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Do you need a computer room?

Does my business need a computer room?

It seems that large expansive computer rooms go hand-in-hand with successful companies. At least that how we’ve been trained to think. The computer room appears to be a cultural indicator of a successful business. After all, if you have lots and lots of people you will need lots and lots of computers and maybe even a mainframe computer. Then your company will truly be successful.

computer show roomMany companies bought into this cultural phenomena and even went so far as to install glass walls to show off the computer hardware. Occasionally, companies would exercise a bit of showmanship and carve out a small area of the computer room for VIP guests to pass through or be shown a piece of hardware like a printer or tape drive cabinet, or maybe even a rack with switches and servers loaded with blinking led’s. The VIP’s would not be allowed into the main computer room, but it was there maybe even visible and full of intrigue because it was off limits . Guests had to use their imagination as to what was happening in that room. Creative marketers would pounce on the opportunity to develop the idea of business success, touting the unusual and unique abilities of the company to meet specific needs in the VIP’s business.

computer loom napoleonThis practice has its roots with, what is arguably, the first computer – the Jacquard loom. In 1752 Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed a card reader which read perforated cards tied together in a long roll. The card reader would sit atop weaving looms and govern their movements. This heralded in the age of the automatic weaving machine. So impressive was this invention/technology that Philippe Ledoux painted a water color to commemorate Jacquard introducing his newly invented machine to a visiting Napoleon. In this painting the machine readable cards are seen atop a weaving loom.

The computer room was, and in some instances, still remains, a symbol of ability and success. So, what does a computer room really do in today’s marketplace.


First, a bit of history

comnputer eniacThe first electronic computer is touted to be the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). It was presented to the world on February 14, 1946 , a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Presper Eckert and John Mauchly under contract with the U.S. Army. It was a series of racks measuring 30 feet by 60 feet. It weighed 30 tons and was primarily comprised of 19,000 vacuum tubes, 3,000 mechanical switches, relays, capacitors, and hundreds of interconnecting wires.

Due to patent restrictions at the University of Pennsylvania, Eckert and Mauchly formed the Electronic Controls Company, and in 1950 they sold their company to Remington Rand (ultimately Rand became part of Unisys). While at Rand the two men developed the first UNIVAC computer that the Census Bureau took delivery of in 1951 at a cost of $159,000.00. The Univac was able to add 10 digit numbers at a rate of 1,000 additions per second. The Univac operated at an internal frequency of 2.25 Megahertz – lightening fast for vacuum tubes.

computer eniac tubesThe vacuum tube was essentially a small light bulb and it produced heat – lots of heat.computer tubes eniac in 1946 one month’s electric bill was $1,500.00, in today’s dollars that would be $20,000.00! The ENIAC, in the UPenn Moore School basement, generated 150 Kilowatts of heat requiring 43,000 tons of cooling. [To give some perspective in cooling requirements, the average home uses 5 tons of cooling during the summer.] Heat was an on-going problem for the vacuum tube computers. Excessive heating and cooling cycles would stress the tubes and they would fail frequently. It was an ever-present job to continually make rounds swapping out bad tubes. Consequently, the ENIAC was seldom shut down so as to maintain tube life.

Along with having to replace hundreds of tubes, an additional problem arose as a result of heat and it was from the phylum insecta. Particularly the winged types. With all that infrared radiation it was hard to keep insects away. In 1947 Grace Hopper, while working on a computer in Virginia, wrote an entry in a logbook addressing a problem that they had recently experienced. It seems a moth had found its way into a relay and was impeding calculations. computer grace hopper bugGrace Hopper took the offending insect and taped it to her logbook along with the entry that they were “debugging” the system. She was responsible for introducing the term bug to describe the efforts to identify and resolve problems with information processing systems. Grace later said that she and others took it upon themselves to stuff cloth and paper around windows and doors to lessen the ever-present onslaught of the invasive moths.

Why the history lesson?

