Making Sense of Environmental Sensors

Face it: you may be awfully good at managing the network, but you can’t really be everywhere at the same time. And since you can’t sit there watching the logs on every single server, router and connection in the network, you rely on network management software to aggregate all the information and alert you when something goes down or exceeds established performance levels. You can go home at night knowing you will be paged if there is a problem.

Or at least you should be able to. The smooth transport of all those billions of bits along their designated routes depends on the physical infrastructure as well as the IT infrastructure. If there is a flood, a fire, an intruder, a brownout or any number of other problems, waiting for it to show up in a down service puts the entire operation at risk.
This is where environmental monitors come in. Just as you have network probes to track traffic, environmental probes keep a steady watch over the premises, alerting whenever something goes wrong that could impact IT operations.

“The air stopped working on a Saturday,” says Steve Luciano, network administrator for New Pig Corporation, an international plant maintenance and industrial safety firm headquartered in Tipton, Penn. “We were alerted and when we got on the site the temperature was over 90 degrees.”

Something Old, Something New

Environmental monitoring equipment is not something new. Manufacturers, distributors, hospitals and hotels have been using the basic technology for decades to monitor industrial processes, freezer temperatures and other factors relevant to their operations. When there was a problem, a light on a control panel would switch from green to red and the engineer on duty would go take a look at what was going on.

What is new, however, is the marrying of this technology with existing IT operations. Most companies are already using Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) together with network monitoring and alerting software. Rather than requiring a dedicated wiring system and operations panel, an expensive drawback inherent to older environmental systems, the new breed of environmental probes just require an Ethernet link to the rest of the network. Since they use SNMP, they can then be monitored just like any other network device, utilizing the same alerting software and protocols the company is already using for its other needs.

Coming from nowhere a few years ago, there are now a half dozen vendors in this field, led by NetBotz Corp. (Austin, Texas) and AKCP Co. Ltd. (Thailand). In addition to servicing IT, they also provide units for chemical and pharmaceutical firms, cold storage facilities, banking and other industries that rely on environmental control.

Environmental monitors consist of three main elements: a base unit; probes; and network management connectivity and integration. The base units may contain one or more built-in sensors as well as ports for hooking up external probes. These devices may be wall-mounted, sit on a shelf or come in a rackmount format. They also include a port for connecting to the network and have server software for remote configuration and graphing. This software interoperates with a company’s existing network management software, if desired. For example, AKCP’s products are certified for operation with Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView; IBM’s Tivoli; Computer Associates; Somix Technologies, Inc.’s WebNM and Denika; and Ipswitch, Inc.’s WhatsUp Gold. They also work with other management software such as Concord Communications, Inc.’s eHealth Suite and Micromuse, Inc.’s Netcool Suite, though not certified for these products. NetBotz sensors work with a similar range of management software.

The key element, however, is the probe, and companies have quite a few options to pick from. Some of the more common include:

  • Temperature: This is the most popular item. You can monitor the temperature for the datacenter as a whole, or can place a sensor on a particular rack. They are also useful for locations such as server closets where it is unlikely anyone will be around to notice a rise in temperature.
  • Airflow: The air might be cool enough where the sensor is located, but if the air is not flowing you will develop localized hot spots around the equipment.
  • Humidity: If the humidity is too high, it leads to corrosion. Too low and you have problems with excess static electricity.

  • Water: Water on the floor, whether from a broken pipe or a leaky roof, can cause electrical shorts.

  • Voltage: That can be used to see if the UPS is operating on battery or online voltage. Some UPSs provide this feature and some do not. Even on UPSs that provide this feature people still prefer to use an idependent voltage sensor because it is easy to set up.

  • Smoke detectors: Where there’s smoke… well, you know the rest.
  • Cameras: to allow administrators a remote view of the closet or datacenter.
  • Door opening: A sensor that trips whenever the door is opened. May work in coordination with the camera to e-mail a photo of whoever enters the server room after hours.

  • Motion detector: Another security feature.

Probing your Choices

Setting up environmental probes is a pretty simple activity. Luciano reports that it took him about 20 minutes to set up a NetBotz probe for temperature, airflow, humidity and room access. He also set up an AKCP device for temperature and humidity. He monitors both through his WebNM network management software.

But the environmental monitors do have one potential drawback. Each type of sensor, while potentially useful, adds to the price of the system and can lead an administrator to conclude that it is too expensive to install anything.

“You have to decide which factors are most important to monitor,” says Marc Bilodeau, CTO for leading environmental sensor distributor Javica. “For example, it may be cool to have a camera, but what really matters is the temperature and humidity.”

In such a case, you can get monitoring of these factors using an AKCP unit for less than $400. But if cost is not a major consideration affecting the purchase, you may be satisfied going with a NetBotz device that includes a camera. Luciano reports that both types of probes have met his needs.

“NetBotz are not the cheapest on the market,” says Luciano, “but you can do a lot with them.”

Bilodeau, on the other hand, recommends AKCP and also notes that a version is coming out by the end of the year that will include a camera for an economical price.