Excessive Noise in the Data Center?

Susan Wynne for blog By Susan Wynne, Account Manager, Rackmount Solutions, Inc.

Problem: It’s noisy in here.
As data centers have grown larger, the increase in the number of servers, power supplies, and the fans and other systems that cool them create an intensely powerful, constant level of noise. According to a 2007 Computerworld article, this noise pollution, known as whoosh, can be so significant that it actually registers as “pressure on your head” while you’re working in the area.

Even efforts to consolidate servers and employ low-energy chips don’t always reduce noise levels significantly. These trends tend to lead data center designers to pack more units or chips into small spaces, so noise levels stay high. And in large data centers — including those in co-location facilities — more server racks mean more heat, thus more fans competing with more server power supplies, and all generating more noise.

How bad can it be?
To some degree, the effects of noise pollution on IT workers are undefined. Many IT pros simply learn to live with the constant din. But research shows that over time, constant exposure to high levels of noise can have detrimental effects.

In addition, noise levels in various environments do vary. The Computerworld article cites readings taken in a data center that registered decibel levels between 70 dB and 79 dB. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), normal speech registers at about 60 dB, a lawn mower at 90 dB, and a jet takeoff at 140 dB. At 85 dB OSHA requires monitoring; at 90 dB OSHA requires that companies take measures to protect workers’ hearing.

In 2003, the Oxford Journals’ British Medical Bulletin reported findings of multiple studies that described long-term effects of exposure to noise. Problems associated with noise pollution include:

  • Distraction — This effect is a major concern. Bigger than just the need to shout or the inability to converse by phone, the problem can significantly reduce an individual’s ability to concentrate, and thus reduce job performance and productivity.
  • Endocrine responses — What does this mean? It means noise causes stress. The Oxford report indicated increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones that cause the “fight-or-flight” response. Over time, elevated levels of these hormones are linked to multiple health problems.
  • Psychiatric disorders — According to the Oxford report, psychological responses to noise starts with a general level of annoyance that, over time, can produce symptoms including nausea, headaches, argumentativeness and changes in mood and anxiety.
  • Cardiovascular disease — According to the Oxford report, the stress of constant noise exposure causes significant physiological responses, most notably, constriction of blood vessels, which elevates blood pressure and increases the likelihood of other cardiovascular problems.

What can you do?
To mitigate the noise in their data centers, many IT pros take matters into their own hands.

Common measures to reduce noise include:

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) — Simple ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones can help individuals reduce the effects of noise.
  • Acoustic tiles — In some data centers, sound-absorbing tiles on ceilings and walls reduce the ambient noise and prevent noise from being amplified on hard surfaces.
  • Noise-reduction accessories — Add-on equipment, such as acoustic mufflers that attach to server racks, are available to reduce the amount of noise produced.
  • Custom enclosures — For standalone servers, sound-reducing cases are available. These are designed to reduce noise without increasing heat.
  • Soundproof server rack cabinets — Some <asoundproof_server_rack_cabinet_ucoustic_acoustiquiet.asp”>server rack cabinets can virtually eliminate server noise.

Most organizations will need to evaluate the available solutions based on their environments and the specific needs of their staff. But taking the time to reduce noise levels in your data center can have significant benefits for your people and your company.

What would you do? Send your best practice insights for supporting collaboration technologies to newsletter@rackmountsolutions.net. We might just share your ideas in the next issue of Rackmount Solutions.

Other articles by Susan Wynne:

More Cooling Tips for Your Data Center

You and Your Equipment:  Cool as a Cucumber

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