What's that eggy smell in the server room?

19 Mar 2010

Working in close proximity with a team can be a very personal matter. There's a fine line between acceptable office banter and touchy subjects: You can safely discuss brands of car, football teams, and who should get booted out of The Apprentice, but there are topics that are very firmly off the agenda, even once you allow for the massive variations in office cultures.

I have clients who see nothing curious about coming to work and spending their day in a cape; clients who freely discuss their weekend metrosexual exploits every Monday morning, and clients who don't even know one another's first names.

Part of the burden of consulting is to remember the acceptability envelope of the various cultures you're working with, but this week I think I've found a new area of delicacy. One that crosses pretty much everybody's boundaries.

As the season has changed, for the first time in something like five months, I've opened a window in the server room I've been working in. The aircon is ferocious but it's a closed-circuit system - no fresh air comes in from outside, since the main job here is to shift the heat pushed out by the server rack.

The air movement isn't quite as fierce as it used to be, because the servers have gone through a bit of a downsizing activity; so it was with some surprise that I came in the next day to quite a detectable odour.

Smells in server rooms are pretty much invariably bad news. Something is about to fail, whether it's a leaking R134 circuit in the aircon or a power supply on the way out, or a 250kg rack sitting on a 15A power cable - there are no upsides. However, this particular pong seemed a lot more biological. It was, pardon my pithiness, a bit farty. I put it down to someone's substandard eggy soldiers, opened the window and got on with the job, but that same smell was in the room the following morning.

The chances of anyone in a small team suffering the same gastric embarrassment two days on the trot (sorry!) are pretty slim. Something in the server room was building up a pervasive hydrogen sulphide stink overnight while the door was shut. So I started the delicate conversation.

After a lot of hypothesising about aircon, server power supplies, linoleum, dead mice, farting mice(!), gas mains, Victorian sewers, whether H2S is heavier than air or lighter, dropped sandwiches, and tentative enquiries as to the recent health of the team, someone was smart and Googled for "egg smell server room". This leads to a discussion about APC UPS devices emitting eggy smelling gases which suggests that one of the UPSes is about to blow its capacitors.

Looking down the server rack, there is indeed a UPS with every LED lit up - a whole lot less embarrassing, as a cause of an eggy smell, than the alternatives.

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