Kathrin Langkamp


How to extinguish a Data Center without deleting data

Emergency horns are blaring and a flurry of activity is spreading across the grounds of the data center in Biere. One, two, three, no – no less than four fire trucks are speeding to the security gate of the data center. There seems to be a fire inside – and the fire department? Standing outside for the time being. Because this door is at least as well guarded as Fort Knox. But in the event of a fire, everything is different. And so the floodgates open and the fire department enters. Fortunately, it's only for the annual fire drill. A good occasion to ask: How do you extinguish a fire in a data center? How does it differ from a normal house fire?   

In Biere near Magdeburg, T-Systems operates one of the most powerful data centers in Europe. The IT campus in Bördeland in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt houses around 100,000 servers on an area of 12,000 square meters, the equivalent of around 47 tennis courts. The data of many companies is processed here and critical infrastructure is also operated.  The Open Telekom Cloud also has its home in Biere.

Biere one and two, as the two clusters are referred to in the Magenta vernacular, are not alone. The data center is based on the Twin Core concept and therefore has an identical twin in regional proximity – in Magdeburg, 20 kilometers away. There, the data from Biere is mirrored and thus always held in duplicate. For security reasons, the twin data centers must be a certain distance apart, neither too large nor too small. On the one hand, so that data can be mirrored from A to B at sufficient speed. On the other hand, so that there is enough distance between the locations and potential disasters do not hit both data centers at the same time.  But enough about boring data. Back to the fire alarm.  

Does it smell like smoke yet?

It's a well-known fact that water and IT don't get along very well. To reliably process sensitive data, servers not only need to be cooled, but also protected from water – even in the event of a fire. But what to do if there is a fire? In any case, extinguishing a fire in the midst of technology with water and foam is not an option.

The best thing, of course, is to prevent fires. That's why a diligent sniffer system is used in Biere. "The server rooms are checked around the clock for the smallest amount of particles in the air," explains Dirk Kabelitz, head of the data center in Biere. "If there are any smoke particles in the room, an alarm is triggered".  The experts refer to this as an aspirating smoke detector. This registers a fire in its early stages and triggers a technician intervention to de-energize faulty equipment. If that is not enough, another alarm is automatically sent to the fire control center. At the same time, an automatic extinguishing system directs nitrogen into the server rooms. Within four seconds, the rooms can be flooded with the gas, nipping a fire in the bud. But that alone is not enough. The fire department is notified despite the automatic extinguishing system. 

Better without Fire 

Protecting data around the clock requires a sophisticated security concept in which public authorities and organizations work together. But if the worst comes to the worst, the data center also relies on external help. After all, fires are also possible in the associated office buildings or the backup power plants with their huge ship diesel engines. There are 30 of them in Biere. A 20-cylinder engine supplies energy for about 200 single-family homes. The refueling is sufficient for 110 hours of continuous operation. A supplier ensures timely refueling in the event of bottlenecks. Large amounts of energy are involved, which is why precautions are so important. Firefighters usually use CO2 extinguishers, and eventually water in the event of an open fire. "To keep the risk as low as possible, we regularly train how to react in extreme situations and deepen our expertise," says municipal fire chief Hans Georg Fabian of the Bördeland Volunteer Fire Department. In addition, the fire department has to clear the rooms again after nitrogen flooding. For operations in a data center, the fire department needs professional equipment such as respiratory protection, adapted protective clothing and communication technology.  
In addition, other measures provide support:  

Server rooms have fire resistance for at least 90 minutes.  

  • Minimum distances between locations and on the building campus increase safety. 
  • Cables for power and data running on separate routes into the fire protection cells ensure availability. 
  • In addition, all critical infrastructure is duplicated. 
  • The team refreshes its knowledge and performs partial shutdowns to simulate major incidents 

Back behind the Bördeland's best-secured door: the smoke alarms and sirens have fallen silent, the hoses are rolled up, and the volunteer fire department returns to its position. After the exercise at the emergency power system, the next exercise is on the agenda: This time inside the data center. But this takes place without me. For security reasons, only a few authorized people are allowed to enter the data center and especially the server rooms. And although I was able to catch a glimpse behind the airlock, it remains a mystery to me what the data center looks like from the inside.