Fire is a wonderful tool, but it can also be one of the most destructive forces that we confront. When it comes to modern technology in data centers and offices alike, these machines shouldn't even get too warm, much less be in close proximity to a flame.
Also, keep in mind that firefighters don't care about things like your data systems when they're trying to save lives, so they employ methods that are most effective at putting out fires without regard to technology concerns. Methods like large amounts of water, non-tech-friendly chemical sprays and foams--oh!--and axes. So, how can you protect yourself from fires and recover from an unfortunate disaster, should one befall you?
The first thing you want to do is make sure your own department doesn't present a fire hazard. Each server, UPS system, cooling system, and other component is a mass of wires, fans, arrays and other heat sources. Any of these could cause a fire under the right circumstances, and all can quickly add to a data center fire in progress as the heat rises. To avoid this condition, first ensure that all fire safety codes for your local area are followed to the letter. This includes proper cooling for the data center, proper wiring for the room and the components, and compliance with all regulations from the fire marshal. You will then want to ensure that the data center itself isn't too densely packed. While it may be appealing to fill racks top-to-bottom with servers and equipment, the alarming amount of heat build-up will surely cause issues along the way, and could spark a fire condition to boot.
Next, back up your data on a regular basis. With a disaster involving fire, you will almost never have the option of recovering the damaged hardware. Fire will melt and fuse electronics, making them useless. Getting the data stored someplace else is mandatory, no exceptions. This can mean back-up tape, replication solutions, or a host of other technologies, but you have to save your data with some kind of failover solution.
Once the data is safe, you can concentrate on the data-systems next. Do any of your systems require constant uptime? Remember that everyone would love to have this feature, but when discussing recovery from a fire, which has the potential to wipe out your data center, constant uptime comes at quite a premium. If the answer is no (based on the expense), then you can obtain new hardware at another site (or the original site if it is still useable) and restore your data. If the data system does require a better uptime number than that, you're going to have to look at failover solutions that allow you to fail to another physical location. Since the original site will be unavailable for at least a short period of time, local high-availability systems will not fit the bill here. So you will have to get budget approval for extra space in another facility--or even rent space from a facility that offers remote recovery services for you.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Having the correct fire-suppression systems in place can often save you from having to recover at all. Fire in a data center is a nightmare situation. It moves fast, destroys everything, and has plenty of fuel to feed itself. Outside of preventative solutions like fire suppression, you're going to have to rely on your back-up systems and make sure you've properly evaluated your physical environment. Take steps now to secure your data and meet the uptime requirements of your most crucial systems.
Mike Talon is an IT consultant and freelance journalist who has worked for both traditional businesses and dot-com startups.