A digital golden thread of information

A digital golden thread of information


Post covid-19, reliance on data and digital services has increased dramatically with the revolution in work, education, and entertainment. As a result, countries are highly invested in network solutions to keep pace with this rapid development and the data centre’s share of global electricity consumption is predicted to increase from 3% to 4% by 2030. The size of the data centre services market was estimated to be worth $220 billion in 2021, whereas it speculated that by 2030 this figure will increase to an estimated $344 billion. The gcc data centre market alone is expected to reach a value of $5.5 billion by 2028 from $3.44 billion in 2022, growing at a cagr of 8.14% as regional governments adopt policies for implementing cloud services.

Some may see that this development conflicts with sustainability and climate change, for example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia currently relies on fossil fuels to generate its electricity. However, in line with the Saudi Vision 2030, the kingdom takes into account both the environment and sustainability seriously and has introduced the Saudi and Middle East green initiatives.

The kingdom is expected to generate over 50% of its renewable energy by 2030. Comparing this to 2017, the kingdom was relying on up to 0.02% of renewable energy in accordance with the International Energy Association (IEA). The country is also committed to becoming net zero by 2060. This would be one of the main factors for data centres to be more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.


Naturally, as data centres are concerned with high power availability and efficiency, fire damage often goes unreported to limit reputational damage. Today’s data centres and server network rooms are expected to maintain seamless operations with built-in redundancy providing a tier of resilience for a host of potential incidents/threats. It is imperative that all businesses prepare themselves for unseen disasters, particularly the risks associated with fire. To maintain and achieve the desired level of safety, the implementation of an appropriate fire engineering management plan is an effective solution to mitigate the risks due to fire. The key considerations should include but not be limited to, the design, construction, operation, management, specification of fire protection and activation systems, testing, maintenance, inspection, integration and associated documentation.

The leading cause of data centre loss is power failures from IT issues. The leading non-IT-related cause of outages is due to fire events. There were 13 instances related to fire outbreaks reported between 2016 and 2020 in accordance with the uptime institute. Due to this outage, an operator can lose between $5,000-7,000usd per minute.

An example of a major fire outbreak happened in March 2021 destroying an OVH (online virtual hosting) cloud data centre in Strasbourg, costing the French cloud operator more than €105 million ($122m), according to documents filed with a french financial authority. The Strasbourg fire was a major catastrophe affecting some 65,000 customers, many of whom lost data and business. The company’s reputation was affected and suffered further losses in the stock market. The resulting fire produced toxic fumes from lead batteries which exacerbated the destructiveness of the fire. France’s bea-ri’s report suggested that a water leak on an inverter could have been a possible cause of the fire. The bas-rhin fire service’s report highlighted issues such as the lack of an automatic fire extinguisher system in the building, and delay in electrical cut-off which made it more challenging for firefighters to tackle the fire burning in the power room.

For most data centre and server room operators, potential fires are not the main issue. The key concern is to avoid, at all costs, having to cut the power to equipment and thus interrupting it processes. This often relates to contractual agreements with their customers regarding the continuous availability of computing capacity and stored data, which also involves liability risks. Customers are dependent on digitally stored information, so no data centre can afford downtime. As such, data centre safety and fire protection measures are focused on preventing any type of operational downtime, especially cutting power to the data centre—even in the event of a fire. At the same time, it is important that security and fire protection systems be as efficient as possible, to keep operating costs down.


In order to ensure the protection of life, property and data from fires, there are requirements that should be met. These can be from national fire safety standards as well as industry experts. In Saudi Arabia, the Saudi building code (SBC) is the national guideline for building compliance. However, consideration of fire safety goals and objectives from industry standards such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) required by the client or insurance companies need to be discussed with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).

The nfpa is one of the most recognised international organisations in the world. The nfpa provides recommendations under their own standards for areas such as data centres, fire detection and suppression can be considered along with other international standards, including british standards (bs).