The Moore School basement became not only the first room to house an electronic computer, but the engineering proving ground for developing standards in cooling, access control, and insect abatement. As it turned out, there were good reasons to have a room dedicated to the computer. A dedicated room made the computer more reliable and ultimately more useful.

[Factoid] In 1995 UPenn students reproduced the ENIAC on an 8mm x 8mm chip for the 50th anniversary of the ENIAC.


Exactly what is a computer room

A computer room is typically an internal room, at the business address, where an organization places computer servers and storage equipment that the business uses frequently. From a business function standpoint, the computer room is handled like a limited access file room. The door is usually locked and only a few people have access.

Because there are computer servers and other electronic equipment present in the room, there is often a need for increased cooling to be present. The amount of cooling depends upon the amount of equipment – pretty straight forward. The same is true for power. There needs to be more power available in the room for the server computers to plug into. Typically, power is provided by Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPS). These devices have internal batteries that will provide power when there is an interruption in the power from the street.

The number of pieces of equipment and the storage needed is different for each business. So there is no rule of thumb for sizing a computer room in terms of pieces of equipment. The best method to follow when sizing equipment is to buy slightly more than you think you need. If you think you need 100 Gigabytes of storage then buy 300 Gigabytes. I have yet to work with a business that has actually decreased their storage requirement over time. Many talk about decreasing their storage, but none have actually done so.

The computer room usually has a data switch into which all the desktop computers are attached. This usually means that there is a cable-plant (wires fanning out from the computer room) connecting a receptacle at the desktop to a receptacle in the computer room (patch panel). To connect a desktop computer two patch cables are used. One cable is used at the desktop to connect the desktop computer to the wall mounted receptacle, and then in the computer room another cable is used to connect the patch port, representing the desktop computer, to the data switch.

The servers and any storage systems are also connected to the switch so that they can be seen by the desktop computer. Printers are also attached to the switch in the same fashion as desktop computers. Some businesses attach video cameras, phones, and other equipment to the network in the computer room.

There are very specific building codes and electrical codes that must be followed when constructing or deciding on which room in your business will be suitable for your computer room. Typically the codes are just common sense thinking. For instance, you must provide at lease three feet between electrical panels and any other piece of equipment. It turns out that three feet is a comfortable amount of space for a person to turn around in and work on electrical panels safely. The same three feet is required for servers front and back. Again, just common sense thinking. If you are removing equipment from a server cabinet you will need three feet to turn right or left with a server under your arm.

If you are uncertain about all the codes, you can talk with your building permit people and they can give you assistance. If you are just starting to think about a computer room, then speak with a company that specializes in computer room build out.

Keep in mind that not all companies need a sophisticated computer room. Some companies need only a single server with a switch and internet router. It is doubtful that a single server would require additional cooling or anything more than a single UPS for power protection. Don’t fall into the status symbol quagmire and think you need a server room when you don’t. In smaller businesses a simple door lock will protect your server and building cooling is typically sufficient.


What determines the need?

How do you know if you need a computer room? If you have a single computer or centralized information server, then you need to safeguard the server. At a minimum, find a room that can be dedicated to housing the server and other pieces of hardware like a UPS, switch, router, and a storage array. I have often built out a room with a single computer cabinet/rack with several shelves.

computer cabinetIf you are a small business with only two or three people, you may not need a computer room. In this situation I would recommend a computer cabinet with a simple key-lock on the door. Locate the cabinet away from windows, water, and heating vents. Place the cabinet in parallel to a wall with three feet in front and behind the cabinet so that someone can kneel down and work on equipment if necessary. Never place a plant on top or impede any air vents on the side of the cabinet.

If you grow to more than 6 people, then you should start to consider a room as opposed to a cabinet. Once you hit six people you start to consider what down-time your business can tolerate. If you have a server failure with fewer that six people, a business can continue to operate while fixing the server. Once you hit six or more people, a business starts to feel the effects of a downed server or network. At this point a business needs to be thinking about redundancy in servers so that if one fails the other is still available. More servers equates to more heat generated, more power used, more space needed, etc. A room becomes a needed commodity.


