The issue of Zinc Whiskers in data centres isn’t really improving and some are still failing to recognise the dangers posed by these tiny zinc whisker particles in causing equipment failure and outages.
This is the view of the specialist data healthcare business, ABM Critical Solutions, after a survey of more than 30 sites across the UK over the past 12 months.
Mike Meyer, Sales Director at ABM Critical Solutions, says that part of the problem is knowing how to prevent the whiskers from entering the critical space in the first place. Once present they will grow organically and even spread. There is no known cure and ongoing cleaning is the only solution currently outside of replacing infected components which isn’t usually feasible: “Because the whiskers are almost impossible to see with the naked eye, operators are sometimes oblivious to the problems they can cause.
“When zinc particles enter a data centre’s hardware, they form conductive structures that cause circuit trips and electrical failures,” he says. “However, the particles disintegrate when a short circuit occurs, and unless a technician is aware of this phenomenon, it may go undetected as the source of the problem.
“It is vitally important for data centres to have regular and thorough specialist cleans, air and surface quality tests and visual inspections, even though system operators may not believe there is a problem.”
Zinc Whiskers are one of the least understood of all of the causes of equipment failure within data centres. The term refers to the millions of tiny Zinc Whisker particles that measure only a micron in diameter. Zinc Whiskers are a phenomenon that can occur on bare metal surfaces. Metal surfaces are coated with zinc in a galvanisation process to help protect them from corrosion. While several techniques are used, such as hot-dip or spraying, whisker growth appears to be limited to electroplated samples.
Forming over time, when disturbed by any kind of maintenance activity the Zinc Whiskers become airborne and follow the airflow path which generally leads right to the front of hardware. They penetrate through vents or fans and can cause short cuts to power supplies and sensitive circuitry which could ultimately lead to critical infrastructure failure.
Although industry-wide the number of data centres affected is comparatively small, perhaps as little as one percent, but Mike believes the problem could be far more widespread than anticipated:
“ABM Critical Solutions uses special scientific analysis to quickly identify whether Zinc Whiskers have formed, and if so, their stage of development, so that efficient and thorough cleaning can take place, helping to protect data centres and the critical infrastructure they support.”
Most recently ABM has been trialling and elastic paint solutions that’s supposed to contain the Zinc Whiskers. Tests to date have shown that the product needs further development and ABM is working closely with the manufacturer to see if an effective ‘cure’ can be developed. At least for now regular specialist cleaning or replacement of effected materials is the only solution.