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Limited combustible cabling could thwart possible regulation nightmare

Industry experts say limited combustible cabling is less prone to fire than standard cabling and it just might perform better in the heat. The fire-retardant cabling could meet possible regulations, requiring expensive, under-floor fire suppression.

If you don't know much about limited combustible cabling (LCC), industry experts say now is the time to start reading up -- because it's about to become must-have technology in the data center.

Although the first offering of flame-retardant cabling arrived on the scene a little over two years ago, data center circles have yet to embrace it. But because heat is considered by many data center managers to be the boogeyman hiding in the closet, any product that can keep him underwraps is worth a look-see.

LCC is jacketed and insulated with a fluoropolymer resin, and can hang on for as long as 20 minutes before it begins to catch fire, up to 10 times longer than a typical communication metallic plenum-rated cable. Though 95% of all damage caused by a fire in the data center is related to smoke, not flames, cables that aren't on fire aren't going to smoke either. So the push toward widespread LCC adoption is gaining momentum, and is seen by many in the cable space as one of the industry's major trends for the second half of the decade.

According to Robert McFarlane, an expert in data center design and principal with New York-based Shen Milsom & Wilke Inc., regulatory commissions in the U.S. are considering whether to require data centers with raised floors to either put fire protection under the floor or install LCC. It's already the norm in Europe, where safety standards are far more stringent than here in the U.S., and McFarlane said that given those two choices, it's a no-brainer where most of the server farmers he's worked with will lean toward -- despite the fact that LCC can cost as much as 33% more than standard cabling.

"It's not only a trend. We can't do a job abroad without using it," McFarlane said. "Nobody is going to want to pay to put fire protection under the floor. It's too expensive. If the alternative is limited combustible cabling, that's what they'll go for. At any price, it will be cheaper."

Mandates aside, those who have worked with LCC said it works. Fire suppression expert Lance Harry, business development manager at Clifton, N.J.-based Kidde Fenwal Protection Systems, said he is concerned that many of the decision makers in IT don't take the risk of fire seriously enough, which he views as odd, considering how much havoc it can wreak. In Harry's view, anything that cut down the risk of seeing a data center burn down is one worth looking into very closely.

"Of the primary hazards [for fire] in the data center, cables are No. 1. It's definitely one thing people should zero in on; it's an important topic. If you're a data center professional, you want to keep track of what's available," Harry said. "In general, data center pros can do better in knowing what is out there and how to mitigate risks using these technologies."

Cabling expert Carrie Higbie, global network applications market manager for Watertown, Conn.-based Siemon Co., also sees LCC as an emerging trend for data center pros. Higbie said that there's talk that insurance companies will start charging companies more if they don't install LCC. And Higbie said she believes the National Fire Protection Association will most likely start enforcing codes that require data centers producing return air to install either sprinklers or LCC.

"I don't know too many people who want to install sprinklers under their floor," Higbie said.

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It's the cabling, stupid!

Separate trays for separate cables

But some IT pros on the front lines don't LCC as much of a concern, because f the server farm is going to catch fire, a bit of fire resistant cable won't really change things all that much. Douglas Streifling, the IS manager for Roseville, Calif. -based SierraPine, Ltd., said the idea is an interesting one which he'd consider if he was building a data center from scratch. But Streifling isn't buying into LCC just yet.

"It Feels like putting an air bag on your lawnmower in case you hit a tree," Streifling said. "It sounds like a solution in search of a problem."

Though it has yet to be proven, LCC might provide a side benefit. According to McFarlane, limited combustible cabling has shown it performs better than standard cabling in high-density cabinets, where the heat can reach near-critical levels.

Unlike standard cabling, LCC's design prohibits deterioration, and has exhibited less electrical loss in environments bogged down by extreme heat.

"If I want to put my cable in a cabinet -- which [makes it] easier to work with -- LCC may provide an advantage," McFarlane said. "Limited combustible cabling does have the immediate potential of improving performance of cabling if it's installed in cabinets generating high heat. But I think the day is coming when we will be required to use limited combustible cabling, at least in under-floor situations where the floor is carrying air."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer

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