing systems (or both) should be provided for the ITER and ITEA. Where it is critical to protect data in process and facilitate continuity of operations, gaseous agents inside equipment or total flooding systems should be considered, whether sprinklers are provided or not. Protection below raised floors of the ITER/ITEA is required - this can be automatic sprinklers, carbon dioxide or an inert gas fire extinguishing system. The use of halocarbon agents are generally discouraged for below the floor spaces unless used for the above and below spaces together, or in tandem with automatic sprinklers above the floor.

The ITEA should be cut off from the remainder of the building with at least one hour fire rated construction. Within this area the ITER should be enclosed with at least one hour fire rated construction. In both cases (as is customary for any fire rated construction) fire doors, dampers and penetration seals are needed to maintain the fire rated integrity of the barriers. Interior wall and ceiling finishes should be Class A rated per NFPA 101 "Life Safety Code" (or Class B minimum if the ITEA is fully sprinkler protected). Interior floor finish should be Class I rated per NFPA 101 "Life Safety Code" (or Class II minimum if the ITEA is fully sprinkler protected). The structural floor where the IT equipment system is located should be provided with a means for drainage of liquids. When the space below a raised floor or above a suspended ceiling is used to re circulate room air the wiring in the spaces must conform to NFPA 70 "National Electrical Code", Article 645.

Exposure from steam, water and drain lines should be minimized by avoiding routes through the area. Avoid basement locations for the ITEA or provide a means to protect against possible flooding. In any event, water detection at the structural floor would be prudent.

Small offices are permitted in the ITER. Non combustible containers should be provided for combustible material storage. Metal furniture should be used. Trash receptacles should be the self extinguishing type. Paper stock, inks, unused recording media and other combustibles in the ITER should be minimal and in enclosed metal cabinets - reserves should be kept outside the ITER. Records should be kept to a minimum - only those essential to equipment operations. Vital or important records that have not been duplicated should be in minimum Class 150 one hour fire resistant listed record storage equipment - others should be in metal cabinets. Vital and important records outside the ITER should be duplicated, with duplicates in a remote location. Automated Information Storage Systems are permitted, but if more than 27 cu. ft. internal sprinklers or a gas extinguishing system with extended discharge should be provided (Note: the size is arbitrary, based on anticipated concentration of combustible load but may vary from case to case). Tape libraries and record storage is permitted in the ITEA, outside the ITER. These must be in one hour fire rated enclosures and provided with an automatic fire extinguishing system. Spare media can be in this room if unpacked and stored the same as media containing records.

IT equipment parts are required to meet one of several UL standards for combustibility limits to increase the likelihood that an internal ignition will not spread beyond the unit where ignition occurs. Otherwise, automatic sprinkler protection should be provided.

Unless unacceptable for life safety, regulatory or operational reasons, power to electrical equipment should disconnect upon activation of a total flooding gaseous system. Smoke type automatic detection should be provided for early warning of a fire. Detection should be installed throughout the ITEA, below raised floors where cables are present and above suspended ceiling and below raised floors if the spaces are used to re-circulate air to other parts of the building.

Detection systems should be used to actuate gaseous extinguishing systems. Detection and extinguishing systems should annunciate (alarm) at a constantly attended location (on or off site). Alarms should warn of a pending discharge and an actual discharge. Where detectors are used to activate interlocks and automatic shutdown devices, power to these elements should be supervised electronically by the fire alarm control panel. Such interlocks might be used to shut air handling systems if continued operation would exhaust the gaseous agent. When a separate coolant system is used for ITEA HVAC, it should be alarmed to indicate loss of coolant.

Fire extinguishers should be carbon dioxide or halogenated agent type with a Class A rating. Avoid the use of dry chemical type fire extinguishers.

Where continuous power is provided, warning signs should be posted at each entrance to the ITEA advising that electrical equipment will remain energized, even if the main electrical service is disconnected.

Designated ITEA personnel should be trained to understand the alarm system and initiate proper responses. They should be aware of the locations of emergency equipment and tools and use of portable/manual extinguishing equipment. A Management of Change program should be instituted to assure that changes are thoroughly reviewed for any potential adverse impact in existing fire protection features.

The design of electrical systems, equipment and components is subject to a number of specific requirements and should be designed by experienced electrical engineers and electricians. Manual means of disconnecting power in the ITER should be provided, with disconnects located at principal exit doors. The same should be provided for all HVAC systems in the room. These two functions can be grouped into single disconnects if desired. The disconnects should, except for certain cases, include UPS systems and should also initiate HVAC fire and smoke damper operation.

As you progressed through this article, or in reading the Standard, it may seem that requirements and suggestions are overblown, or they may seem just the opposite and lack a broad presentation of alternatives. You could be quite correct in either point of view. This would likely be due to the perspective based on your particular situation. There are factors that would alter the overall implementation of protective features - such as alternate sites (hot, cold and co-location), redundancies and duplication of software and hardware, monetary value of hardware and software, criticality of eliminating even short interruption of operations, recovery time for critical and secondary operations, the effect on business continuity, human life, and regulatory issues to cite a few examples. For larger, more important installations, a team approach should be used to optimize the various selections and alternatives available to suit your particular situation. Risk Logic, Inc. can help. We have expertise in property loss control and a thorough understanding of a wide variety of fire suppression and detection systems. Our familiarity with several decision guidance tools can help you direct protective features toward the most serious loss exposures based on historical data. Please contact our office and we can work with you or directly with your insurance carriers, contractors, or an in-house engineering/design department.