Holding It All Together: Racks & Enclosures

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You put a lot of careful thought into the selection and purchase of your IT equipment. After all, these items are sometimes delicate, often pricey, and are often the center of your larger technology plan. But how much thought do you put into the selection and purchase of your racks and enclosures, those items that hold your important servers, CPUs, monitors, and other components? If your answer is "not much," then you may want to think again, as the selection of proper racks and enclosures can mean safe storage and convenience of use for your precious equipment, as well as improving your return on investment.


CUSTOMIZATION, STABILITY AND SECURITY

"These products are like tinker toys," says Mike Graham, head of institutional sales for Anthro Corp in Tualatin, Ore. He refers to the flexibility of multi-configurable racks that can be

customized to handle a variety of sizes of equipment through the use of sliding rails and a variety of holes on support pieces that allow for variable positioning of shelves. Because of this adaptability to environment and use, those contemplating a purchase will want to carefully consider how and where the rack will be used. Determine your preferred configuration in advance, and there is likely a system that can adapt to your needs now and in the future.

For example, stability is key in selecting a rack for server equipment. "Most servers are very large [and heavy]," says Graham, suggesting that users look for racks that can be bolted together as well as to the floor and ceiling to minimize the chance that the rack will shift. This will increase the stability of a rack holding a great deal of weight.

Location also is an important factor to consider before making a purchase. While racks used in an enclosure room may be left open in both front and back to allow for greater equipment coolness and accessibility, purchases for work areas may need to favor enclosures that are more aesthetically pleasing and help contain the noisy hum generated by IT equipment. If the enclosure will be used in an area where security is an issue, a lock may be essential.

Portability and ease of use may be deciding factors for racks intended to hold small equipment in the operating or emergency room. In these environments, a small-wheeled cart can become a mobile workstation that holds necessary IT equipment and follows the user to the job site.


ERGONOMICS

If all racks and enclosures were destined for the server room or archive, then selecting the right one may be as simple as picking a configuration that best accommodates the equipment in question. However, many racks and enclosures include workstations and are destined for environments in which human beings work. This means that ergonomic issues are an important consideration.

"You find out quickly what [ergonomics] mean to your bottom line and to retention of people," says Greg Patrick, vice president of RedRick Technologies in London, Ontario. RedRick, which focuses on equipment and workstations for use in radiology departments and imaging suites, found a need for improved ergonomics that became more critical as more departments switched to picture archiving and communications systems and abandoned film. Suddenly, radiologists accustomed to sitting, standing, and reaching to change out films found themselves chairbound for eight hours a day or more.

No one likes to spend his or her day in an uncomfortable position, so ergonomics has an obvious direct impact on productivity and employee retention. To address these issues, Patrick recommends workstations with surfaces that adjust to accommodate both sitting and standing positions. He also advises "independent adjustment between the height of the monitor and [of] the keyboard" so that users can customize the station to their own comfort and need.

The healthcare environment, especially the image reading room, is different from many other work areas in the amount of equipment used, says Patrick. It is not unusual for each station to include three to five flat-panel monitors, and each of these should be mounted at an appropriate level for the user's eye, with the ability to move to accommodate differences in users' focal distance.

For those looking for rack, enclosure, and workstation solutions for their imaging department, Patrick cautions them to "remember that the filmless reading room has different requirements" from other work environments. He cites space, lighting, and sound issues for those using voice recognition software as concerns that should be considered during the planning phases. Fortunately, those planning their purchases need not go it alone - some companies, including Redrick, also offer on-site design services that will help facilities with planning and purchases.


MAKING IT 'FUTURE PROOF'

Buying the proper racks and enclosures can be a significant investment, so it is important to select products that are flexible enough to accommodate future needs. "Products have to anticipate the need for change," said Ray Gottsleben, sales and marketing manager for Arlink Worldwide in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

And those who purchase these products also have to anticipate that need. Gottsleben suggests that, before a purchase is made, users ask themselves two questions: "what are the applications for the products and its environment," and, "is there any way to anticipate what [future] needs might be?" Looking to the future may indicate upcoming needs for different configurations of racks and enclosures or the desire for mobility of IT equipment. A rack system that can handle a variety of current and future applications is one that Gottsleben calls "future proof."

A look to the future also may indicate the need to use a rack or enclosure in a clean room environment. Clean-room compatible racks, such as those made by Arlink, do not shed or outgas, are easy to clean, and won't collect dust or harbor contaminants. All of these properties may be especially appealing in a healthcare environment, and Gottsleben says that they can be "an additional comfort feature on the part of the buyer."

"Many of our plastic racks are autoclavable to help maintain cleanliness," says Wallace Harvey, director of sales and marketing for Bel-Art Products, a maker of custom racks and racks for scientific and industrial applications in Pequannock, N.J. Those in a medical or scientific environment may be also looking to their racks for durability and a bit of protection; Bel-Art's racks for non-IT laboratory equipment include epoxy-coated wire racks that are resistant to chemicals and solvents. If ease of cleaning is an important feature for your rack or enclosure, it is important to ask about these features upfront.

Buying a generic rack or enclosure may be the best guarantee of flexibility. Eli Hertz, president and CEO of Hergo Ergonomic Support Systems, Inc. in Long Island City, N.Y., notes that racks designed for just one system may not fit all possible components, a consideration when a facility wants to mix and match. "Pick a design of rack or enclosure that is generic, not proprietary," he says. Typically, generic racks come in 19 or 23 inch sizes, which will handle most off-the-shelf components. They have an additional benefit as well: "Generic also is less expensive," says Hertz.

Finally, Hertz also recommends that facilities do their investigation before buying a rack or enclosure. Hospitals "should see that they work with someone who knows what he's selling," says Hertz, adding that it is important to look for a company that does its own engineering. This means that the company can help the facility plan its space as well as altering the racks and enclosures to fit their intended tasks and locations.


CONSIDER COST OF OWNERSHIP

As with all purchases, you need to consider the cost of a rack or enclosure system, but also its cost of ownership. Gottsleben urges potential buyers to consider the costs of installation, reconfiguration, and reusability in their purchase decisions. For example, a system that requires tools to add a shelf may require the use of union journeymen, while tool-free systems can be altered by anyone. Also, systems that are difficult to reconfigure often are left in their initial layout, meaning that they may become progressively less useful as needs change.

Finally, users may want to consider rack and enclosure systems that resist static electricity. Computer systems that are frequently worked on by human beings can be "wounded" by the static electricity, reducing the life of the component and upping IT replacement costs. The inclusion of such features as a static dissipative work surface on a rack system may cut down on these incidents and the costs that ensue. In this case, minimizing static discharge will improve cost of ownership for both the enclosure and the IT equipment it holds.

Purchasing racks and enclosures for your IT equipment may seem like simply a necessary task. But, with a little thought and planning, these purchases can help safeguard equipment, prolong its life, and make its use easier and more effective.