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Noise in Computer Rooms

Some people think that you can recognise a good restaurant by the presence of obscure dishes on the menu or having high prices. The reality is that there are two ways of quickly identifying a good restaurant, one is the Michelin Guide [1] (or a comparable guide – if such a thing exists), the other is how quiet the restaurant is.

By a quiet restaurant I certainly don’t mean a restaurant with no customers (which may become very noisy once customers arrive). I mean a restaurant which when full will still be reasonably quiet. Making a restaurant quiet is not in itself a sufficient criteria to be a good restaurant – but it’s something that is usually done after the other criteria (such as hiring good staff and preparing a good menu) are met.

The first thing to do to make a room quiet is to have good carpet. Floor boards are easy to clean and the ratio of investment to lifetime is very good (particularly for hard wood), but they reflect sound and the movement of chairs and feet makes noise. A thick carpet with a good underlay is necessary to absorb sound. Booths are also good for containing sound if the walls extend above head height. Decorations on the walls such as curtains and thick wallpaper also absorb sound. A quiet environment allows people to talk at a normal volume which improves the dining experience.

It seems to me that the same benefits apply to server rooms and offices, with the benefit being more efficient work. I found it exciting when I first had my desk in a server room (surrounded by tens of millions of pounds worth of computer gear). But as I got older I found it less interesting to work in that type of environment just as I found it less interesting to have dinner in a noisy bar – and for the same reasons.

For a server room there is no escaping the fact that it will be noisy. But if the noise can be minimised then it will allow better communication between the people who are there and less distraction which should result in higher quality of work – which matters if you want good uptime! One thing I have observed is that physically larger servers tend to make less noise per volume and per compute power. For example a 2RU server with four CPUs seems to always make less noise than two 1RU servers that each have two CPUs. I believe that this is because a fan with a larger diameter can operate at a lower rotational speed which results in less bearing noise and the larger fans also give less turbulence. While it’s obvious that using fewer servers via virtualisation has the potential to avoid noise (both directly through fans and disks and indirectly through the cooling system for the server room [2]). A less obvious way of reducing noise is to swap two 1RU servers for one 2RU server – although my experience is that for machines in a similar price band, a 2RU server often has comparable compute power (in terms of RAM and disk capacity) to three or four 1RU servers.

To reduce noise both directly and indirectly it is a requirement to increase disk IO capacity (in terms of the number of random IOs per second) without increasing the number of spindles (disks). I just read an interesting Sun blog covering some concepts related to using Solid State Disks (SSDs) on ZFS for best performance [3]. It seems that using such techniques is one way of significantly increasing the IO capacity per server (and thus allowing more virtual servers on one physical machine) – it’s a pity that we currently don’t have access to ZFS or a similar filesystem for Linux servers (ZFS has license issues and the GPL alternatives are all in a beta state AFAIK). Another possibility that seems to have some potential is the use of NetApp Filers [4] for the main storage of virtual machines. A NetApp Filer gives a better ratio of IO requests per second to the number of spindles used than most storage array products due to the way they use NVRAM caching and their advanced filesystem features (which also incidentally gives some good options for backups and for detecting and correcting errors). So a set of 2RU servers that have the maximum amount of RAM installed and which use a NetApp Filer (or two if you want redundancy) for the storage with the greatest performance requirements should give the greatest density of virtual machines.

Blade servers also have potential to reduce noise in the server room. The most significant way that they do this is by reducing the number of power supplies, instead of having one PSU per server (or two if you want redundancy) you might have three or five PSUs for a blade enclosure that has 8 or more blades. HP blade enclosures support shutting down some PSUs when the blades are idling and don’t need much power (I don’t know whether blade enclosures from other vendors do this – I expect that some do).

A bigger problem however is the noise in offices where people work. It seems that the major responsible for this is the cheap cubicles that are used in most offices (and almost all computer companies). More expensive cubicles that are at almost head-height (for someone who is standing) and which have a cloth surface absorb sound better significantly improve the office environment, and separate offices are better still. One thing I would like to see is more use of shared desktop computers, it’s not difficult to set up a desktop machine with multiple video cards, so with appropriate software support (which is really difficult) you could have one desktop machine for two, or even four users which would save electricity and reduce noise.

Better quality carpet on the floors would also be a good thing. While office carpet wears out fast adding some underlay would not increase the long-term cost (it can remain as the top layer gets replaced).

Better windows in offices are necessary to provide a quiet working environment. The use of double-glazed windows with reflective plastic film significantly decreases the amount of heating and cooling that is required in the office. This would permit a lower speed of air flow for heating and cooling which means less noise. Also an office in a central city area will have a noise problem outside the building, again double (or even triple) glazed windows help a lot.

Some people seem to believe that an operations room should have no obstacles (one ops room where I once worked had all desks facing a set of large screens that displayed network statistics and the desks were like school desks with no dividers), I think that even for an ops room there should be some effort made to reduce the ambient noise. If the room is generally reasonably quiet then it should be easy to shout the news of an outage so that everyone can hear it.

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that a quieter working environment can increase productivity by 5% (I think this is a conservative assumption). For an office full of skilled people who are doing computer work the average salary may be about $70,000, and it’s widely regarded that to factor in the management costs etc you should double the salary – so the average cost of an employee would be about $140,000. If there are 50 people in the office then the work of those employees has a cost of $7,000,000 per annum. A 5% increase in that would be worth $350,000 per annum – you could buy a lot of windows for that!

5 comments to Noise in Computer Rooms

  • Karellen

    There is the other reason that good restaurants are quiet – everyone is too absorbed with enjoying their food to talk to each other!

  • Very good points on how to reduce noise in an office environment. The importance of good carpeting and good cubicles cannot be overstated.

    However, for the IT folks, server noise should never be an issue. Seating IT people in the same room as the equipment is not only unnecessary, but downright wrong. Server rooms are for servers, not people. They are cold and noisy and not hospitable to human life. :)

    If, as an admin, you need to spend more than 15 minutes a day in a server room, you’re not doing your job right. Again, because it bears repeating (particularly to management types who have no concept of how computers work) server rooms are for servers, not people!

    With that said, while your suggestions for reducing noise are technically sound (and useful for other reasons), there should never be an opportunity to use them. If a company has enough money to spend on blade servers and NAS solutions they most definitely have enough money to provide a comfortable workspace for their employees.

  • etbe

    Karellen: The typical amount of time spent in a restaurant is an order of magnitude longer than that required to eat…

  • etbe

    Alex: I agree that server rooms should only be for servers as a general concept. But in practice servers need to be tended to on occasion. For example if a typical server requires 4 person-hours of hands-on work in it’s first year (deployment, fixing any random hardware problems that occur, checking cabling, etc) then if you have 20 new servers going in then you have 10 person-days of work in the server room. Then there’s changing backup tapes which needs to be done regularly (a task that I have seen delegated to someone who was grossly incompetent because none of the competent people wanted to enter the server room).

    Finally there’s the principle. Things get messed up for a variety of reasons, so let’s try and mitigate the damage.

  • Sven gives a bit more input to the L2ARC setup with ZFS.