Field NotesAn Ounce of Prevention

Jay Shaw

All good IT pros worry about their servers. If something goes wrong it’s your problem and it’s usually a big one. Most of you stick your servers in a closet and neglect them. Unless something blows up, you may not even look at them for months at a time. Sure you check them with Remote Desktop every day or so, but when did you last actually take a peek at the physical machine?

Can’t Take the Heat

What would you do if you were stuck in a closet where the temperature jumps to 130 degrees in July? Most likely you’d quit immediately, yet we expect our servers to keep working 24/7 without complaint. You had some warning—you heard the fans kick into high gear when you opened the closet a few months ago, and yet you did nothing.

Fans often break and make no sound at all. You might as well break out the BBQ sauce then, because the machine is going to cook. True, most servers are now built with temperature controls and automatic shutdown devices, but you can’t count on them.

I recently went to my office on a Saturday and found that Facilities was mistakenly shutting down the ventilation to the server closet on weekends. Fortunately, I noticed in time, but it was an important wake-up call.

Out of the Closet

If your servers aren’t in a closet, you still have other concerns to deal with. You have to think about who has access to them—legitimate or not. I have a customer who routinely has spyware issues on his server. The server sits in the middle of the office where everyone can play with it. People surf on it all the time and, of course, everyone has the administrator password, a surefire accident waiting to happen.

Even if you have a very small office where internal security is not much of an issue, you should still take precautions. If you keep your server behind lock and key where it’s supposed to be, you’ll go a long way toward avoiding problems that stem from misuse.

Environmental Impact

Fire and water may be elemental, but you don’t want them anywhere near your server. One of my clients recently had a fire in the server closet. Luckily, the fire was extinguished before the server got too badly singed. I noticed lots of paper and other flammable materials lying all over the server table. All those materials just added kindling to the fire. Keep your server room free of unnecessary flammables. And while I’m on the subject, keep your backup tapes in a fireproof and waterproof box with a second set of tapes at an offsite location.

Have you ever seen a server swim? I witnessed such an event on the third floor of a modern office building, in a lovely pool that developed after a pipe burst on the floor above. Do you have pipes running through or near your server closet? Is your server sitting directly on the floor? If so, you might come in one day and see it doing the back stroke. Keep your servers on a table and protect them from water leaks or sprinkler systems.

Just because servers don’t like water doesn’t mean they don’t need to be cleaned every once in a while. I once saw so much dust built up inside of a server that I literally had to scoop it out. I wore a grounding strap and administered compressed air but I lost that patient. That’s a fate you can easily avoid by just opening the case four times a year and using some compressed air to clear the dust.

Don’t house your servers in a jungle of cords either. When you open your server closet, does it look like there are vines falling from the ceiling or crawling across the floor? If you move the server three inches to the left, does the network cable pop out? Can you pull your server out of its rack at least 12 inches without jerking the keyboard and mouse out of the back?

Think of it this way: a server-friendly environment is probably not much different from the one you’d choose to live in.

Health and Well-Being

What kind of shape is your server in? When you last disassembled it, did you put it back together properly or do you have one of those machines that can’t be moved for fear the hard drives will slide right out of the case? And what about the drive cables? Do they make a lot of noise when you close the case? Are they rubbing on the processor fan? If you keep ignoring the symptoms, eventually the cable is going to break. You need to make sure the cables run through the case in the proper locations so that air can flow through and keep everything cool.

IT pros want to avoid making clients angry at all costs. If it takes a little forethought and a few special precautions to avoid server meltdown, it’s worth every moment at the client site. And it will prevent you from needing to constantly look for new clients.

Jay Shaw is an independent network consultant. His company, Network Consulting Services, is located in Long Island, New York. He can be reached at

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