However, when developing the fire strategy for a data centre, any parameters that could affect the fire safety design should Be considered in a qualitative design review (qdr) through the application of the process outlined in bs 7974-0 “application of fire safety engineering principles to the design of buildings – part 0: guide to design framework and fire safety engineering procedures“ as a recognised method to engage stakeholders in communication to mitigate risk. The standard identifies the following steps:

a. review of architectural design and occupant characteristics
b. establish fire safety objectives
c. identify fire hazards and possible consequences
d. establish trial fire safety designs
e. identify acceptance criteria and methods of analysis
f. establish fire scenarios for analysis

The qdr team should be led by a fire engineer and should include the client, architect, civil defence, ahj, contractor, and other engineers working on the project. A fire risk assessment and fire safety management plan should also be completed prior to the occupation phase of the building. However the failure to manage fire safety adequately could result in a fire occurring with the potential to impact millions of customers using the cloud resulting in business failure.

The management of fire safety should be purely based on a policy of avoiding a fire occurring in the workplace regardless of the organisation or building requirements. The policy should be clear in order to establish effective organisational control. There are a number of safety management systems available to assist organisations with this; the most well-known being the International Organisation for standardisation “iso 9001” which is accredited by a third-party body.

In order to understand the safety goals and requirements of the organisation to be managed, a risk assessment should be carried out. This assessment will assist the responsible person to identify the preventive and protective measures required to comply with the law and authority having jurisdiction (ahj) as well as ensuring the safety of the occupants, the building and those who could be affected by their activities.

There are five steps that are often considered when a risk
assessment is undertaken, and these are:

1. identify fire hazards
2. identify people at risk
3. evaluate, remove or reduce, and protect from risk
4. record, plan, inform, instruct and train
5. review assessment.

The assessment can be either qualitative, quantitative, or semi-quantitative depending on the complexity of the risk and the building. Applying the above methods along with a control strategy is the key to effective safety management.


In the uk, following grenfell tower fire, dame judith hackitt stated in her report, “there needs to be a golden thread for all complex and high-risk building projects so that the original design intent is preserved and recorded, and any changes go through a formal review process involving people who are competent and who understand the key features of the design. ” following this report, the digital golden thread of information concept starts to take shape with a simple goal which is to hold digitally the fire and structural safety building information to specific standards. This will ensure that those responsible for the building have the required information to manage building safety throughout the lifecycle of the building.


Personal safety is generally regulated by laws and official requirements, while the protection of material assets is mainly determined by the guidelines and directives drawn up by insurance companies. To guarantee adequate fire safety standards, national and regional directives have been established in the majority of countries.

As businesses become more aware of climate change, data centres need to integrate sustainability into their strategies. The demand for data storage is certainly not going to slow down, but data centres will be expanding and improving their use of data compression, deduplication, and other efficiency-enhancing methods to become more environmentally friendly.

As more enterprises focus on energy efficiency to cut data centre costs, more are looking to providers with a solid sustainability strategy who can offer cost-effective, ‘green’ data centre options. By achieving this the effective reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will drastically reduce. An example of a green data centre in san francisco, a 21,089m2, 8.6mw facility, reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 11,000 tonnes a year, which is equivalent to the power used by 1,600 homes.

While constructing the data centre itself, certain certification programs such as leed (leadership in energy and environmental design) and breeam (building research establishment environmental assessment methodology) would provide a certain level of assurance for environmental sustainability.

There are four key areas that the design team should be aware
of when discussing the fire protection systems which are:

the Fire Triangle
fire load
the classes of fire
stages of combustion

By studying these factors and stakeholder requirements identified during the qdr it will assist in determining the optimum type of fire protection systems to suit the needs of a modern complex data centre. The overall protection program needs to be based on the level of acceptable risk for the data centre and meet the rigours of reliability and business continuity goals. A comprehensive protection program should be developed to address expected fire risks, rather than the approach of just meeting the local codes and regulations which provides a robust approach to meet these goals. Holistic designs that consider fire ignition scenarios and design for these scenarios, address these objectives. Such designs integrate systems into comprehensive fire protection programs and incorporate requirements for building construction, fire and smoke-rated walls and ceilings to protect the data centre, interior finish limitations, egress provisions, and fire detection and suppression systems.

