Expert Risk Articles

Risk visit at a data center: High performance - 24 hours

Paul Helmus, Risk Engineer with Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, inspects Deutsche Telekom’s computing and network centers around the globe. On site in Bamberg, general safety standards, fire protection and power supply security are on his checklist.


Best standards for computing center security

He knows them all. Paul Helmus has dropped into Deutsche Telekom’s computing center in Alphaville Barueri, Brazil. He has put to the test the facility in Martorell, Spain, and he will soon add the regional computing center in Singapore to his travel itinerary. As a risk engineer at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS), Helmus travels the world on behalf of the German telecommunications group to inspect its network and computing centers. The main question on his mind: What steps could be taken to prevent physical damage from causing network and IT server failures?  

Such failures would cost Deutsche Telekom and its customers – as well as AGCS, the provider of the group’s global insurance program – huge amounts of money. As a result, both sides are particularly interested in maintaining a risk management partnership. “We really want to work closely with the risk carrier in order to apply national and international standards for fire protection and other risks,” says Joerg Schoenenborn, Director of Group and Company Insurance at DeTeAssekuranz.

On this particular day, Helmus was in Bamberg, a picturesque university city in southern Germany. The Telekom subsidiary T-Systems operates 12 computing centers here, primarily providing companies with server capacity and high-performance computing. Helmus has already visited the computing center several times. His focus during this visit is the work that has been done over the past three years. “The aim is to establish a group standard and to maintain and expand it even as management changes occur, restructuring activities are carried out and acquisitions are made.”

AGCS Risk Engineer Paul Helmus investigates the emergency power supply generator

Availability of applications as top priority

The utilization level of the Bamberg T-Systems com - put ing center is very high. Servers, high-performance computers and network components have been in - stalled in the facility, which covers about 4,000 square meters. Applications run around the clock here. The availability of the clients’ applications has the highest priority. Helmus has three questions on his checklist: Are entrances and access systematically secured? What does the fire protection plan cover? How failsafe are the cooling system and the center’s power supply?

Helmus had no complaints about the physical security of the computing center. “A multistep security concept has been skillfully designed and installed,” the risk engineer says. Guards are on site 24 hours a day and regularly patrol the site and buildings. The area is also monitored by video cameras. Employees must show ID cards before entering the complex. Visitors are admitted to the computing center only after their credentials have been carefully checked, and they must be accompanied by a company employee. Individuals must go through an electronic access-control system, requiring an individual code, before they gain access to the technical area of the building. Access to individual engineering rooms is also controlled by an electronic locking system.

Helmus directs his greatest attention to fire protection. Here, too, the quality of the system is very high: the firealarm, sprinkler and deluge systems are complemented by CO2 fire-extinguishing units that would flood the raised floors in the computer rooms if a fire started. The server rooms are equipped with very sensitive smoke detectors that go off even before an open fire has broken out. The operational safety system is immediately informed if one of the many cables connecting the computers begins to overheat. At least two members of staff are on site during the night.

Risk Consultant Paul Helmus and Walter Rümer inspecting sprinklers at the computing center

T-Systems plans to further improve the fire-suppression system in the computing center. “We are working to up grade the fire-alarm technology and to gradually replace the CO2 fire-extinguishing systems with more operatorfriendly argon fire-extinguishing units. When the current system is activated, employees must evacuate the area within 20 seconds,” says Werner Rümer, the director of the computing center. Helmus thinks that the plan must be implemented quickly and recommends one further step: flue flashings should be installed in the central media channel from where the power cables run into the IT equipment area, to improve the alarm-triggering ability of the smoke detectors.

Cooling capacity of 14,000 refrigerators

Each computing center has two Achilles’ heels: its power supply and its cooling systems, which take up just as much space as the server rooms themselves. As far as the electrical power supply goes, Helmus can quickly tick it off his list: a power failure is unlikely. “The magic bullet here is true cross-connect cabling,” he says. Over the years, the Telekom engineers have broken down the entire power-provision system into two autonomous fire protection areas – and each of these areas can take over the continuous power supply job should the other fail. For this reason, each server has not just one power connector, but two separate ones. The critically important cooling systems also employ redundant cabling. Huge amounts of data are processed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The waste heat created in the process must be dissipated by the cooling systems. The total cool ing capacity of the Telekom computing center is 5,000 kW – the capacity of about 14,000 refrigerators.

To prevent the IT systems from coming to a halt, the company needs something more than state-of-the-art technology, regular maintenance and continuous moni toring. The human factor has, at the very least, the same high priority: “Our networks and servers must be available at all times. Because we feel this strong pressure, our teamwork must function very well,” Rümer says. “We in Bamberg pull together.”