How to keep metal whiskers from wrecking your data center

Tips for lessening the chances of metal whiskers invading

Metal whiskers can wreck your data center. Here are tips to prevent that from happening.

Although metal whiskers are not as common as they were a decade ago, they can be a source of major problems if measures aren’t taken to prevent them from forming and getting into equipment (see "How worried should you be about metal whiskers?"). Here are a few tips on keeping your data center safe from metal whiskers:

* Don’t cheap out. Most new floor tiles, server racks, computers and the like are manufactured in a way that prevents metal whiskers, but some manufacturers skimp on protective measures. “Specify that electroplated sheet metal will not be used anyplace in the data center,” advises Robert Sullivan, senior consultant at the Uptime Institute.

* Use your eyes. If you have floor tiles or other materials with zinc or tin plating, check for metal whiskers. “Take a good, high-powered flashlight and shine it parallel to the surface, and if the surface twinkles back at you,” you probably have zinc whisker, Sullivan says. He explains that although the whiskers are generally too small to be seen, the light that they reflect is visible.

* Be suspicious. If you run into unusual, difficult-to-explain equipment failures, consider the possibility of a metal whisker problem, particularly if the problem crops up soon after equipment is moved. Failures related to zinc whiskers range from power supplies shorting out en masse to intermittent problems that can be cleared up with a reboot, according to Rich Hill, president of data center cleanup company Data Clean. He notes that sporadic problems might be blamed on buggy software or bad equipment before metal whiskers are found to be the culprit. Moving things can break metal whiskers off of zinc- or tin-plated surfaces.

Metal whiskers in the data center: What do you think?


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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