Air pollution is corroding the datacenter

If high levels of pollution impact datacenters in affected regions, what's happening to the people who live there?

Highlighted by an article in Thursday’s The Register, an Intel newsletter on environmental testing points out the impact of general air pollution on the sealed and air conditioned environment of datacenters in the Asia-Pacific region. Long considered somewhat lackadaisical about issues of industrial pollution, the air in some parts of the region, primarily India and China, is so corrosive that circuit boards inside those environmentally-controlled datacenters show evidence of pollution-induced corrosion.


Intel's corrosion testing chamber


Intel has developed new testing procedures to match the conditions being found in those regions so that they can more accurately predict how the pollution will impact its hardware. But they didn’t start out to solve this particular issue; they were originally looking at building better data to deal with hot and humid environments.

According to Tom Marieb, a vice president in Intel’s Technology and Manufacturing Group, “We are starting to see corrosion on systems (returned to Intel) that are higher than what we would have expected. They were disproportionately from Asia-Pacific and it gave us pause. The only other times we had seen this level was from known industrial-usage segments like inside a factory, not data centers, that are supposed to be controlled, sealed-off environments with air conditioning.”

He also pointed out that there were no operational problems with the Intel parts, just that the corrosion rate is higher than they had expected. Current testing methodology for pollutants was based on standards developed in the 1980’s, so Intel found themselves needing to update their testing techniques and account for the new levels of pollution and the significant increase of sulfur contamination (the primary culprit).

To accurately model the problem, Intel built a mixed flow gas chamber for the purpose of accelerated testing of the components in an environment similar to their actual operation. Located at the Intel facility in Hillsboro, Ore., the chamber allows for modifying both the air and operational conditions (voltage, power levels, etc.) of the equipment being tested, allowing for a more thorough investigation.

While Intel is looking to solve the technical problems presented by the poor air quality it certainly begs the most important question: If the air inside a sealed, air conditioned datacenter is so bad that equipment corrodes at a noticeably accelerated rate, what’s that air doing to the people who breathe it unprotected?