Having analysed the numerous fire hazards associated with data centres, fire protection measures should be assessed to cover 3 key and different levels — namely the whole building, the individual room level, and finally the rack level.

The primary level is building fire protection. It focuses on keeping the building, and its occupants safe. There are various methods used to achieve the building level fire protection including fire sprinkler systems, portable extinguishing equipment and passive fire protection which relates to the construction type of the building, including the installation of fire compartmentation throughout to delay the spread of fire.

The secondary level is the most critical level, which is the room fire protection. This level of data centre fire protection is where the national fire codes and innovative fire protection measures apply. The two most common approaches to fire protection include the application of a clean agent system where gaseous agents are used to quickly extinguish fires before breakout; and the other is the water mist system which discharges a fine mist to extinguish and prevent fire growth.

Clean agent systems, such as fm200, are commonly used. Fm200 is widely accepted as one of the most reliable sources of extinguishing, however, as of January 2022 there is a phase-down of gases meaning there will be a reduction of production and consumption of fm200 (hfcs-227ea) to help reduce global warming. The plan is to reduce hfc gases to 15% by the end of 2036.

While looking for options, high-pressure waterspray systems come as a cost effective, space saving, fast and environmentally-friendly alternative. There are innovative water mist systems being developed by different manufacturers which use up to 90% less water than traditional sprinkler systems, and up to 30% less power.

The third level of fire protection focuses on protecting equipment at the rack-level. In data centres, fire detection in the early stages can be difficult, as many electrical components are enclosed. This means a fire can go undetected until it’s become a larger hazard. By implementing rack-level fire protection, data centres can detect and extinguish fires at their earliest stages, minimising the potential for a larger fire to spread. Common fire protection methods at the rack level include pre-engineered and automatic fire suppression systems which are installed within the equipment, where they can detect, provide an early warning and suppress fires before they are sensed by the larger room or building level fire suppression system. This ultimately helps to minimise the potential for any damage sustained to sensitive equipment. An example of an early smoke detection warning system is vesda (very early smoke detection system), which works by continually drawing air into the pipe network via a high efficiency aspirator.

There isn’t a single fire protection solution for an entire data centre. There are different fire hazards in different areas, and each fire protection technology has its advantages. While a fire protection system may save a data centre from the effects of fire, it could still be a risk to the data it stores. It’s important to understand what is being protected in each area to make the best decisions about fire protection.

Ensuring an acceptable level of fire protection within data centres to satisfy life safety code requirements along with building and business continuity objectives can be challenging. Engaging a competent fire engineer to coordinate all factors within the design and stakeholder requirements is a key factor both within the selection of appropriate and effective fire protection systems and on-going operations of the facility. From assessing the three levels of fire protection to choosing a fire suppression system that protects all assets is a lot to consider, and should be fully recorded within a fire strategy for the relevant building/project.


Data centres are intrinsically linked with enormous power demands that must be maintained at all costs, requiring highly secure and protected spaces with an uninterruptable power supply.

Since 2017, Hydrock’s fire team has been providing optimal fire safety solutions during preconstruction and on completed and existing buildings, specialising in fire safety strategy, design, and multi-site fire risk assessments. However, our expertise goes beyond developing a fire-safe design for data centres. We’re helping developers and operators to be more energy efficient, and through the recovery of waste heat become an enabler for low-carbon energy networks.

Hydrock is an integrated engineering design, energy and sustainability consultancy. Our expertise includes environmental management; civil and structural engineering; mechanical, electrical and public health; infrastructure; geotechnics and land quality; transportation and mobility analytics; smart energy and sustainability; acoustics; and air quality