Are there any rules of thumb that should be followed?

Mentioned earlier was the need for following building and electrical codes when building out your server room. The best rule of thumb is to think ahead and imagine how the room will be used. Design adequate space into your computer room for not only the server racks, but also staging areas for working on servers or other pieces of equipment.

When building out a computer room I have found it useful to design five areas:

The first area holds the server racks. There are three feet front and back of each rack and three to the far right and far left of the racks.

The second area is designed for the staging area that will have at least a six foot table with three feet surrounding the table on all sides.

The third area is for the patch bay, routers, data switches, and other telecommunications equipment. Usually this equipment is housed in the same size racks as the servers so the three foot rule applies to all four sides.

The fourth area is for standby power and generator static switchgear. Depending on your UPS requirements this space can be fairly modest or it can match your server racks in number and size. The three foot rule applies to the UPS racks and any switchgear present n the computer room.

The fifth area is for your cooling/HVAC gear. Coming from a service background I tend to think about the physical side to managing a computer room which includes the folks that service the HVAC gear in the computer room. Never place air handlers in the ceiling space of a computer room. It is tempting to get them out of the way, but the pitfalls of ceiling based air handlers are many. Do yourself a favor and the service techs a favor and place all air handlers on the floor.

Sometimes a computer room will need fire suppression systems that are gas-based or CO2 based. In these situations space will be needed for the media cylinders and fire suppression electronics. Keep in mind that the three foot rule applies to the cylinders and electronics panel mounted on the wall.

The entrance and exit to the room must be kept clear for the doors to swing freely and for there to be a landing area inside the door swing area. When one enters the room there must be a place to step into that doesn’t interfere with the closing/opening of the door.

computer fire safeConsider a fire safe as a piece of furniture in the computer room. Often a computer room has software and other generated data that must be kept secure and protected from excessive heat and moisture. A fire safe is a good addition to the server room. All other storage is to be kept out of the computer room.

When laying out the room think in terms or dedicated areas and try not to blend them into one another. An open room makes for better airflow as opposed to a constricted room.


what kind of dollars will be needed

This, of course, is what all business owners want to get a handle on before any work starts. I have found that a business should plan big and then build smart. In other words, plan for a larger room than is needed at the present. Scale back the construction of walls so that the room is modest. when the business grows and expansion is needed the walls can be pushed out to the original design locations.

There is no rule of thumb regarding cost estimating the computer room. Plan to build big regarding power and cooling. For your power panels size the panels for the full room and just don’t populate the panels with breakers until they are needed. This means your high voltage, PS, and life safety systems will have big panels that are sparsely populated. The feeder cables will be full spec and the Generator will be full spec.

So, why do this? it will be costly. Actually the cost is far less if you put in place the infrastructure now and then grow into the space. To remove and add new feeder cables or swap out a generator is a big deal once you’re in production mode. Make the investment now and you will be ahead of the game a few years down the road.


short term, near term, long term

The key to success is planning. As your business grows so should your information processing needs. Plan for growth now and build out your computer room as you need space. If you are a restaurant or a fixed information business, your data growth will be modest. Plan for modest growth and build out accordingly. Keep in mind that as time moves forward the size of servers and the need for large computer rooms will dwindle. At the time of this writing Nokia under Microsoft has produced a personal computer with all the functionality of a laptop in a form factor the size of your smartphone. We will continue to see advances in this area. So, plan for obsolescence and don’t build too big!

Do you need a computer room?

The answer is probably yes, but don’t build one just for the sake of having what the “Jones’ ” have. Think it out, plan accordingly, and build what you need with an eye towards the future. Keep in mind that the computer room of today is more about the safeguarding of data and less about the housing of servers. So, build of the purpose of safeguarding data and be sure to include accommodations for servers and other electronic equipment.


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